After their inaugural season ignited the imaginations and captured the emotions of football fans in the Pacific Northwest during 1976, the question facing the second-season Seahawks was simple: What could the 1977 team do for an encore?
Plenty, as it turned out, starting with the Seahawks being switched from the NFC West to the AFC West.
“Even in ’77, the fans were still excited about us being an expansion team because we showed promise,” said Sherman Smith, the leading rusher on that team who now coaches the running backs for the Seahawks. “People were starting to see that we had something going on.”
The Seahawks finished 5-9 in ’77, which doesn’t seem all that impressive until you start examining exactly what went into it. For starters, it was the best record ever posted in the NFL by a second-year team – and the 282 points they scored was another best-ever mark for a sophomore season.
They started 0-4, running their losing streak to nine in a row after the Seahawks dropped the final five games in a 2-12 first season. But they then went 5-5, providing a glimpse of what was to come.
One of those victories was a 56-17 romp over the Buffalo Bills at the Kingdome on Oct. 30. Two weeks later, the Seahawks posted their first shutout – 17-0 over the New York Jets, on the road. That score-early-and-often outing against the Bills on Halloween Eve was a spread-the-production example of the Seahawks’ “team” approach to their second season. Jim Zorn passed to Steve Largent for two touchdowns (48- and 31-yarders) and to wide receiver Duke Ferguson (37) and fullback Don Testerman (10) for two more. Zorn (4 yards), Smith (13 yards), David Sims (17) and Al Hunter (1) had rushing touchdowns. The Seahawks rolled up 559 yards in total offense. The defense intercepted Bills QB Joe Ferguson three times.
But the Seahawks also were shutout for the first time (31-0 by the Patriots in New England) and yielded 44 and 42 points in losses to the Raiders in Oakland and the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Growing pains, obviously, but also signs of growth under second-year coach Jack Patera.
“I am a Jack Patera fan,” Smith said. “I love Jack. You knew what he expected from you, and if you weren’t giving what he wanted he would let you know.
“He was very honest, and I loved his honesty.”
Smith then broke into a smile before adding, “Jack’s favorite line was, ‘I’ll put up with you until I can replace you.’ ”
Smith was in that spot after the 2-12 first season left the Seahawks with the second pick in the 1977 draft. But Patera and general manager John Thompson opted for multiple players rather than one star player. They traded the pick to the Dallas Cowboys, who selected running back Tony Dorsett (you might have heard of him).
In exchange, the Seahawks got the Cowboys’ first-round pick and three second-round choices – which were used to draft Steve August, who would start 91 games at right tackle over the next six seasons Tom Lynch, who sat as a rookie but then started at left guard for three seasons and middle linebacker Terry Beeson, who would lead the team in tackles as a rookie and for the next two seasons as well as add Ferguson, who was obtained from the Cowboys as the Seahawks traded a second-round pick back to Dallas.
The Seahawks would have to live with the stigma of that trade for years, as Dorsett went on to rush for 12,733 yards while running his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Smith looked at Patera’s decision to not take Dorsett as a vote of confidence for him, as well as Sims.
“To me, Jack was saying, ‘We don’t need to spend a first-round pick on a running back, Sherman can do the job,’ ” Smith said. “We had other needs more critical needs.”
Smith and Sims combined for 14 touchdowns – rushing and receiving – in ’77. But the focal points of the offense continued to be Zorn and Largent, who caught only 33 passes but averaged 19.4 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Only seven teams scored more than the Seahawks’ 282 points – each had a winning record, while five advanced to the playoffs.
“Jerry Rhome was very good at getting us in situations to take advantage of what we could do,” Smith said of the assistant coach who worked with the quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends in ’77 and would become the coordinator in ’78.
On defense, strong safety Autry Beamon delivered a 128-tackle, six-interception performance after being acquired for an eighth-round draft choice in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings. Beeson and second-year outside linebacker Sammy Green had 136 and 98 tackles. But no team in the league allowed more than the 373 points yielded by the Seahawks, as their first six losses were by an average of 22 points.
The points scored/points allowed discrepancy can be traced, in part, not to turnovers but turnover. While the offense returned with few changes from ’76, the ’77 defense had five new starters and four others playing different positions than they did the previous season – including Dave Brown, who moved from free safety to the right cornerback position he would man for the next nine seasons.
It was part of the building process that would take a giant step toward fruition in 1979.
“As a team, we definitely felt more like a team in ’77,” Smith said. “There was just more familiarity, with what the coaches wanted from us and with what the guy next to you would do on any given play. That first year, it was just getting ready to go and coming to training camp with more than 100 guys.
“So in ’77, it was a totally different feeling.”