DETROIT – Let’s just call them what they are. The Replacements.
This is as good as the nickname is going to get for the Seattle Seahawks defense. No Steel Curtain. No Purple People Eaters. Not the No-Name Defense.
The Replacements. Eight new starters just to start the season. Three more permanent changes as 2005 unfolded, not to mention the usual injury fill-ins.
Oh, and the guy calling the shots – John Marshall. He’s a Replacement, too.
“Not really,” Marshall demurred. “I’m not being humble. This is still Ray’s defense, Ray’s scheme.”
Well, it is and it isn’t.
Ray Rhodes, Seattle’s owly, irascible and profane defensive coordinator, is indeed the man who drew up the blueprint for Seattle’s D. But on Sundays this year, it’s been John Marshall wearing the headset – and Ray Rhodes wearing the scowl in the back of the press box booth.
And happy to be wearing that.
A stroke he suffered on Sept. 4 mandated a reduced role for Rhodes, but it wasn’t until a second episode two months later that he started to get the message. Marshall took over as acting coordinator, and now he and the other defensive staffers monitor Rhodes’ hours and exposure to stress – no direct coaching in practice and just that back-row chair on game day.
“Usually we can get him pushed out of the office by 9 (p.m.),” Marshall revealed, “because that’s when Mike (head coach Mike Holmgren) comes down and if Ray’s not gone, then it’s our fault – and Mike escorts him out to his car.”
And it’s impossible to know who this is more difficult for – Ray Rhodes, or the friend who’s replaced him.
“It’s hard to come to the reality,” Rhodes said, “that this isn’t worth dying for, because this has been your whole life.”
Said Marshall: “I wish he was sitting in that seat, though.”
If you’re an NFL fan, you know Rhodes from the five Super Bowl rings he won on the staff of the San Francisco 49ers and from his two at-bats as a head coach, with Philadelphia and Green Bay. But you’ve probably never heard of the 60-year-old Marshall, though he has a couple of rings himself.
So let’s introduce him. In the beginning, he was a Coug.
“That’s true – I came to play football at Washington State,” said Marshall, who grew up in Arroyo Grande, Calif. “I was there a year. There was a fullback there from my hometown, Vince Antonio, and we were good friends. But then I was in a car accident.”
Ask for a detail and you get a tale.
“I was on a break back in California,” he said. “We were, uh, chasing a bus. Screwing around. And it was raining and the car went off the road and it was all over.”
This was up on Highway 101 near Paso Robles – on a different highway but not that far, really, from where actor James Dean died in a head-on crash in 1955.
“The worst part of the whole deal,” said Marshall, “was that we totaled a ‘57 Chevy – two-door, black, little rake, tuck-and-roll. A sweet car. Put it in the junkyard.”
The worst part? What happened to you, John?
“I broke my neck,” he said. “But that’s the way the good Lord works.”
In time, he resurfaced at the University of Oregon, graduated and launched a coaching career that’s taken him to seven different NFL teams. This season has been unique and possibly even the most rewarding, seeing what the Seahawks’ mix of the new and recycled has achieved.
But it’s also been the most heart-breaking.
“To watch a very good friend like Ray go through what he’s gone through, and being away from something he loves very much, has been the hardest for me,” said Marshall, who twice before worked with Rhodes with the 49ers.
At first, Marshall refused to take Rhodes’ front-row seat on team charters until “I lost that argument.” Then when Rhodes made the trip here, the two tried to defer to each other until Holmgren stepped in and ordered Rhodes to take the seat.
“Of all the things with the Super Bowl, I’m not worried about ‘You sit there,’ ” Holmgren said. “It’s like here I am in the third grade, making them sit where they’re supposed to sit.”
Holmgren should be happy that’s the only argument he’s had to settle. But from the beginning, Rhodes and Marshall completely shelved their egos – Rhodes content to offer suggestions, Marshall determined to solicit them. The players have noticed only one difference.
“John’s language isn’t as, uh, colorful,” said tackle Rocky Bernard.
In the NFC championship game, Carolina’s Drew Carter got behind the secondary for a 47-yard touchdown catch with five minutes to go that cut Seattle’s lead to a mere 20 points.
“All of a sudden I hear this, well, I won’t tell you what I heard,” Marshall laughed. “But I heard these words and I took my headset off and said, ‘Ray, one more of those and you’re out of here.’ And he said, ‘I know, I know, I’ll settle down, I promise.’ It was funny. But I’d have kicked him out of there.”
And he would have let him back in. John Marshall will be the first to tell you, there’s no replacement for Ray Rhodes.