What kind of offensive line coach are the Seattle Seahawks getting in Mike Solari?
"He's the best," Mike Holmgren said. "He's the best."
Holmgren would know better than most.
Solari was Seattle's offensive line coach during Holmgren's final season as the team's head coach in 2008 (and also in 2009 under Jim L. Mora). They coached against each other for several years before that, including for almost a decade when Solari held the same position with Kansas City. The Seahawks and Chiefs were AFC West rivals for part of that stretch.
"I’ve always admired him," Holmgren said during one of his regular segments on Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle. "I’ve known him for a long time. He just happened to be there when I made a change with the offensive line and he came in, and unfortunately I was just with him for one year. ... That’s a good one. That is really a good one. He’ll make those guys better. There’s not a doubt it my mind."
The Seahawks are counting on it. They need Solari to get more out of their offensive line than his fired predecessor Tom Cable could. Cable's demise in Seattle came after his unit vastly under-performed in 2017 despite being equipped with ample resources. The Seahawks ranked last in offensive line spending in 2016, by which point they had turned over all five starters from the 2013 team that won Super Bowl XLVIII. But the oft-cited excuse that Cable was being asked to make something out of nothing was no longer valid in 2017.
By the second half of the season, his starting line consisted of all first- or second-round picks. It had a former All-Pro at left tackle in Duane Brown, who was acquired in a midseason trade; a high-priced free-agent acquisition at left guard in Luke Joeckel, the former No. 2 overall pick; a 2016 Pro Bowl alternate at center in Justin Britt, who had just received a contract extension; a rookie second-round pick at right guard in Ethan Pocic; and a 2016 first-rounder at right tackle in Germain Ifedi.
All but Joeckel are under contract through at least 2018, so Solari is inheriting a decently-stocked cupboard as he tries to turn Seattle's offensive line around.
That group was perennially challenged in pass protection under Cable's direction. From 2011 to 2017, Seattle allowed quarterback pressure on 35.2 percent of dropbacks, by far the highest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN charting. For context, Tampa Bay ranked 31st in that span at 29.8 percent. Cable's offensive lines could hang their hat on run blocking while the team finished no worse than fourth in rushing from 2012 to 2015. But that success dried up after Marshawn Lynch moved on, with Seattle ranking 23rd and 25th in rushing over the past two seasons.
"If next year, they get a back, say [Chris] Carson’s healthy the whole year or they find a back in the draft or somebody and they still aren’t running the ball the way we think they should, it’s not the coach," Holmgren said. "Then it’s not the coach. We looked at this year and said, ‘Well, is it Cable? Is it the offensive line? What’s going on?’ I will tell you: If you can’t get it done under Mike Solari, you’ve got to get different players -- plain and simple."
Solari has been the primary offensive line coach for five teams over 19 seasons. In 10 of those seasons, his teams finished in the top 10 in rushing with eight of them finishing in the top five. During his five seasons with San Francisco from 2010 to 2014 -- which covered the peak years of the Seahawks-49ers rivalry -- the Niners were 19th, eighth, fourth, third and fourth in rushing.
No wonder Solari was Pete Carroll's choice.
Under Cable, Seattle ran a zone blocking scheme that occasionally used a fullback but went without one over the second half of last season, sometimes using tight ends in that role after Tre Madden was placed on injured reserve. Those 49ers offenses used a power rushing scheme similar to what Solari ran with Holmgren.
"We had some zone plays, but really we were angles, we were power running, we had a lead blocker whether it be a tight end or a fullback," Holmgren said, describing that 2008 Seahawks running game and perhaps what Seattle's will now look like under Solari. "We didn’t do a lot of empty-set things. But I think he’s flexible. I think he’s probably coached in a lot of different systems. But I think in a perfect world, I would recommend they go find a fullback and have him on the roster and those types of things.
"Because the zone blocking thing ... two guys are coming off of one guy and then they release and then go to the second level and all of that stuff -- that hasn’t worked. That really hasn’t worked for them. So I suspect that whatever the conversation Pete has with Mike and with the coordinator, that’s a big deal. Knowing Mike the way I do, he’ll come in and say, 'I think this is what we should do.' Pete’s a smart guy. If he’s as smart as I think he is, he’ll say, 'OK, get it done,' and then they’ll run the system he wants to run."
Carroll has yet to comment publicly on Solari's hiring or any of Seattle's other coaching changes, so the specifics of his role aren't known. Cable was in charge of the running game, essentially making him a co-offensive coordinator. The Seahawks may opt for a more streamlined arrangement with new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer having full control of the offense.
It was also believed that Cable had a great deal of say in personnel decisions involving his offensive line, at least much more than most position coaches have.
"I found him to be real pliable that way," Holmgren said of Solari, "that he would go with what he had. ‘Just give me the players. I’ll make them good.’ Having said that, I did rely on him. It would be foolish not to because he’s done this a long time."
Cynical ears may hear Holmgren's glowing endorsement of Solari and wonder if he's giving a filtered take because it involves a former assistant and his former team. For what it's worth, though, Holmgren openly questioned the reasoning for the Seahawks firing defensive coordinator Kris Richard and replacing him with Ken Norton Jr. Seattle also fired offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and linebackers coach Michael Barrow in what has amounted to the most significant overhaul of their staff under Carroll.
Holmgren thinks the addition of Solari might be the most impactful of all those changes.
"Really a good person and a good man, and an excellent, excellent line coach," he said. "That to me, of all these things that happened, that’s the key. That was the key and I think he’s going to make everything better. I really believe in him."