By Bill Shannon
When a nomadic head football coach named Chuck Knox stepped off the plane in Seattle, Washington, in January of 1983, he was taking on a challenge which he had not faced before in his decade of coaching. He was taking the reins of the Seattle Seahawks, a nondescript, history-poor team that hadn’t even existed when Knox got his first head coaching gig during the Nixon Administration.
From their inception in 1976 until the strike season of 1982, the Seahawks – though hardly the worst expansion franchise in NFL history – were still finding trouble making it out of abject mediocrity. Though they finished their third and fourth seasons with back-to-back 9-7 records, they weren’t able to make it into the playoffs. In fact, their fraternal expansion twins, the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who had lost their first 26 games) had already made the playoffs three times by the time Knox rolled into Washington State.
If anyone was equipped to marshal the seven-year old Seahawks out of the doldrums, however, it was Knox, a franchise turner-arounder if ever there was one. When Knox took over the Los Angeles Rams in 1973, they were in the midst of a three-year playoff drought. Knox led the Rams to a 12-2 record and their first NFC West title; Knox was named NFL Coach of the Year. The Rams won their division all five years that Knox was there.
When Knox got into a contract dispute with Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom after the 1977 season, he left the Rams for Buffalo, themselves suffering a three-year playoff drought, with just five wins in the previous two seasons combined, a far more dire situation than the Rams had been. In 1980, just his third season with the Bills, Knox led the Bills to their first division title since the year the Beatles released Revolver. Knox was again named NFL Coach of the Year.
The Bills made the playoffs again in ’81 before hiccuping in the ’82 strike season. Knox chose not to take Bills owner Ralph Wilson’s offer of a contract renewal, and instead replaced original Seattle coach Jack Patera, in a place with more Bigfoot spottings than playoff games. And so began a most unlikely two-year stretch for one of the NFL’s most heretofore ignored franchises.
Knox brought with him to Seattle a pedigree of running the football, so much that he earned the nickname “Ground Chuck.” In all but two of his ten years coaching the Rams and Bills, his teams were on the top ten in the NFL in rushing, and four of those seasons put Knox’s teams in the top four. (Inexplicably, Knox’s 1979 Bills were dead last in rushing yards. Go figure.) Knox’s Rams teams were in the top five in offensive yards and points three times.
Knox’s defenses were no slouch either: in his five seasons in Los Angeles, the Rams were in the top four in fewest points and yardage allowed, every year he was there. In his final three years in Buffalo, the Bills were always seventh or better in fewest yards and points allowed..
Knox also brought two of his former players to bring leadership and experience to a young offense: running back Cullen Bryant, whom Knox had drafted to the Rams in 1973; and guard Reggie McKenzie, formerly of the Buffalo Bills “Electric Company” offensive line. (These players would not only be able to provide leadership to the younger players, but vouch for Knox’s bona fides and help teach the offensive system to the younger players.) Blocking tight end Charle Young also came from San Francisco to shore up Seattle’s twin-tight end formations, as well as center Blair Bush from Cincinnati. Just like that, Seattle’s offensive line got a whole heck of a lot better.
Perhaps the most important addition to Seattle’s roster was the third overall pick in the greatest draft in NFL history, the 1983 Draft.. The Seahawks traded up the the third-overall pick to pick Curt Warner, an All-American running back from Penn State, in hopes that he could revive Seattle’s wretched ground attack. (Warner was selected immediately after Stanford quarterback John Elway and SMU halfback Eric Dickerson.) Seattle had ranked second-to-last in rushing yards in each of the previous two seasons, running for a paltry 3.59 yards per carry over that span. The Seahawks hoped that the slippery-hipped Warner would give them instant credibility on offense.
