CHENEY, Wash. -- Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren assembled his players at the beginning of training camp to discuss their fun-but-failed trip to the Super Bowl. His points hit home. Holmgren told the team that to return to the Super Bowl and win, even stars such as MVP Shaun Alexander, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and All-Pro left tackle Walter Jones had to play better.
"I wanted to emphasize you can't rest on your laurels, that this is a new year," Holmgren said. "By addressing our best players, I think I got the message across to everybody."
The point hit home with Alexander, who is coming off a nearly perfect season. Alexander had it all. He rushed for 1,880 yards. He scored an NFL-record 28 touchdowns. Despite being 29 years old, Alexander scored an eight-year, $61.6 million contract. He's on the cover of Madden '07.
"If I did what I did last year, we won't go back to the playoffs," Alexander said. "Both as a player, a teammate, a captain and as a leader, I've got to be better all the way. If I'm not, we're not going to be where we want to be."
The Seahawks came out of nowhere to go to the Super Bowl last year. Guys who were selfish in their formative years turned into a true team, supportive of each other. A team that couldn't get over the hump of being a one-and-out playoff contender developed a mental toughness that carried it to the Super Bowl. Resurrecting those qualities won't be easy.
They know the challenge. The last five Super Bowl losers (Giants, Rams, Raiders, Panthers and Eagles) had a losing record in the following season. The loss to the Steelers still stings; early in the game, the Seahawks felt they outplayed the Steelers. Tight officiating calls made life tougher. A mistake here or there made winning even a tougher task. The Seahawks left Detroit feeling as though the Steelers had stolen their Super Bowl rings. But to get a second chance, they know the work level has to increase.
"Every year I think you need to improve," Hasselbeck said. "That's a no-brainer, and I don't care who you are. If don't care if you're Walter Jones, who is probably the best player in the whole game, you've got to get better. Coach Holmgren told us that. Warren Moon spoke to us four days later and said the same thing. I think hearing from guys who are saying the same thing, you take their advice."
Hasselbeck's mind flashed back to his days in Green Bay when he was an unknown third quarterback. The Packers were coming off a Super Bowl win. Brett Favre was coming off his second of three MVP seasons. Andy Reid, then the Packers quarterback coach under Holmgren, handed Favre a long list of things he needed to improve on. Hasselbeck was taken aback, but now he understands.
Now, Hasselbeck is one of the conference's best quarterbacks, but he needs to improve his game if the Seahawks are going to get better. As a conference champion, the Seahawks have a target on their backs. Good isn't good enough any more. The Seahawks have lost the surprise element. Now, they are the favorites in the NFC. To stay at that level, they've got to work harder.
In the preseason opener against the Cowboys, the Seahawks laid an egg. The Cowboys dominated them at Qwest Field, a game that was meaningless on the surface but that pointed to some of the challenges the Seahawks will face in 2006. The Seahawks have a long list of players still recovering from injuries from last season.
The defensive line is just starting to practice. Ends Grant Wistrom (shoulder) and Joe Tafoya (shoulder) and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (knee) didn't start practicing until this Wednesday. Defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs still isn't back from foot problems. Newly signed defensive tackle Russell Davis is out for weeks with a plantar fascia tear.
"The most obvious thing is there are a lot of guys missing right now," Hasselbeck said. "We had a lot of offseason surgeries. Going to the Super Bowl, you have a shorter recovery and rehab time than other teams. In the offseason, you hope when they get back they will hit the ground running."
Holmgren isn't overly concerned about the injuries because there aren't many that are supposed to carry over to the regular season. Hasselbeck has missed his favorite receiver, Darrell Jackson, who's still battling knee problems, but Jackson is expected back next week. Things along the offensive line are also a little messy. Efforts to replace left guard Steve Hutchinson, who signed with the Vikings, are stalled.
The Seahawks believe Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack will be the replacement for the league's best left guard, but he's out with a hamstring injury and missed a portion of the offseason with triceps problems. Chris Spencer, a 2005 first-round pick, appeared to be the next alternative, but he had to move back to center this week because Pro Bowl center Robbie Tobeck needed surgery to clean out bone chips in his elbow.
"Every year I think you need to improve. That's a no-brainer, and I don't care who you are. If don't care if you Walter Jones, who is probably the best player in the whole game, you've got to get better."
Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck
Tobeck understands the challenges of a Super Bowl loser better than most. He was the starting center on the 1998 Falcons who, like the Seahawks, came together as a team and surprised everyone before losing to the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Jamal Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards that year. The next year, the Falcons were terrible, finishing 5-11.
"Injuries were a big factor," Tobeck said of the Falcons' collapse. "The team got rid of Cornelius Bennett. They got rid of Tony Martin, who was our big-play receiver. Jamal Anderson goes down with a knee injury and his backup, Byron Hanspard, blows out his knee. Bennett was the leader of our defense along with Eugene Robinson, and those guys are tough to replace."
What makes Tobeck feel good about this Seahawks team is that almost all the leaders are back. The biggest blow was the loss of Hutchinson, who left for Minnesota thanks to a $49 million contract. Replacing a guard along an offensive line usually isn't too tough, but filling the void for the best left guard in football will be a challenge. Unlike the Falcons, the Seahawks attacked free agency after Hutchinson's departure and added linebacker Julian Peterson, wide receiver Nate Burleson and defensive tackle Russell Davis.
"It's nice having the same group of us together for a long time," Hasselbeck said. "I think that helps us. Opponents talk about our tempo on offense, but it wasn't so much we tried to have a fast tempo. I can switch up the snap count when needed. If we need to go on a quick count, we can because we have guys on the line of scrimmage who recognize stuff, make the line calls and just do this."
In other words, the Seahawks are a seasoned team with a seasoned quarterback, which is one of the reasons they are a favorite to return to the Super Bowl. It all starts with Hasselbeck, one of the game's brightest quarterbacks. He's entering his sixth season with the Seahawks, but he has spent his entire career in the West Coast offense.
"Teams have studied our pass protections, but we've got some options now," Hasselbeck said. "We can run where you are weak. If you bring up a defensive back to blitz us, we'll run right at you. You better make sure if you blitz us you are sound with your gap control."
The Seahawks have heard all the stories about the Super Bowl losers' laments. They realize last year was last year. To return for a second chance, they have to be better. Holmgren won't let them have it any other way.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.