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Originally published Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Matt Hasselbeck, Mike Holmgren: Like a father and son

A bond between the coach who sees the game with a quarterback's eyes, and the player who has learned to look at the position the same way become the foundation for Seattle's offense.

Seattle Times staff reporter

It was an odd time for the coach to find faith, that final month of the 2002 season.

The Seahawks stood at 4-9, their first season in their new stadium was belly-up in a ditch. They were certain to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season and Mike Holmgren's tenure in Seattle appeared to be in danger of crashing on the rocks.

Yet it was those final three games of that season — when Holmgren's job status was most in doubt — that he became convinced Matt Hasselbeck was the right man to play the most important position on his team.

Three victories in three games that turned out to be much more than just a footnote to an otherwise forgettable season.

"I was positive he could be really good," Holmgren said. "I mean really take us to where we wanted to go."

Those three games don't explain everything that has happened since. Not the five consecutive playoff appearances, the four straight division titles or the career-best passing year that Hasselbeck posted in 2007.

It's also about what Hasselbeck said after those three games. During the exit interview after the season, the coach complimented the quarterback on his play, and then asked what changed, turning him from the guy who had to be benched to the one who averaged 350 yards passing those final three games.

"Well I kind of humbled myself," Hasselbeck said. "I'm listening to you."

That moment stands as a cornerstone in what has become the foundation for Seattle's offense. A bond between the coach who sees the game with a quarterback's eyes, and the player who has learned to look at the position the same way.

They are two men from different generations. Holmgren, a babyboomer who started out teaching high-school history and somehow ended up coaching in the NFL. Hasselbeck, the son of an NFL tight end who entered the league through the back door of the second day of the draft to become a Pro Bowler. They're beginning their eighth season together, one of the longest coach-quarterback tenures in the league.

"It's almost like father-son," left tackle Walter Jones said.

And in Holmgren's 10th and final season as Seattle's coach, Hasselbeck is the constant in an offense that will include a rookie tight end, two free-agent running backs and an opening-day roster that will include only one wide receiver who caught more than 15 passes last season.

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Seattle's offense led the league in scoring in 2005, but only four players remain who scored so much as a single point that season. One of them plays defense (Lofa Tatupu). Another is out with a broken bone in his shoulder (Bobby Engram). That leaves Maurice Morris and Hasselbeck as the only players who scored in the regular season of the Super Bowl year.

But Holmgren still has his rudder from that season, the player he traded for in 2001. Their history has taken on a storybook quality. Hasselbeck was the quarterback Green Bay drafted in Holmgren's final season as coach. The one who says he was told to stay out of the team picture and who has joked the coach didn't even know his name that year.

"You tell Harry Hasselbeck I did too know his name," Holmgren said last season.

Their rapport has developed a pattern, a setup for Holmgren's punch lines as he cracks on both his quarterback's opinions and his willingness to voice them.

"Ask him what time it is, he'll tell you how the watch is made," Holmgren said a couple of years back.

The quarterback wryly remarks on his coach's dated references. This offseason, Holmgren warned new quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor that Hasselbeck would present arguments like Clarence Darrow.

"I have no idea who that is," Hasselbeck said.

Darrow was the renowned attorney who participated in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial that is mentioned in every high-school history text in America. Hasselbeck said not only did he not know Darrow, but neither would anyone else on the roster.

It wasn't always this easy. Not in 2001 when Hasselbeck lost four of his first five starts, and not the next year when Holmgren made Trent Dilfer the starter heading into training camp. To say Holmgren lost faith in Hasselbeck would be an overstatement.

"I never didn't think he could do it," Holmgren said. "I really didn't."

He knew he could do it. He didn't know if he would do it.

Not until those final three games of the 2002 season when the Seahawks' playoff chances were already sunk. They were just playing out the string, two of those final three games on the road and Hasselbeck had three of his five highest passing totals in his career.

And after those three games, any questions about the Seahawks never involved who would be playing quarterback.

"You reach a point with a player of his caliber, of his smarts and how he is, confidence, where all of a sudden, you trust one another," Holmgren said. "And that's what happened.

"Since that time, since the start of the 2003 season, he has been very good. He's a very good player."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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