Knox was also hoping to get some consistency in the passing game. Original Seahawk Steve Largent was a three-time Pro Bowler who had four times eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark as a wide receiver, but after Largent, Seattle’s offensive skill-position talent started to thin out quickly. For the last few years, veteran quarterback Jim Zorn (also an original Seahawk) had been the regular signal-caller, starting all but nine games in his eight-year career in Seattle. Zorn had struggled early in his career, before seemingly hitting his stride in ’77 and ’78, where he was one of the best quarterbacks in the league in those seasons. But he fell behind the curve in the next few years. When he got injured in 1981, Zorn was replaced by second-year backup Dave Krieg, who then started sharing time at starter.
Early on, it became apparent that Curt Warner was as-advertised. His contribution to Seattle’s offense was undeniable: Warner accounted for 68.4% of Seattle’s total rushing yards, and 32.6% of their total offensive production. He was among the league’s rushing leaders all season long, and by the end of the 1983, Warner led the AFC in rushing yards (1,449 yards), and was third in the NFL behind Dickerson and Atlanta’s William Andrews.
Warner was clearly focal point of Seattle’s offense. His 377 touches were fourth in the NFL behind Dickerson, Andrews and Washington’s John Riggins; he was also fourth in rushing yards-per-game, with 90.6. Warner’s 335 rushing attempts were third behind Dickerson and Riggins, and his 14 combined touchdowns were also third; his 1,774 all-purpose yards were fourth behind Dickerson, Andrews, and someone named Walter Payton. As a rookie, in the vaunted NFL Draft Class of ’83, the AFC Offensive Player of the Year (and that’s “Player,” not “Rookie”) was Curt Warner.
Seattle’s passing game could barely muster a passing grade, pun most certainly intended. Zorn started every game until week nine, when he got hurt and Dave Krieg came in to back him up. Although Krieg’s numbers weren’t gaudy, they were very efficient: he threw for 237.7 yards per game (6th in the NFL), with a 95.0 passer rating, second-best in the AFC and fourth-best in the league. Krieg’s 8.8 yards-per-attempt and 14.6 yards-per-completion were both #2 in the league (behind Green Bay’s Lynn Dickey, of all people). He had a seventh-best 60.5 completion percentage, and threw a touchdown on 7.4% of his pass attempts, a league high.
It didn’t hurt that Krieg also had Steve Largent to throw to. The man who retired the NFL’s all-time leading receiver was ranked #10 in the NFL in both receptions (71) and receiving yards per game (71.6). The Seahawks were actually 6th in the league in scoring. But as reliable and stalwart as Seattle’s offense was in ’83, their defense was incredibly hard to figure.
From a statistical standpoint, Seattle’s defense pretty terrible: they gave up 6,029 total yards (2nd-worst in the NFL), 3,831 passing yards (3rd-worst), 2,198 rushing yards (10th-worst), and 397 points, the fifth-most of any team in the league. They gave up 30 or more points six times during the season. However they did one thing really, really well: taking the ball away. The Seahawks were second-best in the league in takeaways on defense.
The best example of Seattle’s dissociative personality disorder on D in 1983 was their Week 7 matchup against the Raiders. Yes, the Seahawks gave up a rather awful 36 points, but also had eight sacks and eight takeaways (3 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries). Los Angeles turned on the jets for a furious fourth-quarter rally, but the Seattle’s offense had built enough of a cushion, giving the Seahawks a signature 38-36 win. It was a microcosm of how Seattle played all year.
Six weeks later, the ‘Hawks gave up seven touchdowns at home to the Kansas City Chiefs. It is a game that Seattle would have lost had Kansas City’s kicker Nick Lowery not missed the seventh and final extra point try that would have given the Chiefs a four-point lead. Instead, Seattle marched down the field and scored the tying field goal, sending the game to overtime. Johnson then kicked the game winner, to give Seattle a 51-48 victory. It was that kind of season.
The Seahawks entered the final game of 1983 at 8-7, somehow controlling their own destiny for their first ever playoff spot. At home against New England on the season’s final Sunday, Seattle took a 17-6 lead into the fourth quarter, and held on to win, 24-6, clinching their first postseason appearance, a home game against Denver in the AFC Wild Card game (back when each conference only had one). Chuck Knox had become the first person to take three different franchises to the postseason.
