Publish date:

Inside The NFL


The Boss
To assess Mike Holmgren's sudden impact on the Seahawks, just
look at the standings

This summer at their training site in Cheney, Wash., the Seahawks
hung a huge banner that was filled mostly by Mike Holmgren's mug
and announced the team's marketing slogan for the 1999 season:
IT'S NOW TIME! Towering over the practice fields and covering the
side of a five-story parking garage, the sign inspired a nickname
for Seattle's new coach and general manager. "The Big Show," says
Seattle defensive end Michael Sinclair. "That's what we called
him. We looked over at the side of this building and saw this
gigantic Mike, and it was like, Are we in Cuba? Is that Castro?
It was like we had Fidel staring down at us."

The hold Holmgren has on the perennially underachieving Seahawks
(they haven't made the playoffs since 1988) is downright
Parcellsian--powerful and occasionally dictatorial. But who can
argue with the results? An impressive 26-16 victory over the
Bills on Sunday left Seattle 4-2 and tied for the AFC West lead
with the Chargers and the Chiefs entering this week's showdown
with the Packers, the team Holmgren twice took to the Super Bowl.

"I'm loving this job," Holmgren said last Saturday in his
suburban Seattle office. "I love the [general manager's]
decision-making process, even when it's frustrating. I love
working with new players. But we still have so many things to do.
Now I'm going into a meeting with all the scouts we've called in
off the road because I need to stress to them the kind of player
I want here. We need to get bigger. We need to get faster. Before
the season, when we met, the scouts told me why each player was
on the roster, and I listened. Now I've got to tell them why, in
many cases, they're wrong."

After coaching for seven years under Green Bay general manager
Ron Wolf, Holmgren wanted to run his own show. He got that
opportunity last January when Seahawks owner and Microsoft
cofounder Paul Allen gave him an eight-year, $32 million
contract, and Holmgren has taken charge of all things big and
small. Big: With the backing of Allen and club president Bob
Whitsitt, he drew a line in the sand on negotiations with the
team's best receiver, Joey Galloway, who in the last year of his
contract wants a lucrative extension and was still holding out as
of Monday. Small: After Sunday's win Holmgren announced he was
ending the team mascot's practice of firing T-shirts into the
crowd. "I'm dead serious," he said to giggles from some members
of the media. "That guy shooting the T-shirts? He's done. I want
our fans focused on the game."

Holmgren also works quietly behind the scenes, as when he
recently sat in the office of defensive coordinator Jim Lind--who
was promoted after Fritz Shurmur died of cancer on Aug. 30--and
calmly but firmly advised him on how to deal with the
disciplinary aspects of the job. Unbeknownst to the Seattle
media, Holmgren called Galloway two weeks ago and tried to coax
him back into the fold, suggesting to the wideout that he could
be certain he'd get the guaranteed money he was holding out for
by obtaining an injury-protection insurance policy. "That's what
Sterling Sharpe did in Green Bay," Holmgren recalls telling
Galloway. "Joey, I'm telling you, you'll get your money [if you
get hurt]."

On the sideline Holmgren is the same alternately scathing and
soothing coach. He chewed out his offensive linemen on Sunday
("That's bulls---," he screamed at them after they failed to
convert a third-and-short in the first half), then worked on the
psyche of Jon Kitna when he heard the young quarterback coming
off the field spewing invective. "Hey," Holmgren said, calling
Kitna over. "Ever hear the expression, 'Never let 'em see you
sweat?' You have to be ice."

In the closing minutes of the game halfback Ricky Watters
inexplicably ran out of bounds, stopping the clock and prompting
a cascade of criticism from his teammates. Watters, ever the
diplomat, starting telling everyone where to go. "Ricky, calm
down," Holmgren said, his left arm gathering Watters close.
"Stand next to me. We're on national TV. Now, you're wrong, and
you know you're wrong. Relax."

"Mike is still feeling his way," says Sinclair, "but the big
thing around here now is accountability. The players who stay
here are the ones he will trust. He's still finding out who's
going to be in there through thick and thin. But don't worry.
He'll find out."

One of Holmgren's most important tasks this year is determining
whether the wet-behind-the-ears Kitna, 27, is his quarterback of
the future. "Kit is the way Brett Favre was in '95, '96--going
through some growing pains," says wideout Derrick Mayes, whom
Holmgren acquired during training camp in a trade with the
Packers. "But he's a damn good quarterback and getting better."
On Sunday, Kitna completed 17 of 30 passes for 276 yards and a
pair of touchdowns to Mayes, the second on a picture-perfect
43-yard strike.

