Like all good things (and careers), his decade in Seattle finally drew to a close.
In a peaceful transition of power typically reserved for royal bloodlines, the Seahawks became part of a growing trend among NFL teams: executing a succession plan with an assistant on staff designated as the coach-in-waiting (along with a litany of other titles).
For this task, the Seahawks brass turned to Jim Mora, Jr. He is formerly a highly-effective defensive coordinator for divisional rival San Francisco and erstwhile Falcons head coach, where he went 26-22 in three years (’04-’06) while the Michael Vick era was slowly imploding. Mora is as bright as he is brash with his tongue, ultimately costing himself his job in Atlanta because of poorly-chosen remarks about potentially taking the University of Washington job in Seattle were it to ever become available.
Mora already knows the lay of the land, so to speak. Holmgren, 61, wanted to ride into the sunset with a philosophical heir ready to take the reins, and so he hired hometown boy Mora off the streets before last season to be groomed for the job.
Instead, Holmgren skidded into retirement with his worst season ever (4-12) and left behind Mora in his wake with a hefty rebuilding job for both talent and morale. For the first season since 2000, 2005 NFL MVP Shaun Alexander wasn’t around to tote the rock and three-time Pro Bowl QB Matt Hasselbeck was injured for over half the season.
In an age where a good head coach has historically gotten at least one second chance, the Seahawks gig seems like a perfect match for Mora, at least in the short term. Mora’s chief positive attribute is that he is a well-regarded player motivator, breathing life into a moribund squad. That quality is certainly needed this season in Seattle.
The Falcons might as well have hit the "refresh" button on their entire franchise in ’04 when they tabbed Mora. He became just the eighth rookie skipper in League history to notch 11 wins, as well as the NFC South Division title and the Falcons’ second-ever NFC Championship game appearance.
More of a mystery is how everything spiraled so badly out of control for Mora. Atlanta finished 8-8 and 7-9 the next two campaigns, losing their last three games each season to eliminate them from playoff contention.
Part of the blame for Mora’s failure must be attributed to Vick, an established coach-killer whose erratic judgment as a signal-caller often negated his otherworldly athleticism. Vick didn’t fit Mora’s West Coast Offense, and his staff struggled to adapt a system around Vick that made him consistently effective.
Fortunately for Mora, instead of learning how to harness a prodigy’s immense physical gifts, he has the opposite problem in Seattle and one more likely to suit his coaching style: getting the most out of a physically limited (and aging) quarterback with an uncanny football IQ. Goodbye Randall Cunningham 2.0. Hello Gen-X Bart Starr.
I guess it depends on how much blame you think Mora deserves for his boom-and-bust tenure in Atlanta. While the Falcons were mired in mediocrity his last two seasons there, he also had arguably the NFL’s biggest head case at his most important position. As Vick went, so went the Falcons, with a four touchdown game here and a three interception outing there. As soon as Mora left and Vick went to prison, the Falcons went from middling to a messy 4-12 during the Bobby Petrino quagmire in ’07.
Like many young coaches, Mora seems to have suffered from time to time from “Foot-in-Mouth Disease”, which brings me to...
Most NFL teams have the security of knowing most coaches would kill their friends to have the job they’re offering.
In fact, the Seahawks may have to watch their backs if Mora’s self-proclaimed “dream job” ever opens up again: The cross-town Pac-10 program.
“If that job's open you'll find me at the friggin' head of the line with my resume in my hand ready to take that job,” Mora told an area radio show in 2006 while still head coach of the Falcons. “I don't care if we're in the middle of a playoff run, I'm packing my stuff and coming back to Seattle.”
We’ll let you decide if he was joking (as he later claimed). By the time U-Dub sent Ty Willingham packing for his 0-12 season, Mora was already head coach designate for the Seahawks in the waning weeks of Holmgren’s swan song. Ergo, Mora wasn’t publicly considered by the Huskies this go-round.
The vacancy quickly went to USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who spent one season in the NFL as Oakland’s QB coach (2004) on the heels of Mora leaving his 49ers post across the bay for Atlanta.
No word yet on whether the Huskies have granted Mora a press pass for the ’09 season. No doubt ‘Sark’ would be thrilled to have his NFL counterpart breathing down his neck on the sidelines.
Grab some Starbucks, Seattleites; this one could take awhile.
Mora’s track record for a youthful coach with a second chance, combined with the superior front-office support in Seattle provided by GM Tim Ruskell, should bode well as an infrastructure for the long-term future of the franchise. The Seahawks will likely pump plenty of personnel support into the defense during the first couple of years while offensive coordinator Greg Knapp evaluates what he needs on offense. Mora knows what it takes to win in the NFC and particularly this division, where each team finished 23rd or worse in total defense last season.
While Mora took over a young-and-hungry squad in Atlanta that just needed a nudge in the right direction, he inherits a roster in Seattle full of contributors on the tail end of their careers: Hasselbeck (33), Patrick Kerney (32), TJ Houshmandzadeh (31), and franchise tackle Walter Jones (34).
Much of the rest of the roster is filled with talented—but unproven—players, in whom Mora must find the future identity of his team. This includes RB Julius Jones, who is trying to complete a Mora-like transition in solidifying his spot as Seattle’s starting tailback.
What's most appalling is the lack of depth at several key positions on the roster. While many of the starters are some of the best at their positions in the NFL (such as MLB Lofa Tatupu and CBs Marcus Trufant and Josh Wilson), every position but QB and RB seems to lack reliable veterans.
The wideout rotation has improved significantly from the outset of the offseason when Jordan Kent was slotted in the top four. Now with the free-agent acquisition of Houshmandzadeh and a rehabbed Deion Branch, Kent is just inside the top eight.
It still seems entirely plausible that Mora could again work his first-year magic on the Seahawks, and ride their veteran savvy back to the top of a shaky NFC West this season. It also seems likely that a precipitous fall mirroring his last two years in Atlanta could follow hand-in-hand with the declining contributions of older players.
Any success that comes this season should be taken as a small bonus in a much-bigger rebuilding project that should take years of solid drafts to complete.