To say the ’83 Seahawks eked their way into the postseason would be an understatement: they were one game over .500 or worse every week in the season except one (after Week 10, when they were 6-4). They got into the playoffs based on two tiebreakers against 9-7 Denver and 9-7 Cleveland (who didn’t get into the playoffs). The chips fell exactly where they needed to for these Ospreys of the Pacific Northwest to play into January.
Seattle’s first franchise postseason game was a 31-7 shellacking of division rival Denver, in which the Seahawks took the lead in the first quarter and never looked back. Dave Krieg had a ridiculously efficient day, going 12-for-13, for 200 yards and three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Seattle rushed 38 times for 145 yards (99 by Curt Warner) playing ball control and keeping the ball out of the hands of Denver’s quarterbacking duo of Steve DeBerg and John Elway. This game should have been the crowning achievement of an overachieving team. But Seattle wasn’t done.
The Seahawks landed in Miami to play the defending AFC Champion Dolphins, the second seed in the AFC playoffs and an eight-point favorite. Miami’s “Killer Bs” defense allowed only 250 points in 1983, the fewest in the league. Miami was expected to thrash the upstart Seahawks. But Seattle, as they had been wont to do all year, hung tough. They matched Miami touchdown-for-touchdown in the first three periods, taking a one-point lead into the fourth quarter. After Miami took a 20-17 lead in the fourth, Seattle stormed back, scoring ten unanswered, winning the game by a touchdown, and shocking the Dolphins. (Footnote: Miami won the AFC title the next season, so it is possible that by blocking them in ’83, Seattle prevented Miami’s second three-peat as AFC Champions.)
Of course, even in the Emerald City, Dorothy still has to wake up sometime, and Seattle’s 30-14 road loss to the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship game brought them back to earth. Oakland scored the first 27 points, and Seattle never really threatened. Still, a team that had never been to the playoffs, and went just 9-7, was one game away from the Super Bowl: all-in-all, a pretty successful outing.
It might have been easy to write off Seattle’s 1983 campaign as a fluke: a team that got a few lucky bounces but probably didn’t have the staying power to prevent a meteoric fall back to earth. Still, Seattle had high hopes in ’84, hopes which were almost shattered on opening day. Against the Cleveland Browns in the home opener, Curt Warner went down with a season-ending ACL injury. Warner, the most lethal weapon on Seattle’s offense, was gone, and it appeared that Seattle’s season might be also.
Instead, the Seahawks changed up their game-plan, playing to their strengths and minimizing exposure to their weaknesses. Though their offense was a bit one-dimensional, they were very effective. Dave Krieg had a big-time season; he threw for 3,671 yards (5th in the league) and 32 touchdowns, second only to Dan Marino’s record-breaking numbers. His 6.7% touchdown rate was also second to Marino. Krieg’s passer rating was 83.3, and his 3,543 total offensive yards were fourth, behind Marino, the Cardinals’ Neil Lomax, and the Giants’ Phil Simms.
Although Seattle wasn’t stacked with offensive talent, they had just enough, namely Steve Largent (1,164 receiving yards) and rookie wide receiver Daryl Turner (715), who filled the role of a Mister Inside/Mister Outside in the passing game: Largent was the possession guy who moved the chains, and Turner was the deep threat. Together, the two combined accounted for a full 50% of the team’s receiving yards. Largent’s 12 touchdown receptions were tied for second in the NFL, and Turner’s ten TD catches were tied for 5th; Turner’s 20.4 yards per catch was third in the league.
The Seattle running game was of the no-name variety (with the exception of a decidedly over-the-hill Franco Harris). Eric Lane, Dan Doornink, and David Hughes shared carries in Warner’s absence, with Hughes’s 327 rushing yards leading the team(!). They ran for a full 500 fewer yards in ’84 than in ’83. Luckily, Seattle’s coach was not so stubborn as to blindly stick to offensive philosophy when circumstances changed. Having a major drop-off in rushing talent after Warner, Knox switched the Seahawks to a pass-heavy offense.