From a coaching standpoint, Holmgren has followed much the same
schedule as he did in Green Bay. Each week he installs the West
Coast passing game plan--the majority of the pass plays on
Wednesday, red-zone passes on Thursday and goal-line and
short-yardage plays on Friday--and he's missed only two of the
first 18 sessions because of front-office business. "I need him,"
says Kitna. "If you want to learn how to build a building, you
don't talk to the landlord. You go to the architect." In the
solitude of his hotel room on Saturday afternoons, Holmgren still
scripts the first 15 plays and then reviews them that night at
the team meetings. During the game he calls all the plays. "Maybe
I'll let go of a few things as time goes on," he says. "I could
use the time on other things. But not now."

Each day he squeezes in about two hours of meetings related to
the G.M. job: personnel, the waiver wire, the salary cap, etc.
The schedule, of course, is taxing. Last Thursday Holmgren took
his wife, Kathy, out for her birthday, only to nod off while
reading the menu. "Aren't you romantic," she told him.

Not at this time of year--and not with the trip to Green Bay
looming. "It'll be emotional, exciting," Holmgren says. "I don't
think anyone's capable of cutting the cord this quickly. I begged
[NFL schedule makers] not to send us in there this year,
especially on a Monday night. All the time I was there, Ron and I
always wanted Monday night games later in the season, but they
never scheduled us late. Now they put us in there--in November. I
can't believe it."

Rams' Staying Power
Refreshing Run Under Vermeil

St. Louis defensive end Grant Wistrom's 91-yard interception
return for a touchdown against the Falcons on Oct. 17 was
emblematic of the rejuvenated Rams' 6-0 start. The 270-pound
Wistrom looked so fresh at the end of that run that it seemed he
could have raced another 100 yards if he had to. The players who
were worn down by Dick Vermeil's throwback practices in his first
two seasons as coach are now playing their best, week in and week
out, because they're no longer forced to use themselves up in a
Thursday goal line drill.

"Coming out of camp last year," Wistrom said a few days after his
big play in Atlanta, "I felt like I'd already played a season.
Now it's Week 7, and I still feel terrific. We're not beating
each other up the way we did last year."

Vermeil returned in 1997, after a 15-year absence from the game,
and conducted an arduous training camp, mostly in full pads;
then, during the season, he had more hitting in practice on
Wednesday through Friday than most teams. Vermeil felt the hard
labor readied his players for the long grind of the season, but
that philosophy didn't bear fruit on the field. St. Louis
finished 5-11 in '97 and 4-12 last season. This year, with a
mature team that had by far its best attendance record in the
off-season training program since his return, Vermeil scaled back
camp drills in length and intensity, and eliminated most
in-season hitting. "Now on Fridays, after the practice week,
we're fresh," Wistrom says. "It's helped us."

So has Wistrom's play. After the Rams made him the sixth pick in
the 1998 draft, Wistrom, an undersized defensive end from
Nebraska, had a disappointing rookie year, failing to beat out
Mike D. Jones for the starting job opposite Kevin Carter. "Last
year gave me tons of motivation," Wistrom says. "You realize
you're not on scholarship anymore. You've got to grow up."
Wistrom earned the first-string job in camp this summer and
cemented his role with solid play against the run and 2 1/2
sacks this season.

If Vermeil should revert to his old ways, Wistrom doesn't have
far to go to complain. He lives four doors down from the coach in
suburban St. Louis.

Ryan's Hope
Leaf Should Play in Europe

Chargers coach Mike Riley, who coached for two years in what is
now NFL Europe, says he will strongly consider assigning
quarterback Ryan Leaf to the developmental league next spring. In
light of what the league did for Brad Johnson, Kurt Warner, Jon
Kitna and Damon Huard, that's a great idea--assuming Leaf agrees
to go and leaves his know-it-all attitude behind.

"If Ryan goes there with a good attitude, this would really help
him," says Kitna, who played for the Barcelona Dragons in the
spring of 1997. "If he goes there just thinking 'When's the next
plane home?' there's no use going. It's up to him. It's not
always easy over there."

What does Leaf think of the idea? "It's not an option," he said
last week. "It's just not going to happen. Period."

With his reaction, Leaf, who has been sidelined since undergoing
shoulder surgery during the preseason, showed his true colors.
It's further proof that he's not willing to do what it takes to
be successful in the NFL.

