His achievements, his demeanor and his commanding physical presence made Mike Holmgren the face and figurehead of the Seattle Seahawks in recent seasons.
But as Jim Mora takes over as head coach for the departing Holmgren, another key character is drawn into clearer focus: Tim Ruskell.
Yes, as team president and general manager, he’s been responsible since early in 2005, overseeing the run to the Super Bowl and three division championships. This season’s 4-12 disappointment likewise falls in his ledger.
But until now, Seahawks developments have been viewed mostly as the product of a collaborative relationship, the result of some normal range of agreement and compromise between the coach and GM.
Decisions on draft picks, free agents and trades always surfaced tactfully and respectfully as “team” decisions, even if observers thought they might reflect greater input by either Ruskell or Holmgren.
Holmgren stressed that in his exit statements, discussing the typical draft-day scenario in a way that bespoke the relationship in a larger sense.
“There weren’t huge arguments in our draft room,” he said. “It’s a blending of coaches and personnel … no one’s working at cross purposes … ever.”
Since he was on his way out, Holmgren had no political need to say that if he didn’t feel that way.
We may presume that if Holmgren had any questions about Ruskell’s decisions, the GM also might have wondered about the coach’s desire to stick with some players or assistant coaches beyond their productive expiration dates. Consider it a working balance.
Now, of course, there’s no longer an unknown variable of Holmgren’s influence to factor into the evaluation of Ruskell. Since Jim Mora is his hand-picked replacement, and only a few pre-Ruskellites will be on the roster come fall, the revival from last season’s disaster falls entirely to Ruskell.
Fan and public response to Ruskell has been mixed. He was lauded, especially early, with more vitriol surfacing in the various media in recent seasons.
I don’t believe the Seahawks would have made it to the Super Bowl if owner Paul Allen hadn’t replaced Bob Whitsitt with Ruskell. Holmgren has said he was on the verge of quitting at that point because of conflicts with the front office.
Aside from taking Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill in that first draft, Ruskell brought in a pair of players who were particularly critical to the team’s success that year.
Receiver Joe Jurevicius and defensive tackle Chuck Darby were two key role players – tough guys and leaders – on that team who were definite “Ruskell guys.” The acquisition of those two is often overlooked when fans draw up their Ruskell pro/con spreadsheet.
The loss of Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson is viewed by many as Ruskell’s Original Sin. Hutchinson should have been “franchised” and never allowed to leave after the Super Bowl loss.
But it’s a little unfair to apportion the full culpability to Ruskell. This was definitely a product of misjudgment and miscalculation, but also was abetted by agent manipulation and Hutchinson’s own motives.
Along the way, Patrick Kerney’s probably been overpaid and Deion Branch was too expensive. As for top draft picks, Chris Spencer hasn’t panned out, Kelly Jennings is a reserve, and Lawrence Jackson had an unproductive rookie season, although it’s too early and unfair to speculate on his future value.
But if Ruskell shoulders criticism for those moves, he must be credited with some real finds and bargains. Fullback Leonard Weaver is a Pro Bowl alternate who was picked up as an undrafted free agent. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is a third-rounder who has been one of the team’s most consistent defenders. Second-round cornerback Josh Wilson was perhaps the most improved player this season.
The challenge for Ruskell, now, is enormous.
He’s going to have to rebuild an offense with aging, injury or depth issues at almost every position. And the defense that looked so well-positioned for the future was repeatedly exposed this season.
Mora will bring a different look. Some of the key injured players should return to full health. And the Seahawks are in good position to get immediate help via the draft.
But whichever way it goes in upcoming seasons, there won’t be any problems deciding who gets the credit or the blame.