In 1983, Seattle had passed on 61% of their plays, roughly a 3:2 pass-to-run ratio. In 1984, with their star halfback out, Seattle passed 69.5% of the time, meaning they passed the ball more than twice as much as they ran it. The results couldn’t have worked out much better for Knox’s team. Seattle finished the season 5th in scoring, putting up 26.1 points per game. They went over the 30-point barrier seven times during the season; in fact, in their twelve wins, they averaged exactly 30 points per game.
But as nice a surprise as Seattle’s offense was, it was nothing compared to their defense, one of the most exciting and opportunistic defenses the league has ever seen. They allowed the fifth-fewest points in the league in 1984. They held teams under 10 points five times, and pitched three shutouts. But it was the madcap manner in which Seattle’s defense played was what set them apart.
Seattle took the ball away from opponents an unfathomable 63 times – almost four per game – which is technically an NFL record. (The only two pro football teams to take the ball away more played in the AAFC in the 1940s, and in the AFL in the 1960s.) They intercepted passers a league-best 38 times. In one incredible game against Kansas City in Week 10, the Seahawks intercepted three K.C. quarterbacks a total of six times; they returned four of those for touchdowns, an NFL record that might never fall. Each touchdown return covered 50 yards or more.
The Seahawks’ overall pass defense was superior, holding opposing quarterbacks to a paltry combined 54.2 passer rating. Their 55 quarterback sacks were tied for seventh in the NFL – on opening day alone, they had 7 sacks. Defensive ends Jeff Bryant and Jacob Green both had double-digit sacks (14.5 and 13, respectively). The defense had two superstars in ’84: the first was nose guard/defensive tackle Joe Nash, who had the best year of his career. He had 7.0 sacks from the interior lineman position, and 82 tackles. But the only person on Seattle’s defense who could overshadow Nash was veteran Seahawk safety Kenny Easley.
Easley also had the year of his life, with 10 interceptions, including two for touchdowns. He made his third All-Pro team, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. All-told, Seattle sent seven players to the Pro Bowl: Krieg, Largent, Easley, Nash, kicker Norm Johnson, cornerback Dave Brown (who had eight picks and two touchdowns), and rookie linebacker Fredd Young. The Seahawks made the playoffs again in a very tough AFC, finishing with a 12-4 record, good for another Wild Card berth in the brutal AFC West. Oh, and Chuck Knox won 1984′s NFL Coach of the Year, only his third with his third team, no big deal.
Revenge was on Seattle’s mind as they hosted the Raiders in a Wild Card rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship. Seattle never trailed, taking a 13-0 lead into the fourth quarter, and defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders by six points. Running back Dan Doornink had 126 yards in the Wild Card game: he had 215 rushing yards in the entire 1984 regular season, and 99 in 1983. The suddenly stout Seattle rushing attack made up for Krieg’s anemic 4-for-10, 70 yard passing day. Still, a win, as they say, is a win.
Unfortunately for Seattle, revenge was also on the mind of the Miami Dolphins, whom the ‘Hawks shocked the year before at the Orange Bowl. Krieg and Marino, two of the AFC’s top passers, had remarkably similar stats: Marino 21-34 for 262; Krieg 20-35 for 234. But this time, Krieg’s production didn’t translate into points. Furthermore, Seattle’s 51 combined rushing yards weren’t enough to keep the ball out of Dan Marino’s hot hand, and Miami pulled away in the 3rd quarter to secure the game and a trip to the AFC Championship.
The Seahawks had some success after 1984 – Warner came back and made a couple of Pro Bowls, Easley continued to dominate until his career was cut short in 1987 by a kidney disease, the Seahawks, made consecutive playoff appearances again in 1987 and ’88. But Knox left after the ’91 season to return to the L.A. Rams. The Seahawks would not eclipse their 12-win season until 2005, with coach Mike Holmgren at the helm, bringing the team 13 wins and their first Super Bowl appearance – as an NFC team. But for those doing the wave in the Kingdome in the Reagan years, the ’83 and ’84 teams will always be special.