Matt Hasselbeck: A Second Chance
September 8, 2011
By Scott M. Johnson
He grew up in a privileged household, the oldest son of a former NFL player, and yet by the time Matt Hasselbeck arrived in Seattle in 2001 he was not used to having things handed to him on a silver platter. So it took a little getting used to when Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren traded two draft picks for Hasselbeck and immediately anointed him as the starting quarterback. Hasselbeck had never started a game at the NFL level. He was not invited to the scouting combine after his senior year at Boston College, and he didn’t hear his name called until the sixth round of the 1998 NFL draft. Even while at BC, he had butted heads with head coach Dan Henning before eventually earning the starting job.
So when one of the most respected quarterback gurus in NFL history hand-picked him to be the starter of the future, Hasselbeck knew it was easier said than done.
He did start that first regular-season game as a Seahawk, and he did continue to get votes of confidence from Holmgren throughout his first season with the team. But when Hasselbeck fell, he fell hard. Things got so bad that play-by-play commentators were using phrases like, “Hasselbeck sucks,” that he was getting booed by Seattle fans, that he walked into the locker room before one 2002 game and confided to a teammate that he didn’t even want to play.
And eventually, it got so bad that Matt Hasselbeck lost the starting job that he had been given so easily.
It took some remarkable twists of fate, and a career-saving performance that Hasselbeck will never forget, for him to get his starting job back and return to living the life of the privileged few.
As the oldest of three brothers, and the son of former NFL tight end Don Hasselbeck, Matthew Hasselbeck spent a good part of his youth in the spotlight. But during his senior season at Xaverian Brothers High School, he stopped being Don Hasselbeck’s son and one of the Hasselbeck brothers and finally made a name for himself. Matthew Hasselbeck, as he was known back then, was receiving interest from colleges all over the nation while leading his Xaverian Brothers team to the state championship game.
Xaverian Brothers earned a date with rival Brockton in the 1993 state finals, and Hasselbeck took such a hard hit in the first half that he was later diagnosed with a concussion. But he wouldn’t come out of the game. Woozy and out of sorts, he kept playing because he didn’t want the game to go on without him. Showing the same determination that made future Green Bay teammate Brett Favre a legend, Hasselbeck gutted it out despite the injury.
“I guess I called an audible at one point, ‘Blue 66,'” Hasselbeck recalled early in his NFL career. “Well, our audibles ended at 50. So the running backs both stand up and look at each other, and the linemen didn’t know what to do. So nobody blocks anyone and I get hit again.
“I’m not a real good person to comment about that game. I honestly don’t remember it at all.”
What Hasselbeck didn’t remember was that Xaverian Brothers squandered a 17-0 lead and lost 18-17 in the final game of his high school career.
Hasselbeck eventually decided to accept a scholarship to UCLA but later changed his mind and attended Boston College near his hometown of Norfolk, Mass. He would later joke that he chose the school because he was too intimidated by no-nonsense BC football coach Tom Coughlin to tell him no.
Dan Henning eventually replaced Coughlin as head coach, and the new BC coach didn’t initially see eye-to-eye with his sophomore quarterback. Hasselbeck had one infamous meeting in which he told off the new head coach for announcing he was going to bench him.
“You should wear big, red shoes and a big, red nose because you’re a clown,” Hasselbeck recalled telling Henning during a 1996 meeting.
Eventually, Henning would forgive Hasselbeck’s outburst and let him finish his junior year as the starter.
Hasselbeck’s time at Boston College would mark the most heavily-scrutinized era in the football program’s history, but not for the right reasons. A gambling scandal led to 13 suspensions and two coaching changes. With several missing players, and a new head coach in Tom O’Brien, Hasselbeck tried to make the most out of what was left during his senior season. But he broke his thumb during a disappointing 4-7 campaign and quietly finished his college career with little fanfare. After initially being told he would be invited to the NFL scouting combine, Hasselbeck was informed that his name had been scratched off the final list in favor of Washington State University junior Ryan Leaf, who had announced he was coming out of school early.
A risk-taking general manager named Ron Wolf, and a confident head coach named Mike Holmgren, thought enough of Hasselbeck to make him a sixth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 1998 NFL draft. While Hasselbeck was ecstatic to get an opportunity to go to training camp, he knew his chances of earning a starting job would always be limited. Green Bay’s Brett Favre was not only coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, but he’d also never missed a game since becoming a starter five years earlier.
