KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Going into Mike Holmgren's 10th and final season as coach of the Seattle Seahawks, there are a number of keys that will reveal whether or not he has a legitimate shot at becoming the first coach in history to win a Super Bowl ring as head coach of two different franchises -- having won Super Bowl XXXI in Green Bay and coming up just short of Super Bowl XL with the Seahawks.
1. Transition at offensive line
The offensive line is expected to make the biggest transition with the hiring of Mike Solari as the line coach and Mike DeBord as his assistant. What was considered arguably the best offensive line in football in 2005 when the Seahawks won the NFC still has Walter Jones and Sean Locklear as a superior pair of tackles, but gone is the interior of the line that was Steve Hutchinson, Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray. Seahawks president Tim Ruskell made a strong move by signing free agent Mike Wahle from the Carolina Panthers.
A Pro Bowl guard in 2005, Wahle will play next to Jones on the left side. In his fourth season out of Ohio State, Rob Sims has slid over from Wahle's spot to play right guard next to Locklear. And the pivotal spot will be right in the middle as Chris Spencer begins his fourth season, third as a starter. Spencer figures to be the key, trying to overcome shoulder surgery and a back strain that has held him out of camp thus far, with Steve Vallos, in his second year out of Wake Forest, making huge strides in the transition from guard to center.
2. Competition at running back
Fitting well with the transition on the offensive line is the running back situation, with both Mack Strong (retired) and Shaun Alexander (waived) no longer with the club. In their place is fullback Leonard Weaver, who took over for Strong in the fifth game last season when he retired due to a neck injury against the Steelers, along with the signings of Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett -- plus the consistent productivity from Maurice Morris.
Weaver is as big as Strong, but faster and a superlative receiver having been a Division II All-American tight end. Jones and Duckett add versatility, speed and power to the backfield as well. Rookies Justin Forsett and Owen Schmitt, along with fullback David Kirtman, are also vying for a spot. The big focus has been on short yardage along with the backs becoming part of the passing game trying to add more options for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
3. Depth at wide receiver
With Deion Branch questionable for the start of the regular season following ACL surgery, the question is who the other wide receivers will be with 35-year-old Bobby Engram, coming off career-high 94 receptions, and Nate Burleson, who led the team with 11 touchdowns last season. The Seahawks didn't draft a receiver because they are so enamored of their young quartet -- Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor, Logan Payne and Jordan Kent.
Taylor and Obomanu are former teammates at Auburn, and have played well through training camp, while Payne was right there until cracking a rib in the intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 2. Kent is the biggest and fastest, but the three-sport athlete at Oregon didn't play football until his senior year and is still learning the nuances of the game, let alone Holmgren's complicated playbook. There has yet to be significant separation between the four youngsters, and then there is the question of what happens when Branch comes back.
4. Fitting Carlson in at tight end
The tight end has always been considered vital to the success of the West Coast offense, but Holmgren has continued to seek a steady performer -- thus the Seahawks traded up to draft John Carlson out of Notre Dame. The Seahawks made no bones about it that the 6-5, 250-pound Carlson was their guy because of his athleticism and great combination of blocking and receiving skills. If he can just play 16 games and catch 50 passes, it will be something no other Seahawks tight end has ever done.
They also signed free agent Jeb Putzier, who by his own admission has been labeled a "receiving tight end" because he played wide receiver at Boise State and had a couple of very good years catching passes at Denver. And lastly, Will Heller is the classic overachiever, who walked on at Georgia Tech and signed with Tampa Bay six years ago as a rookie free agent. He's dependable if unspectacular. Regardless, the key is Carlson blossoming as the starter.
5. Tackles hold key to defense
The back seven of the Seahawks was superlative last season and the defensive line has had its moments, but if the revolving door at the tackles can keep blockers off the linebackers, they will be an elite defense. Rocky Bernard and Brandon Mebane finished last season as the starters and likely will be there again. There is hope that Marcus Tubbs, their primary run-stopper in 2005, will be back despite serious knee surgery on each knee the past two seasons. They were thrilled to get mammoth Texas A&M rookie Red Bryant in the fourth round, but he tore a cartilage in his knee in camp and won't be back until the regular season.
Veterans Craig Terrill, Larry Tripplett and sleeper Howard Green are battling it out with their non-stop motors to join line coach Dwaine Board's rotation. And lastly, there is top draft choice Lawrence Jackson -- a defensive end by trade -- but also eminently capable of sliding inside, particularly in long yardage situations.