Iron Mike's Plight
Saints Want Ditka Back

What's it like telling Mike Ditka you're taking $20,000 from
him? "You mean what is it like for a young G.M. to walk into the
office of a coach in the Hall of Fame, with three Super Bowl
rings, and say, 'I can't accept your actions and I'm going to
fine you?' It's not easy," New Orleans general manager Bill
Kuharich said last week, after fining Ditka for making obscene
gestures to the home crowd during and after a 24-21 loss to the
Titans on Oct. 17. "Mike was a man about it. He said, 'You're
right. It's unacceptable.'"

Ditka, whose contract runs through 2002, was 6-10 in each of his
first two seasons with the Saints, and at 1-5 after a 31-3 loss
to the Giants on Sunday, is well on his way toward a worse mark
this season. Nevertheless, Kuharich says he wants Ditka back in

For Law, Money Isn't Everything

Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who in the off-season signed a
seven-year, $50 million contract, ought to be enjoying himself.
Instead, he is laboring under the expectations that came with
the new deal and struggling with the increasing use of zone
coverage by New England. Playing mostly man-to-man last season,
Law led the league with nine interceptions. This year he has
one. "My name's not Ty Law anymore," he says. "It's The $50
Million Cornerback."...

Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare, who has converted 22 of 23 field
goal attempts, is on pace to kick 59. The NFL record is 37....

Mike Alstott has supplanted Warrick Dunn as the Bucs' featured
back. Dunn's not happy, but the numbers speak volumes: Alstott
is averaging 4.8 yards a carry, Dunn 2.9. "If we're going to
make it to the playoffs," says offensive coordinator Mike Shula,
"those two guys have to take us there. It might be Mike running
and Warrick catching."...

Before one practice last week Rams offensive linemen had molds
taken of their ears. They're planning to wear electronic
earplugs for this Sunday's game against the Titans at noisy
Adelphia Coliseum. "We find the exact pitch of Kurt Warner's
voice when he yells the cadence, program it digitally into each
unit, and then any noise of a higher or lower frequency is
automatically muffled out," says equipment manager Todd Hewitt.
"We're not sure it'll work, but nothing ventured, nothing
gained." What if St. Louis has to use backup quarterback Paul
Justin? "It takes about four minutes to reprogram the units to a
new voice," Hewitt says....

Colts president Bill Polian, whose team had some questionable
replay decisions go against it in games against the Dolphins and
the Jets, is right when he says, "I think you have to look at
the overall picture of replay, which I hear has been pretty
good. It seems our situation has been an anomaly. Either way,
you can't make a judgment based on six weeks. We have to give
this a full season."...

The Bucs shipped defensive end Regan Upshaw to the Jaguars just
before the Oct. 19 trading deadline because they believe Upshaw,
the 12th choice in the 1996 draft, lacks the instinct to be an
effective every-down pass rusher. In return Tampa Bay got only a
conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2000....

Saints running back Ricky Williams on one of the differences
between college football and the NFL: "In college, you could be
80 percent and still be the best player on the field. In the NFL
defensive players are ruthless, especially when they know you're
hurt. I can hear them saying, 'Keep hitting him!'"

The End Zone
A Real-Life Rivalry

Steelers offensive tackle Shar Pourdanesh, born in Tehran, gets a
kick out of all the talk in the U.S. about sports rivalries.
Asked which rivalry he thought was the biggest, Pourdanesh said,
"Iraq versus Iran."

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GRUELE Mayes got the Seahawks on the board when he hauled in a seven-yard touchdown pass on Sunday's opening drive.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The Rams aren't leaving their game on the practice field this season.

the buzz

1. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH After 72 regular-season starts, a minus-13
touchdown-to-interception margin and a 34-38 record guiding a
team that has the talent to be markedly better than that,
sixth-year quarterback Trent Dilfer finally took his rightful
seat on the Buccaneers' bench on Monday. If Tampa Bay coach Tony
Dungy hadn't handed Eric Zeier the job, sooner or later Dilfer
would have cost the Bucs a shot at the NFC Championship--in a
season when the title is well within their reach.

2. DEION 1, REDSKINS 0 "I'm not old yet," Deion Sanders said on
Sunday after the Cowboys' 38-20 rout of the mouthy Redskins.
Sanders, 32, upended running back Stephen Davis for a four-yard
loss on Washington's first play from scrimmage and, playing with
a mild concussion, returned a punt 70 yards for the clinching
touchdown in the fourth quarter. Memo to Albert Connell, who
along with fellow Washington wideout Michael Westbrook had said
before the game that Sanders couldn't keep up with them in
coverage anymore: Trash Deion after you've beaten him, not

3. EARTH TO YOUNG Niners quarterback Steve Young has talked with
three Utah doctors about the effect that his recent series of
concussions will have on his long-term well-being, and none of
them cleared him to play football. Is it sinking in yet, Steve?

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at