And Favre wasn’t the only Packers quarterback standing in the way of Hasselbeck earning a roster spot. The Packers also had veterans Doug Pederson and David Klingler, a former first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Hasselbeck stuck around on the team’s practice squad as a rookie, buried in so much obscurity that he wasn’t even allowed to join in for the team photo. He didn’t think Holmgren, whose name had become legendary in Green Bay, even knew who he was. When the burly coach headed off for Seattle in 1999, Hasselbeck thought he might never see the man again.
But Holmgren watched from afar as Hasselbeck took full advantage of the minimal playing time he got. Hasselbeck had so much success in preseason games during his three years with the Packers that Green Bay fans started calling him Mr. August. Wolf continued to sing Hasselbeck’s praises, particularly to Holmgren, and when the Seahawks ran out of quarterback options after the 2000 season, the Seattle coach/general manager made a deal to acquire him. The Seahawks nudged out the Miami Dolphins’ offer by swapping first-round picks with Green Bay while also throwing in a third-round pick for Hasselbeck.
Years later, in a conference call with the Seattle media, Favre would claim that he had seen the trade coming all along.
“I told (Hasselbeck) that Holmgren was going to trade for him,” Favre said in 2007. “I just had this (feeling). He’d have been crazy not to. I thought Matt had all the tools. He kind of slipped through the cracks a little bit, if you will, he’d been here a few years and people kind of forgot about him.
“He had all the tools; he had the air about him or the cockiness or whatever. He was a very confident guy, and he’d been around Holmgren, he’s been around the offense. I thought it was a perfect fit.”
Apparently, so did Holmgren. Shortly after making the trade, the Seahawks’ coach did something that not many head coaches do: he tapped Hasselbeck as his immediate starter. Never mind that Matt Hasselbeck had never started a regular-season game. Never mind that the only time Holmgren saw Hasselbeck play in person was during the quarterback’s rookie year. Holmgren was ready to bank the future of the Seahawks on Hasselbeck, and he wasn’t afraid to tell everyone.
“I’m planning on him to come in and be our starter,” Holmgren said on March 2, 2001, shortly after acquiring Hasselbeck from Green Bay.
Hasselbeck took the anointing with pride, telling reporters: “This team’s given up a lot to acquire me, and I’ve got a lot of responsibility not to let them down. If I was going to be a backup anywhere, I would have stayed in Green Bay. The only reason I’m going anywhere is to be the starter.”
Hasselbeck looked like anything but a sure thing at his first minicamp during the summer of 2001, when he struggled to pick up the offense and misfired so badly that curious onlookers were left wondering what Holmgren saw in him in the first place. Hasselbeck got only slightly better in the next two minicamps, yet it was still his starting job.
“When he came in, he was just wild,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn later recalled. “He would not play a disciplined game. He had this idea of what a disciplined quarterback was, and we weren’t on the same page initially.”
While Holmgren continued to support his starter publicly, he made a move that was worth a thousand words by signing veteran Trent Dilfer just before training camp of 2002. Dilfer was coming off a Super Bowl victory with the Baltimore Ravens, and yet he got little interest on the free-agent market and was available for a bargain price. Holmgren brought him in not to take Hasselbeck’s job but to push him to get better.
Dilfer would eventually prove to be Hasselbeck’s most important ally, and the relationship grew into a close friendship as the years went by. But during that first season, there were plenty of elements that pointed toward a good, old-fashioned quarterback controversy. The fans weren’t happy with the untested kid from Green Bay, and pretty soon Dilfer became the most popular man in Seattle simply because he could hold a clipboard. While Holmgren stuck by his man, there were those who hoped Dilfer would supplant the young prodigy and lead Seattle to the promised land.
Injuries dogged Hasselbeck throughout that 2001 season, and while he struggled to a 5-7 record as starter, Dilfer was a perfect 4-0. Dilfer would make a start, play well enough to win, then Hasselbeck would get booed upon his return. The fans were getting restless, and Holmgren’s only line of defense was to continually tell them: “Trust me.”
