EVERYTHING WAS going just as Julius Jones had hoped. After a career-worst season with the Cowboys in 2007, the fifth-year running back was determined to redeem himself with the Seahawks, who had signed him to a four-year free-agent deal worth up to $16 million. He gained only 45 yards in the season opener at Buffalo but then broke loose for 127 yards against the 49ers and 140 against the Rams. He could feel the clouds parting, the sun shining. But soon ... darkness.
Jones carried the ball 48 times against San Francisco and St. Louis, after which his number of attempts plummeted—from 17 to 12 to seven to six. By November he was out of the starting lineup. By December he was all but out of the rotation.
But when the season ended, the clouds parted again for Jones. His primary detractor, Mike Holmgren, stepped down as coach, clearing the way for designated successor Jim Mora Jr., the team's secondary coach. "When things weren't going too well, Coach Mora was really positive with me," Jones says. "He would make little comments like, 'Keep your head up. Don't worry about it.' That helped me out a lot, because there was a time when I didn't feel wanted or needed. There were times when I felt like I was going a little insane."
Three weeks into training camp Jones probably felt as if someone had turned back the clock on him, as the team signed free agent Edgerrin James, 11th on the league's alltime rushing list, to a one-year, $2 million deal. The Seahawks insist that James, 32, will be a complement to Jones.
Injuries at quarterback and wide receiver started Jones on his downward spiral in '08. Seattle would sometimes sign a wideout on Monday, then start him on Sunday. Opponents capitalized by stacking the box and daring the Seahawks to beat them through the air. On other occasions Seattle had no choice but to abandon the run while playing catch-up. The team finished 4--12, its first losing season since 2002.
Not that Jones didn't have a hand in his own demotion. During a Thanksgiving Day loss to Dallas he coughed up the ball twice, which didn't exactly endear him to Holmgren, who tolerates fumbles the way Tiger Woods tolerates photographers with itchy index fingers. When Jones turned it over in the first quarter, Holmgren stewed. When he fumbled out-of-bounds in the fourth quarter, Holmgren boiled. Jones did not get his number called again that day and had only six carries over the final three games. Though he averaged a career-high 4.4 yards a carry, he finished with only 698 rushing yards, the second-lowest total of his NFL career.
Touches shouldn't be a problem this season, however. Mora and new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp are counting on Jones to be the primary ballcarrier in their backfield-by-committee, which includes T.J. Duckett and Justin Forsett. The Seahawks are installing a zone-blocking scheme in which the backs are being asked to plant once and get upfield.
"We feel this fits him better than any scheme he's been in," general manager Tim Ruskell says of Jones. "You've just got to go where the crease is, and one thing he does have is burst."
The Seahawks are at their best when they run effectively. When they went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season, they ranked third in the league in rushing; in the three seasons since, they've been no better than 14th. But if quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and his talented stable of receivers can remain healthy—Hasselbeck was out nine games with a bad back, and wideouts Deion Branch and Nate Burleson missed a combined 23 games—it should create running lanes for Jones.
"I've never seen him so serious, so focused, so in shape," Ruskell says. "He really appreciates that we have handed him the ball and said, We believe in you. I don't know that anyone else has done that. That can do things for people."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: JIM MORA JR.
26--22 in NFL, first season with Seahawks
RB T.J. Duckett led the team with 8 TDs in '08 and will keep getting the ball in short yardage; WR Deion Branch had 30 catches in an injury-shortened season.
Aaron CURRY (R)
As a starter CB Josh Wilson made 76 tackles and led the team with 4 INTs, but he moves to the nickel to make way for free-agent pickup Lucas.
(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 4--12
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 19 > 29 > 28
DEFENSE 18 > 32 > 30
13 ST. LOUIS
20 at San Francisco
4 at Indianapolis
1 at Dallas
15 at Arizona
22 at Minnesota
29 at St. Louis
6 SAN FRANCISCO
13 at Houston
20 TAMPA BAY
27 at Green Bay
NFL Rank: 24
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .457
Games against playoff teams: 5
The Seahawks don't travel to the East coast, where they were 0--4 last year, but they do have six 10 a.m. Pacific-time starts, in which they don't do well either. At least the home schedule is loaded with winnable games, and other than Tennessee and Minnesota, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will face defenses that don't put much pressure on the passer.
Matt Hasselbeck, Quarterback
ASKED IN training camp if he was still bothered by the pinched nerve that caused him to miss nine games last season, the 11-year vet told reporters that sitting through long team meetings was the only thing that irritated his back. A dry sense of humor makes Hasselbeck one of the most affable players in the league, and if he's joking during training camp, you know he's feeling good—which is a great sign for the Seahawks, who plummeted from ninth in the NFL in scoring in 2007 to 25th last year. It was the first time since 2001 that the offense ranked in the league's bottom half.
Hasselbeck got hurt when he twisted his back while avoiding a pass rush on the opening series of the first preseason game, but he tried to play through the pain. "I didn't feel super hurt," he says, but his game was suffering. He says the pinched nerve would cause his left foot to "shut off" and his left leg to go to "mush." Doctors told Hasselbeck that rest was the best option, so beginning with Week 6 he sat out five games. He returned for three games—all defeats, which dropped Seattle to 2--10—and then shut it down for the rest of the season. Hasselbeck's 57.8 passer rating was the lowest of his career.
He spent the off-season strengthening his core and says he feels as strong as ever—meaning he's ready to continue his streak of three straight Pro Bowl appearances in odd-numbered seasons.
CATCH-22 Jones gained a career-best 4.4 yards per carry in '08, but lost the ball too often.
PETER READ MILLER