Originally Published: June 16, 2015
The Seattle Seahawks had their inaugural season in 1976. In that year, as chance would have it, the Seahawks played in the NFC West. See, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the other expansion team – bringing the NFL to a grand total of 28 teams – and in a cute bit of schedule-twerking, it was decided that the Seahawks and Buccaneers would square off as foes in each of their first two seasons, and they would face off one time against every other team in their respective conferences – flip-flopping conferences the next year – so ultimately the Bucs and Seahawks would play against every team in the NFL at least once in their first two years. The Seahawks would finish the 1976 season with a 2-12 record, good for second-worst (and, as a way to foreshadow some of their questionable GM moves of the late 80s and all of the 90s, the Seahawks would trade away their #2 overall pick, passing on the opportunity to draft Tony Dorsett, in order to move back and take a guard no one’s ever heard of).
Nevertheless, the 1977 Seahawks would improve to 5-9, as the combo of Zorn to Largent thrilled fans the region over. The Seahawks would post a winning record in 1978 and 1979 (both 9-7), but fail to make the playoffs each year (mostly due to the fact that only 5 teams made the playoffs, and also because the AFC was notoriously top-heavy and bottom-heavy, so you really needed to get 10 wins or more to be assured of a playoff spot). The Seahawks kind of bottomed out in 1980 and 1981, and were a non-factor in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
In 1983, the Seahawks hired Chuck Knox. Knox had previously coached the L.A. Rams to five consecutive division titles from 1973-1977. While his Rams teams never surpassed the NFC Championship Game, he parlayed his success into a bigtime deal with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills were somewhat of a power in the mid-60s, but weren’t much to speak of after the merger. They’d won 5 games combined in the two seasons prior to the Knox signing. He immediately equalled that amount in 1978 and had them winning their division in 1980 (though, again, playoff success eluded him). The Bills would make the playoffs again in 1981 as a Wild Card, losing in the Divisional Round. The Bills failed to make the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1982 season and that was that.
In case you’re unaware, 1983 was a pretty big deal for the NFL. With the capabilities of moving all the way up to #1, the Seahawks passed up on the following Hall of Famers: John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Bruce Matthews, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and Darrell Green. Any one of those players would’ve been a coup. Instead, the Seahawks took Curt Warner with the 3rd overall pick. He would be good, a local legend of sorts; and he’d go on to make three Pro Bowls. Had he not torn his ACL in his second season, and suffered numerous injuries along the way, he too may have been a Hall of Famer. As it stands, since I have no real ties to this Seahawks team or this Seahawks draft pick (I was 2 years old at the time), in hindsight it was pretty damn stupid. But, that’s neither here nor there.
The ’83 Seahawks were a team in transition in a lot of ways. Jim Zorn had been the primary signal caller since the team’s inception, but he’d lose his job to Dave Krieg at halftime of the team’s 8th game against the Steelers (completing 1 pass for 2 yards at that point). Krieg was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Seahawks as a third stringer in 1980. He’d been eating into Zorn’s snaps since 1981 and even overtook Zorn in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Knox, ever the loyalist to the veteran, made Zorn his starter going into 1983, but had to give Krieg the job when it was clear Zorn was no longer this team’s #1.
Krieg took that 4-4 team and led the Seahawks to 5 wins in their final 8 games. They finished second in the AFC West with a 9-7 record, tied with the Denver Broncos as the two Wild Card teams in the AFC that year. Rookie John Elway wasn’t the team’s full blown starter that year, but he was getting the bulk of the snaps down the stretch as the Broncos slid to a 3-4 finish. They opted to start Steve DeBerg against the Seahawks in this Wild Card game, who would be pulled partway through the 4th quarter, with the Broncos down 31-7. Elway would lead them to a couple of impressive drives that stalled at the goalline and that would end up being the final score.
Thanks to some cockamamie rule the NFL had in place, teams from the same division weren’t allowed to play one another in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Even though the word “Division” is right there in the title. Anyway, the #1 seed Raiders would get stuck playing the Pittsburgh Steelers. This Steelers team was trying to figure out how to play without all their stars from the 1970s and were easily handled by the Raiders. The Seahawks would have to go into Miami to play the surging Dolphins.