Behind the scenes, Hasselbeck and Holmgren were not seeing eye-to-eye when it came to running the West Coast offense. Holmgren would later say that the quarterback was too smart for his own good, that he was too stubborn to do whatever the coaching staff requested without asking questions about why. Holmgren would compare Hasselbeck to Favre – only not for the right reasons.
“They are both hard-headed and stubborn, let’s start there,” Holmgren once said when asked to compare the two quarterbacks.
When it came time for Dilfer to re-sign with the Seahawks in the spring of 2002, he agreed to do so with a small caveat. He wanted to enter the season as the starting quarterback. And Holmgren agreed to the deal.
Hasselbeck was understandably crushed. All along, Holmgren had preached to the media and fans about how it took a full three years of starting before a quarterback could fully grasp the West Coast offense. The coach talked about patience and sticking with one guy through thick and thin, and then he turned his back on Hasselbeck in favor of an experienced veteran.
While Dilfer thrived in his new role, becoming an even more vocal leader, Hasselbeck struggled with his confidence. He didn’t know when, or if, he was going to get another shot at the starting job.
And then it came, sooner than expected. On the opening drive of the first preseason game in 2002, an Indianapolis Colts pass rusher got by offensive lineman Chris Gray and hit Dilfer in the knee. The veteran quarterback tore his medial collateral ligament and was almost certain to miss the first week or two of the regular season.
While Hasselbeck watched his close friend hobble off the field, he overheard an assistant coach yell at Gray for letting his man get to Dilfer.
“You just ruined the season,” Hasselbeck remembers the assistant telling Gray on the sideline.
“That’s how people felt about Trent on this team,” Hasselbeck would later say. “It was like, ‘OK, we tried Matt; he’s not the guy. It’s Trent’s team.’ ”
Hasselbeck didn’t do much to help his reputation the following week. He was so bad in a preseason game against San Diego that Chargers play-by-play man Hank Bauer ran out of verbs and told listeners, on live radio, “Hasselbeck sucks.”
Holmgren watered down the playbook for the regular-season opener, fearing that Hasselbeck might make a mistake that would cost the Seahawks the game. While Hasselbeck did throw two touchdown passes in that game, he passed for only 155 yards within the conservative game plan as the Seahawks lost 31-17 to Oakland.
The next week, Dilfer rushed his way back into action against Arizona. He played again the following week against the New York Giants, losing both games as Seattle saw itself start 0-3 for the first time in seven seasons. The Seahawks would eventually fall to 1-5 before disaster struck again.
In an Oct. 27, 2002, game against Dallas, Dilfer planted his foot while scrambling and tore his Achilles tendon. His season was immediately over, and the Seahawks had nowhere else to turn but toward the failed quarterback project who hadn’t lived up to expectations.
Hasselbeck came on in relief and helped Seattle hold on for a 17-14 win over the Cowboys. He played one of his worst professional games the following week at Washington before going 1-1 against Arizona and Denver. But it was becoming apparent that Hasselbeck was better than he had been in his first stint as starter. He would later say that watching Dilfer from the sidelines had a huge impact on his career.
“I give Trent Dilfer a lot of credit because he’s the guy that took my job, ironically, and he’s also the guy that taught me how to do my job,” Hasselbeck said. “I owe him a lot.”
With a 3-7 record, and nothing left to lose, the Seahawks entered a Nov. 24 home game against Kansas City with a different game plan. Holmgren, who had employed a conservative attack against the Chiefs the last time Hasselbeck faced them, told his quarterback to go out there, have fun and “take some chances.”
Hasselbeck was excited about the possibilities, but his enthusiasm quickly defused when some hecklers got into his ear from the stands at Seahawks Stadium. After taking the field for a pre-game warmup, Hasselbeck was jogging toward the stadium tunnel when a Seahawks fan called out for an autograph. Hasselbeck politely told the fan that he was in a hurry, and kept on jogging.
“And the guy’s like, ‘F… you! You suck! Who would want your autograph anyway?’ Da da da,” Hasselbeck later recalled.
Emotionally spent, Hasselbeck returned to the locker room and sat down between two fellow quarterbacks: rookie Jeff Kelly and veteran Jeff George.
Reading Hasselbeck’s body language, George asked: “What’s up?”
“I’m ashamed to even be saying this,” Hasselbeck responded, “but I don’t feel like playing today.'”
