Alexander odd man out in crowded Seahawks backfield

The Seattle Seahawks are the only remaining team in the NFL running a close version of the late Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, and they are spending the offseason trying to disprove one of the lingering myths about that style of football.

Although the West Coast offense generally is known for its passing game, Seattle is focused on improving its running. The Seahawks have added veteran tailbacks Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett and will get rid of Shaun Alexander, a former league MVP.

"I think (the running game) gets overlooked (in the West Coast offense)," said Mike Holmgren, the Seahawks coach. "Myself, I don't think it's that subtle. When I was with the 49ers, we ran the ball well, Roger Craig and those guys, they could run.

How do they measure up?

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The offseason signings of Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett and the presence of holdover Maurice Morris could signal Shaun Alexander's exit from Seattle:

Player-by-Player comparison

  As you can tell by looking at   NFL.com's head-to-head   breakdown, RB Shaun   Alexander's production is   roughly equal to that of his   teammates in the Seahawks'   suddenly crowded   backfield. For complete   details, click here.

"Bill had such a reputation as a passing guru that (the running) got overlooked, absolutely. Last year, we couldn't run a lick, and we could still function because the offense allows you to do that. But if you can run a little bit, then it becomes fun."

The Seahawks have finished first in the weak NFC West four years in a row, but they haven't had much fun since 2005, when they reached the Super Bowl and rushed for 153.6 yards a game during the season. Alexander averaged 5.1 yards per carry, set an NFL record (since broken) by scoring 28 touchdowns and was voted MVP. Seattle led the NFL in scoring.

But by 2007, Seattle was down to 101.2 yards a game rushing, and Alexander's average had dropped to 3.5 yards per carry. The Seahawks tied for ninth in scoring. Holmgren essentially gave up on the running game after midseason because he felt it was hopeless, saying at one point, "It was just too hard."

Jones and Duckett are being paid more than $8 million between them in 2008 to try to make it easy again.

Jones and Maurice Morris, the holdover backup to Alexander, will compete for the starting job. They are similar in size and abilities, with Jones given an edge in power, especially for physical running on the inside, and Morris given the edge on elusiveness and quickness.

Duckett is expected to be a swing man, backing up both at tailback and fullback, where Leonard Weaver is the starter. Duckett is a 250-pounder who has been a halfback, but Holmgren wants him "to assume some of the dirty work." Holmgren is intrigued by Duckett and wants to know why he failed to live up to expectations with three previous teams.

Which leaves Alexander where, exactly?

The odd man out, according to a source close to the team, although no one is saying that definitively on the record. Holmgren acknowledges there are timing issues, relative to a lingering wrist injury and also salary-cap ramifications, because the Seahawks still must account for $6.9 million of the $11.5 million signing bonus Alexander received before the 2006 season.

Both Jones, who will be 27 next season, and Morris, 28, are better as receivers and pass blockers than Alexander, and they are younger, too. Alexander will be 31 before the season begins and he is adept at neither receiving nor pass blocking.

"It wasn't one of (Alexander's) strengths," Holmgren says, masterfully understating the issue. "Most backs can run. I also need someone who can catch the ball and pass block. Now, that separates some of the guys."

Of course, that begs the question of how Alexander got such a big contract from Seattle in the first place, and that reminds us of the old line that "timing is everything."

The Seahawks essentially were seduced into giving him a contract they didn't want to give him after his MVP season in 2005. Even then, they had doubts about his toughness and his commitment, they knew he was a liability in the passing game, and he was approaching his 30th birthday, normally a warning sign for running backs.

But he scored those 28 touchdowns and the team got to the Super Bowl, so Alexander was paid. And, in the two years since he got his big contract, he played poorly. He also missed six starts each year because of injuries, and he gained fewer yards and scored fewer touchdowns over two seasons than he did in either 2004 or 2005 alone.

Downward spiral

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**Former league MVP Shaun Alexander has seen his production drop significantly since winning the award:

Jones, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards for Dallas in 2006 but was shoved aside for Marion Barber during the second half of the '07 season, will be paid $5.5 million in 2008. Duckett will be paid $2.6 million.

Because he was a starter in Dallas, it's widely expected that Jones has an edge on Morris for the starting job, but Holmgren said Morris will start minicamps with the first team and that there will be a competition for the job. Holmgren prefers to have a single starting tailback, not a running back-by-committee situation, but he anticipates that both of them will play.

Morris took a physical pounding last season when he filled in for Alexander, who missed three games and parts of three others due to his wrist injury. That might point to an edge for Jones. Another potential edge for Jones: Holmgren can't shake the memory of his 198-yard rushing game at Seattle in Jones' third start as a rookie in 2004.

Some teams would prefer that, if they have two backs splitting time, the two have different styles. But Jones and Morris are so similar that the Seahawks figure they will call their plays exactly the same for both of them.

"Having two guys for that change of pace stuff? That's an interesting deal, but I don't buy into it too much," Holmgren said.

Holmgren, who spent three years on Walsh's staff in San Francisco in the '80s, is the only coach in the NFL who worked under te late Walsh, a Hall of Famer who led the 49ers to three Super Bowl victories. Holmgren's offense, both in Green Bay and Seattle, always has closely followed the Walsh model, which, while it calls for using a short passing game to set up the run, always depended on having a strong running game. Walsh believed that was essential, especially trying to protect leads in the second half of games.

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.

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