Rookie Dan Marino was also not a starter from the get-go. But, he was the starter in week 6, and he would start for them the rest of his career. Marino led the Dolphins to a 9-2 finish to end up as the 2-seed at 12-4. This Dolphins team was in the middle of a run that saw them go to the Super Bowl in 2 of 3 years, so they had the talent to go along with the rookie hall of fame quarterback. All they needed was to beat a plucky Seahawks team making its first-ever playoff appearance (and playing in only its second-ever playoff game), to go back to the AFC Championship game to get a crack at the Raiders.
The first quarter would end scoreless, but the Dolphins took their first possession of the second quarter into the endzone for a 6-0 lead (PAT blocked). A strong return on the subsequent kickoff had the Seahawks in Dolphins territory, which would end in a touchdown 6 plays later for a 7-6 lead. Marino took them right down the field on the next drive for a 13-7 lead, but the Seahawks couldn’t match as their potential scoring drive ended with a blocked field goal. The teams would go into halftime with the Dolphins leading by 6.
Marino gave them a clear advantage in the passing game, racking up 135 first half yards to Krieg’s 30. The defense was doing what it could – including a late-half interception to prevent the Dolphins from cashing in on their 2-minute offense – but the Seahawks would have to get something going on offense if they wanted to advance.
So, of course, the first drive of the second half ended with the Seahawks punting near midfield. A subsequent fumble by Miami’s running back gave the Seahawks a short field, and they took advantage for a 14-13 lead. The teams traded punts before Marino threw another interception to close out the third quarter.
The short field proved pivotal once again as the Seahawks cashed in with a field goal to go up 17-13. The teams traded punts before disaster: on first down, Krieg was intercepted, giving Miami the ball inside the red zone. The Dolphins quickly converted to take a 20-17 lead. With 3:43 to go in the game, the Seahawks took over on their own 34 yard line. After a couple short runs, Krieg hit Largent for 16 yards and 40 yards on back-to-back plays. Curt Warner would run it in from the two to let the Seahawks re-take the lead, at 24-20.
With less than two minutes to go in the game, the Dolphins did the unthinkable: they fumbled the kickoff. The Seahwks recovered, ran the ball three times for 8 yards, then kicked a field goal to go up 27-20. If you thought the previous fumble was unthinkable, get this: they fumbled AGAIN on the very next kickoff! I can’t imagine a more crushing way to lose a playoff game, except I guess I can think of a couple.
Which brings us to the AFC Championship Game. In their first-ever trip to the playoffs, the Seahawks were only one victory away from making the Super Bowl in the most improbable fashion. To do so, they’d have to go through the #1 seed – and consensus Best Team In Football that year – Los Angeles Raiders.
1983 was only the second year the Raiders had played their home games in L.A., having moved there from Oakland in 1982 (they would move back to Oakland in 1995). The top-seeded Redskins would be waiting in the Super Bowl, having bashed their way through the Rams and 49ers in the process.
Oddly enough, 2 of the 4 defeats the Raiders suffered in 1983 were at the hands of the Seahawks. Sandwiched around the Zorn Benching Game against the Steelers in mid-season, the Seahawks won at home 38-36, and on the road 34-21. So, you can forgive Seahawks fans if they thought a trip to the Super Bowl was all but guaranteed.
But, there’s just no way to make this game exciting: the Seahawks would lose 30-14. The Raiders raced out to a 20-0 halftime lead, with Krieg completing 3 of 8 passes for 12 yards and 2 interceptions. Likewise, the Seahawks were held to 25 yards rushing in an all-around ugly half of football.
Krieg was intercepted for a third time at the beginning of the second half and was replaced by Zorn. After a Raiders touchdown made it 27-0, Zorn would bring the Seahawks to within 27-7, but a late fourth quarter touchdown would be a moot point. Zorn also finished with 2 interceptions, for what it’s worth.
While the ending was bittersweet, everyone in the Pacific Northwest knew FOR SURE that this was just the beginning of something great. While the Chuck Knox tenure was an overall success, the team would only make the playoffs three more times under his stewardship. The Seahawks wouldn’t reach a conference championship game again until the 2005 season. Indeed, between this defeat and that Super Bowl XL run, the Seahawks would win all of one playoff game in those 21 years.
Just goes to show, you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot. Because you never know when your championship window is going to close. And you never know when or if it will open again.