Hasselbeck proceeded to tell George what happened, and the veteran quarterback shrugged.
“You think that’s bad?” the well-traveled George told Hasselbeck before going into a series of stories about fans that heckled him during his infamous stops in Indianapolis, Atlanta and Oakland.
“He starts telling me story after story about what happened to him in Atlanta, in Indy, on and on,” Hasselbeck recalled in 2007. “There would be fights in the stands, and he’d turn around and see his mom in it. There were death threats.
“So he just tells me, ‘Just go out and have fun. Go play.'”
Hasselbeck did that, and the throw-caution-to-the-wind game plan fit him well. He passed for 362 yards and three touchdowns as the Seahawks beat Kansas City 39-32.
“We won that game,” Hasselbeck said later, “and then we really started loosening up.”
A week later, Hasselbeck threw for 427 yards and three touchdowns in a close loss to San Francisco. The week after that, he spearheaded a near-comeback against heavily-favored Philadelphia. By that point, the Seahawks were 4-9 and out of the playoff picture. Hasselbeck had put up some big numbers, but he still hadn’t proven enough to be anointed the quarterback of the future. Making matters worse, his contract had a clause that could allow the team to cut ties with him if he didn’t finish with a bang.
In Week 14, Hasselbeck led an overtime win over Atlanta, throwing for 298 yards and a touchdown. The next week, he passed for 301 yards in a 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams.
For the first time in a long time, things were starting to look up for Matt Hasselbeck.
But there was still one game to go, and it would come against one of the best defenses in the league. Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison and company were looking for a San Diego victory to send the Chargers into the playoffs. With no motivation other than pride, and maybe the future of their young quarterback, the Seahawks proved to be up for the challenge.
Seahawks vs. San Diego Chargers
Dec. 29, 2002
As told by Matt Hasselbeck
I remember it feeling kind of like a must-win game, especially for me personally. We did not have the year we were expecting to have. We opened it up on offense at the end of the year. If the Chargers win, they’re in the playoffs. I had played down there in a preseason game down there and played awful. Terrible. I think there was a radio announcer who had to apologize to me for something he said. I don’t even remember what it was. It was that terrible.
I had something at stake, contractually. It was one of those wait-and-see type of contracts. At the end of that year, they could have decided whether to do nothing — just let me go — or sign me for three years, sign me for two years or sign me for one year. The two-year contract was like the, ‘Well, yeah, maybe, probably.’ And they ended up going for two years, which was fine. It worked out in the end. But at the time, people weren’t too excited about me. It was Trent’s team. When he tore his Achilles tendon in a game against Dallas, and so I was back in there. And I hadn’t played well. I didn’t have any swagger, I wasn’t as healthy as I needed to be.
Leading up to the San Diego game, I had started to play pretty well. We were playing well, but there was a lot of speculation leading up to it about the quarterback situation, and the future of a lot of guys.
Also, Jeff George was with the Seahawks. The year before, Marty Schottenheimer had cut him from the Washington Redskins. Schottenheimer was coaching the Chargers, so Jeff George really wanted us to beat him.
Jeff George refers to himself as The Sheriff, and he was saying: ‘Hey, win this one for The Sheriff.’ So we’re in pregame, and he gets a Sharpie pen and autographs one of the balls for me: ‘The Sheriff.’ We’re throwing it around, and it was a good ball, so we played the game with that ball. I threw a touchdown to Koren Robinson with the ball that day, and now I have that ball at home. It still says ‘The Sheriff’ on it.
It was funny. He was like, ‘Win this game for The Sheriff. Win it for me. I do not want this guy (Schottenheimer) to go to the playoffs.’
Things started off well. I completed my first eight passes, including a 14-yard touchdown to Darrell Jackson, who was my go-to guy for a long time in Seattle. But then, six plays into the second drive, I threw a pick. I hit Itula Mili in the chest, the ball flew up in the air, and it got intercepted. I thought, Oh, this is not going well.
But I kept throwing the ball well. By halftime, I had completed 15 of 23 passes for 222 yards. Yet we were trailing 10-7. My interception and a Darrell Jackson fumble killed two drives in San Diego territory, or we might have been up 21-10.
