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Alexander's eyes on double score

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- They've both taken turns at Mike Holmgren's whipping post, and Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck are only now starting to smile about their less-than-sentimental education.

The lessons have paid off, particularly for Holmgren, whose vision of implementing a high-scoring offense finally materialized.

"I have only daughters, so these players are like my sons. Over the past four or five years, they've really matured. Now I can hand them the car keys and not worry about it," Holmgren said.

The plan also has paid off for Hasselbeck, who received a contract extension and $16 million signing bonus in early 2005.

But apparently, the other key cog in the machine, Alexander, whose NFL-record 28 touchdowns and league-leading 1,880 rushing yards this season made him the league's Most Valuable Player, still has something to prove.

A free agent as of March 3 if the Seahawks don't feed him numbers that will feed his sense of self-worth, Alexander still seeks his reward. This season, he signed a one-year, $6.32 million deal as the Seahawks' franchise player. But for a guy who once had a list of the world's richest people taped in his locker, payday means respect. As low-key as Alexander is, there is another side.

Even with Alexander's record-setting season, even with career marks that put him in the same category as legends Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith, some in the organization are not completely convinced that his attitude shift in 2005 wasn't all about it being a contract year.

The Seahawks, aware of the diminishing returns from running backs over the age of 30, might need irrefutable evidence that they can't live without Alexander in order to ante up to Alexander, who'll be 29 this year.

What bearing does this have on the playoffs, starting with Seattle's matchup tomorrow against the Washington Redskins? Alexander plans on making another statement at Qwest Field, despite the kind of challenging defense Joe Gibbs' squad will throw at the big running back and the Seahawks' No. 2-ranked offense.

"I just try to have fun. I'll eat my same peanut M&Ms; and then go see what happens. Football is a fun sport," Alexander said, exuding an air of nonchalance that seems to go hand-in-hand with his different sort of persona.

For the Seahawks, Alexander is the MVP who fell from the sky. Or, at least, the running back who fell from the NFL draft board. Sitting at No. 19 in the first round of the 2000 draft, the Alabama star was too much talent to let slip away.

"We had Ricky Watters here," Holmgren said. "We had other needs, but as the board unfolds, clearly the best player up there was Shaun Alexander."

Alexander has done everything on the field to support the Seahawks' draft-day decision to set aside their initial agenda and make him a part of their West Coast offense. He forced Holmgren to adjust formations and tweak his philosophy (50-50 pass-run ratio as opposed to the preferred 60-40) in order to take advantage of Alexander's talent.

All this was done despite Alexander's sometimes challenging personality. Supremely confident, he does not exude the more common traits of arrogance. He isn't edgy or nervous or aggressive, the way some elite athletes can be. He seems to truly believe himself to be the best at what he does.

In Alexander's first four seasons with the Seahawks, it has been the team's job to manage his desire to be treated differently from other players, such as the times he has asked for extra things off the field and, early on, showed open lack of interest in practice.

He used to get kicked out of practice and criticized for not being the kind of all-purpose back, with the blocking and blitz-reading acumen, that Holmgren expected.

This season, though, Alexander ran for more yards than anyone else in the NFL, and he has run harder in the red zone. He is also the only player in NFL history to score 15 or more touchdowns in five consecutive seasons.

But in his hunger for fame and fortune, Alexander has become the slightly odd centerpiece of the Seahawks' vaunted offense. This is, after all, the same man who last season accused Holmgren of "stabbing him in the back" when Holmgren didn't call his number on a play that would have given him the NFL's season rushing title.

Alexander apologized to Holmgren, and then cleared the air with his teammates, setting up this season's locker room and on-field love-fest.

"I think way too much was made of what happened right at the end of last season," Holmgren said. "Shaun and I have a good relationship. I have been hard on him, though, because I think I recognize great talent and he has great talent."

"I'm always going to shove just a little bit to get the most out of the player, and he's responded beautifully."

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