Alexander tolerates shared backfield role with Morris

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- When he has been on the bench, which has been far more than normal this season, Shaun Alexander has usually been a big cheerleader for the Seattle Seahawks.

He's often the first one off the sidelines to greet players after big plays. He has raced down the sidelines and into the end zone to greet teammates who just scored.

Coach Mike Holmgren marvels at how the league MVP of two seasons ago has handled being demoted for the first time since he got Seattle's starting running back job in 2001. He's now in a shared lead role with Maurice Morris, his backup for five seasons before this one.

This new tandem arrangement, which will continue Saturday in the NFC wild-card playoff game against the Washington Redskins, began six weeks ago.

That was when Alexander returned from a sprained knee to a changed offense that is relying on Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's passing in lieu of a running game stalled mostly by Alexander's injuries and ineffectiveness. Alexander has played since September with a cast over his broken left wrist, and will wear a smaller version again Saturday.

"You've all seen it ... you can go to other sports -- typically in this situation, that player, an MVP player, (causes) some sort of problem," Holmgren said. "There's something that comes up that's not very healthy for your football team. Someone's mad.

"None of that has taken place. And that's a real credit to the young man, I think. Because he's used to playing a lot. He's used to being the man, and now his role has changed."

Holmgren said this is not the same Alexander who infamously said immediately after the 2004 regular-season finale that his coach "stabbed me in the back" -- an incident which both said was overblown. Holmgren chose to leave the ball in Hasselbeck's hands instead of giving it to Alexander from the 1 in a bid to tie for the NFL rushing title. It turned out to be Seattle's final possession.

"You know, we've been together a while now and I've seen him grow up a lot in a lot of ways," Holmgren said. "So I'm just telling you how it is now. I appreciate how he's handling this whole thing."

Holmgren said that Alexander, who turned 30 in August, has come to him more than once lately and said, "'Hey, I'm OK. Don't worry about me.'

"Bless his heart," Holmgren said.

Or soothe it.

To hear Alexander tell it, he isn't exactly embracing this co-lead role. Tolerating it, maybe.

"For me, it's just a health thing," Alexander said. "When I've been healthy, there hasn't been a need for a 'co-' thing.

"So since I'm not, then you do whatever it takes for our team to win. And I think that is the best thing for our team to win."

During his last injury-free season, in 2005, he ran for a team-record 1,880 yards and set a league record with 28 touchdowns. Then he got a concussion the last time the Seahawks played the Redskins, a Seattle win in the divisional playoffs 24 months ago. A severely bruised left foot in the '06 season opener eventually became broken, causing him to miss six games and finish with 896 yards rushing, his lowest total since he took Ricky Watters' job in 2001.

This season's opener brought the broken wrist. Then came a sprained left knee that put him out three games in November.

Holmgren said he underestimated how much playing with the cast, which started out bulky in September, would affect Alexander's running. He has averaged 44 yards per game since his last 100-yard day, in Week 3 against Cincinnati. The 10-game drought in 100-yard games is his longest since he became a starter.

Morris is coming off a 91-yard game last weekend at Atlanta, when Alexander left the field after his first carry holding his ribs on his right side and then left the game for good with Hasselbeck after one half.

Morris hits the running holes scraped out by a shuffling, inconsistent offensive line faster than Alexander. He is a better pass receiver. And he is feeling like a major contributor for the first time.

"Whenever I'm running around, playing on first and second downs, I feel a big part of it," Morris said.

He's also a big part of what has often been Seattle's most effective offense, a no-huddle system. To jump-start a slumbering offense two weeks ago, Holmgren went no-huddle before eight of Seattle's first 10 plays against Baltimore. Morris was the back of choice for all of them.

Alexander didn't enter until late in the first quarter -- then ran 13 times for 73 yards, with his fourth rushing touchdown of the season. It was his biggest day since September.

"He's running with a little more confidence, I think," Holmgren said. "And now I think he feels like he can be who he was."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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