Then the Chargers added 10 more points in the third quarter, and we were down 20-7 heading into the fourth. It didn’t look good for the Seahawks.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, I hit Mili on a 49-yard pass to the San Diego 2-yard line. Two plays later, Shaun Alexander scored to cut the deficit to six points.
After that, it was back and forth. Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass, then I threw a touchdown pass on the next drive. Because of a San Diego two-point conversion, we were down 28-21 when we got the ball back again at our own 12-yard line with 3½ minutes to go.
That drive was a microcosm of my career in that I went to Darrell Jackson one play, and Bobby Engram the next. I think I threw more passes to those two guys than anyone else that season.
We marched all the way to the San Diego 1-yard line, but after an incomplete pass into the end zone we were looking at one final play with just five seconds left on the clock. We had used two of our timeouts, while San Diego had used all three. Instead of throwing another pass, Mike Holmgren called a quarterback dive, and I went up the middle for a touchdown. Rian Lindell’s extra point tied the game, and we were going to overtime.
We won the coin toss, and got all the way to the San Diego 7-yard line, but I threw another interception. Fortunately, I got another chance.
Our second overtime drive started near midfield, and I had to convert a third-and-12 by scrambling for 21 yards. After that, it was all Mack Strong. Shaun Alexander had gotten hurt earlier in the game, and our backup halfback was also out, so Mack and backup fullback Heath Evans were the only running backs we had left. Mack was one of the most well-known Seahawks in franchise history, but he was never much of a running threat. Going into that overtime, he had 18 carries on the entire season. But we gave it to him five consecutive times, and he picked up 32 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. When we got back to Seattle, there were like 30 people waiting outside the team bus to congratulate him.
I usually don’t remember stats, but I do from that game. I threw for a franchise-record 449 yards and a couple of touchdowns. It was a huge win, our third in a row. We just had a party in the locker room. It was fun. Our offense really came together that game. Jeff Feagles, our punter, always knows how we do on third down, and he kept telling us that we were 8 for 16 that game. In the second half and overtime, we were 6 of 8 on third downs. We were lights-out. We were just fired up. Especially Jeff George. The Sheriff got his revenge.
The following April, Mike Holmgren came up to me and said: ‘Because of that game, you earned a chance to be the starter.’ So they gave me a two-year contract, and it worked out.
To this day, I still get fans coming up to me wanting to talk about that game. Since it was the season finale, it was the championship game for a lot of fantasy football owners. Just about every week, I have someone come up to me and say, ‘Remember that San Diego game? You won my fantasy league for me.’
Hasselbeck not only won some fantasy bowls, but he also quieted a San Diego radio broadcaster and helped cement his own future.
Zorn, who served as quarterbacks coach throughout Hasselbeck’s progression, said that the San Diego game was one of several turning points in the quarterback’s career.
“That was one of those defining games where, with nothing at stake, Mike (Holmgren) created a reason why everything was at stake,” Zorn said.
Hasselbeck eventually got his long-term contract — $49.4 million over six years in 2004 — and his starting job. He went on to become one of the most productive quarterbacks in franchise history. He passed for a franchise-record 3,841 yards in 2003, leading the Seahawks to a 10-6 record and their first postseason appearance in four years.
Hasselbeck almost led Seattle to an upset over his former team, the Packers, in the playoffs that year, but fell short in overtime. During the OT coin flip, Hasselbeck famously said, “We want the ball, and we’re going to score!” He didn’t realize the referee’s microphone was on, so his comment was broadcast throughout the stadium and on national television. Hasselbeck was unable to live up to the promise. On Seattle’s second possession of overtime, Hasselbeck threw an interception that Packers cornerback Al Harris returned 52 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Soon after that game, Hasselbeck was added to the Pro Bowl because his old buddy, Green Bay’s Favre, declined the invitation.
In 2004, Hasselbeck led the Seahawks to their first NFC West title.
And the year after that, he helped lead the way to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. He got there before Carson Palmer, before Michael Vick, even before Peyton Manning. While those guys were all No. 1 overall draft picks who found NFL success rather quickly, Hasselbeck had to pay his dues to become one of the privileged few.
Even in his greatest moment, while standing before hundreds of reporters and television cameras at Super Bowl XL, Hasselbeck appreciated every moment of it.
“I feel like I’m better for having gone through some of that stuff,” he said in the week leading up to Super Bowl XL, “but it feels really far away right now.”