The 1996 season had its memorable moments for the Seahawks. Defensive end Michael McCrary led the AFC with 13˝ sacks.
Safety Jay Bellamy set a franchise record with 34 coverage tackles on special teams.
For only the second time in a 15-season span, three players produced more than 100 tackles – linebackers Dean Wells (107), Winston Moss (106) and strong safety Robert Blackmon (102).
Defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy and defensive end Michael Sinclair were voted to the Pro Bowl – Kennedy for the sixth consecutive season Sinclair for the first of what would be three seasons in a row.
Wide receiver Joey Galloway averaged 17.3 yard on 57 receptions. While the reception total was then the lowest to lead the team in a 16-game season, his per-catch average was the highest since 1979 (18.7 by Steve Largent) and remains the third-highest in franchise history (19.4 by Largent in 1977).
As a team, the Seahawks had their only losing record (7-9) in Dennis Erickson’s four seasons as coach (they were 8-8 in the other three).
But it all pales when compared to the appalling events of that offseason. Because 1996 is the year then-owner Ken Behring tried to move the franchise to Southern California.
Behring’s slip-out-of-town maneuver wasn’t a dead-of-night affair, like when the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984. No, the Seahawks’ move – or at least the equipment from the weight room – took place on a Sunday morning. It was Feb. 4, 1996 two days after Behring announced his intention to relocate – with the first stop the Rams’ old training facility in Anaheim, where the players would eventually begin their offseason program.
“To all of a sudden see that happen, to see the love and the emotion and everything that was tied up in this franchise – because the fans did make this franchise what it was in those days – was not right,” said Gary Wright, then vice president of administration and communications.
Wright, who had been with the club since its inaugural season in 1976, was among those outside the back gate at the team’s old facility in Kirkland that Sunday morning.
“It was the worst day you could possibly imagine in this franchise’s history,” he said.
Because the Kirkland facility was closed and remained closed, Erickson and the player personnel staff were left to try and do business that was anything but usual from a hotel room in Bellevue.
These were the “Dark Days” for the franchise, as the headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer d above a Feb. 2, 2006, story about the 10th anniversary of the attempted move. As veteran fullback Mack Strong put it at the time, when the Seahawks were in Detroit preparing to play in the franchise’s first Super Bowl, “It was a very weird time.”
Indeed. It all had a happy ending, of course, as Paul Allen agreed that April to purchase an option to buy the team – which the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft did in June, 1997, after voters approved funding for a new stadium.
“My hometown had asked for help, and I wanted to respond, but I wasn’t about to go it alone,” Allen, who also owns the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA, wrote in “Idea Man,” his recently published memoir.
“Football is much more than a civic chore for me now. I’ve gotten hooked on the weeklong buildup to Sunday, to the point where I can’t tell you which I enjoy more, the Seahawks or the Blazers.”
But not even Allen’s intervention was enough to completely erase the bitter memories of those trying times – for the coaches, the players, the fans and even Behring’s son, David, who served as club president.
“It was a mess,” recalled Erickson, who now is coaching at Arizona State. “There’s just no other way to put it.”
With the coaches operating out of makeshift offices while at the Rams facility in Anaheim and an Eastside hotel while in Seattle, signing free agents became an experiment in futility.
“We were trying to bring guys in, not knowing if we were even going to be playing in Seattle – or where we might be playing,” Erickson said. “It was difficult, to say the least.”
Strong, who was with the team from 1993-2007, provided the player perspective, offering: “Everybody was apprehensive. There was just a big question mark hanging over us.”
Make that several question marks. “Everybody was wrestling with: Do we get our hearts ready to play down here? Back in Seattle? Do we move our families down here? Do we want to move our families down here?” Strong said. “It was just overwhelming at times.”
The support Allen and his allies were able to generate for the new venue that became Seahawks Stadium/Qwest Field was not there for Behring, who had purchased the franchise in 1988.
“My father felt there was never going to be any chance of a new stadium, or substantially remodeled stadium,” David Behring told the P-I in 2006. “He had a very poor response from the community and from the elected officials. So that was one of the main driving points of that whole deal.”
One of the oddest twists to this whole deal involved David Behring and the team’s best player – Kennedy, who balked at going to Anaheim because he had signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks. Kennedy’s action was viewed as beyond defiant by Behring, who fumed that the team leader was not displaying the kind of leadership ownership deemed appropriate.
“I was just doing what I felt was the right thing to do,” Kennedy later explained.
Late that season, Behring and Kennedy found themselves at midfield at the Kingdome, as the club president presented Kennedy with the Steve Largent Award trophy that has been voted annually since 1989 to the player who best exemplifies the spirit, dedication and integrity of the Seahawks.
It seemed a fitting end to a disjointed 1996 season that was like none other in franchise history because of the events of that offseason.