Tim Ruskell knows his legacy is set in Seattle. And it’s not from presiding over the Seahawks‘ only Super Bowl.
It’s for letting perennial Pro Bowl blocker Steve Hutchinson leave in free agency while as the Seahawks‘ president and general manager, a job that ended on Thursday.
That gaffe, giving Hutchinson a transition tag instead of the more restrictive franchise tag for 2006, accelerated the team’s decline that cost the 20-year scout his first GM job.
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“I talked to my wife the other day and said, ‘Let’s look at that will again,”‘ Ruskell joked after announcing his forced resignation weeks before his five-year contract ended in Seattle.
“It says ‘burial.’ But let’s go for ‘cremation’ – so they won’t be able to write, ‘Here lies the man that lost Hutch’ on my tombstone.”
That was the biggest of many missteps with which Ruskell is more easily identified now that Seattle is 8-19 in the last two seasons.
The team’s ownership gave Ruskell full authority to shape the franchise soon after he arrived before the 2005 season. He remade the defense, including with the deft drafting of overlooked linebacker Lofa Tatupu, and that first team brought Seattle its only Super Bowl.
Since then, Ruskell has presided over failed top draft choices, expensive free-agent busts – and the awkward ouster of popular coach and former GM Mike Holmgren at the end of his contract this past January.
Ruskell brought in his own coach for 2009, Jim Mora. The 4-7 Seahawks are on their way to a second straight season without a playoff berth. Last season they finished 4-12, their worst record since 1991.
This week, Ruskell asked the team if he was going to have his contract renewed so he could begin planning for offseason moves. Owner Paul Allen, the Microsoft Corp. tycoon, and chief executive Tod Leiweke told Ruskell no, so he left.
“Obviously there’s great sadness today but I will leave here with great memories of this place and the people,” Ruskell said, his voice breaking while holding back tears during a morning news conference attended by his sister and the team’s staff.
Later, he walked into the team’s indoor facility to watch practice. After practice, players lined up to hug their now-former GM, who says he may take a break from the game after 28 years in it.
“We were surprised,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said of the news that came to the players from Mora during an unscheduled, five-minute morning meeting.
“Just a class act. You could tell he cared about the team,” the co-captain said. “He’s hurting just as much as we are with the way things are going.”
Seahawks vice president for player personnel Ruston Webster will serve as interim general manager.
Ruskell admitted he underestimated how difficult this season would be with a new coach, two new coordinators and a dozen new starters.
“It didn’t happen quickly enough,” he said, “but it wasn’t because we didn’t do it right.”
Leiweke said he expects Mora to remain the coach in 2010.
Mora looked stunned and sounded concerned at losing the man who gave him his second go-round as an NFL head coach. Ruskell was Atlanta’s assistant GM who helped hire Mora as the Falcons‘ rookie coach in 2004.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t perform better and didn’t give him the help that he needed,” Mora said.
When asked if he felt uncomfortable that his guy is gone, Mora answered tersely that his concerns were with Ruskell and how he’s handling the move “and that our focus is quite simply on getting better” and beating San Francisco on Sunday.
Leiweke said Webster would be a good GM candidate, and added “stability is something we will try to push for.”
No conceivable candidate knows the Seahawks better than Holmgren, who became their longest-tenured and winningest coach from 1999-2008. The first four years he was also their GM.
Holmgren has declared his desire to return to the NFL after one year away. He took 2009 off as a promise to his wife and family but now says he wants to return to football. He hasn’t specified where, or whether it is to coach or be an executive.
But he has long coveted a second chance to be a GM. He’s often said how much he admires the position Bill Parcells, a good friend and another former Super Bowl-winning coach, now has atop the Miami Dolphins‘ franchise. Holmgren still owns a home in the Seattle area.
When asked whether Holmgren is a candidate, Leiweke said, “I’m just not going to go there. I’m just not going to talk about that today.”
Beyond the Hutchinson fiasco, there was a huge contract Ruskell gave to Shaun Alexander – before the former MVP went bust in two years. Ruskell also traded a first-round pick to New England in 2006 for wide receiver Deion Branch. He then gave the former Super Bowl MVP a $39 million contract with $13 million guaranteed. Branch has had seasons with 53, 49, 30 and now 26 catches – plus two knee surgeries.
Branch was one of the first players to hug Ruskell after practice.
“For him to receive all the blame is wrong. The stuff that’s going on in the organization all falls back on the players,” Branch said. “It’s sad. I truly respect him. … I’m thankful for him.”