The sense of relief is palpable. Wednesday was the first time this season that the Seahawks have had all 53 players on the roster practicing – from the seven wide receivers on the roster to the three quarterbacks, and the smiles of all concerned spoke volumes coming off the bye week.
But as they prepare for the trip East to play the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, coach Mike Holmgren made it perfectly clear that just because everyone is back – doesn't mean everyone is so healthy and in tune that they are ready for a peak performance. There is plenty of work to be done despite the increased expectations of Deion Branch and Bobby Engram. With the veterans back playing significant roles at wide receiver, their help will significantly upgrade the passing game for the first time this season.
Just remember, it's their first game of the season.
"I would say that there's a fair amount of the passing game in total that has been kind of put on the back burner for a while just because of our situation there," Holmgren said. "And I will also say this: this is their first game back—Branch and Engram. To think it's going to be 'Star Wars' out there, that's probably not the way it works. Bless their hearts."
"They're coming back and they've been hurt. It's nice to have them back, but I told the team this morning, everyone can't just (say), all of a sudden, 'OK, now we don't have a care in the world because these guys are back.' It'll take them a while to get in form. But it's a much better situation now than it was three weeks ago."
More likely it will create a better balance for the offense and remove a lot of pressure from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who has been limited in the passing game because of a revolving door of receivers. The good news is Julius Jones has stepped up with consecutive 100-yard plus games running the football.
The hope is they can have plenty of both against the rugged Giants defense. More importantly, Holmgren has gained confidence in Jones, T.J. Duckett, Leonard Weaver and the way the offensive line has performed, with Floyd Womack replacing the injured Rob Sims at right guard, and the effectiveness of Ray Willis at right tackle in place of Sean Locklear, who will play this week.
"I've learned a lot about Julius, I've learned a little bit more about Duckett; Leonard Weaver, I've learned some stuff about him," Holmgren said. "And our offensive line, as I said, both 'Chop (Womack) and Ray Willis I think stepped up when Locklear was hurt. We lost Chris Gray, and so on. Now, if we re-insert Locklear into the lineup, we have pretty good depth. I've seen Ray Willis. Ray Willis feels good about playing. He's played, so our depth is better. I think we've improved each week."
"Now, we're going against a good defensive football team. So in that respect, it will be a good test for us. I have to do my part. To do that, in any game, it can't get out of hand in my mind, where I feel, 'OK, the only way we're going to catch up with the time allotted, we're going to have to throw it more.' The other thing I would add to that is that we're healthier now in the passing part of our football, so the temptation to throw it more, with my personality, is greater now. We didn't have a lot of choices in the last couple weeks. They stepped up and ran the ball well."
In essence, it just benefits the approach Hasselbeck may take, though. With Branch, and particularly Engram, there is more confidence that he can throw the ball to spots instead of having to throw the ball on the receiver – or guess. He has often said he can throw some routes to Engram blind-folded. More importantly, it will enhance the tempo of the offense, which has always been the key element to consistency.
Engram doesn't expect there to be rust.
"It's like riding a bike - I love this," said the 35-year-old former Penn State All-American. "That's why I'm still playing thirteen years later. I'm not sure if there is such a thing (as expectations being too high). I mean, I expect a lot of myself. What I'm really expecting is to go out there and just help this team win. That's the number one goal. I hope I catch some passes and I hope I make some plays and all that, but the bottom line is, we need to go out there and get a win."
It isn't as if Hasselbeck is sighing with relief, there are just more pieces to the puzzle as he becomes immersed in the offensive game plan. The increased options help, considering his comfort level with Engram (and Branch to a lesser extent) certainly will make a difference.
But it's still about execution and timing, and finding that groove that will become second nature in the heat of the game. During the bye week – when he was throwing with Branch and Engram, it helped get some of that back without coaches and just re-connecting mentally and physically. This week is different.
"That was part of the design from last week - getting out there and getting some of the practices we had last week where it was players only," Hasselbeck said. "I think in practice this week we have tried to be a little more physical with the guys, the new guys, than normal to simulate a real game."
Come Sunday, there will be nothing simulated about it.
What time is it?
Holmgren and the team players committee talked in depth about the responsibilities of going East and how much more difficult it is to be prepared for a game. A lot of it was based on rest and hydration, and how they handle themselves Friday and Saturday night with the anticipation of Sunday's game. Those three lost hours – represent leaving for the game at 7 a.m. PT, and they're trying to come up with ways to help the transition.
More to the point, Holmgren made it clear he didn't want to hear any excuses. There is a game to be played and every team going East has to deal with it.
"It's mentioned every time we go to the East coast if we lose the football game," Holmgren said. "The fact is, it has not a single thing to do with sleep levels or anything. Nothing. It's that we fumbled the ball, we played a lousy game against Buffalo. Anybody that gets too concerned with your biorhythms and the seat on the airplane and all that stuff, it's a bunch of bunk. You lose a football game for the same reason you lose a football game at home, on the road, a two-hour time change, when we go to Arizona, San Francisco—you lose because you played lousy. You fumbled the ball, and you threw interceptions, and you missed tackles … period. I don't want to hear it."
The time change is real, but Holmgren points out how training camp started at 9 in the morning and his first NFL experience was as an assistant for Bill Walsh in San Francisco, and they use the same travel protocol. For games in the Eastern Time Zone, they travel two days before the game, every other game is the day before.
"That's why we go on Friday," Holmgren said. "We try and get acclimated just a little bit. We have no excuses. If we lose a three-hour time change game, it's because we didn't play well enough. We weren't good enough that day. Not because of the travel and all that stuff. We travel as well as anybody: we stay in the best hotels, we feed them properly, we do all those things, we've studied it, all that stuff. I don't want my players committee coming and talking to me about it, I don't want my strength and conditioning people…We give them sushi, jeez. We do it all for them."
Mike Holmgren on being relieved that players are healthier and coming out of a bye week 1-2:
"I think so, and I would say it again: we're kind of starting the season over in a way. We're not going to change practices, we're not going to do that, but I think the first three weeks were a challenge for us. It's always a challenge, but there was a little extra in the first three weeks. And now, fortunately, we won a game. Would've liked to have one more, but we won one. Then we had the bye and hopefully guys will come back refreshed. I sense that on the football team. They worked hard without the coaches here last week. We healed up a little bit. But, we're going into some tough ballgames here coming up. For me, it's kind of like we're starting again."
This and that
Both running back Maurice Morris and wide receiver Koren Robinson were limited in practice Wednesday while recovering from knee injuries but participated in drills. … Branch has returned to his customary flanker position, Engram in the slot, and Billy McMullen is still working as the split end. … No decision was made Wednesday regarding the seven receivers on the roster and whether cuts would be made. One of those tough calls will have an effect on punt returns – whether to keep rookie Michael Bumpus, or allow Engram or Seneca Wallace to take on that responsibility, Holmgren said. Bumpus could be re-signed to the practice squad. The same could be said for Courtney Taylor. … Holmgren still says he'll believe suspended Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress will sit out the game when he sees it. Burress was suspended by Giants coach Tom Coughlin for missing practice last week and not notifying anyone. He hasn't practiced all week. … The Seahawks return home next Sunday to play host to the Green Bay Packers, and then play the following two weeks at Tampa Bay and San Francisco.