Almost 90,000 rabid Raiders fans shaking silver-and-black Mylar pom-poms. The Pointer Sisters, in full-length fur coats, belting out the National Anthem from midfield at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Lyle Alzado and his Raider teammates snorting and snarling in anticipation along the sideline.
The Seahawks’ only appearance in an AFC Championship game was 27 years ago, but the pre-game scene on that Sunday afternoon in January 1984 remains so vivid because it was such a watershed event in franchise history.
At one point, Glenn Drosendahl, then the sports editor at the old Journal-American, leaned over and whispered, “The only thing missing is Al Davis standing on the rim of the Coliseum waving in the flying monkeys. The Seahawks are toast.”
That they were. On the second play of the game, after stopping Cullen Bryant for a 1-yard gain, Alzado ripped the helmet from the head of Ron Essink and proceeded to bludgeon the Seahawks’ left tackle with it. The Seahawks wilted, and the Raiders waltzed, 30-14. The Seahawks had swept their AFC West rivals during the regular season, winning 38-36 at the Kingdome, as they forced eight turnovers, registered eight sacks and got a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown by Paul Johns and then 34-21 two weeks later in L.A. – in the first start of what would become the Dave Krieg era.
But in the rubber match, the Seahawks ran into da Raiders. The future Hall of Fame quartet of Marcus Allen, Howie Long, Mike Haynes and Ted Hendricks. Pro Bowlers Todd Christiansen, Lester Hayes, Henry Lawrence, Rod Martin, Van McElroy and Greg Pruitt. That Master of Mayhem Alzado. As well as Jim Plunkett and Matt Millen. There also was a tight end named Don Hasselbeck – whose oldest son, Matt, would grow up to become the most prolific passer in Seahawks history and a special teams standout named Derrick Jensen, now a scout for the Seahawks.
Johns, the receiver/returner on the team who is now the Seahawks’ assistant director of community outreach, remembers that day this way: “The Raiders didn’t intimidate us, because we played them all the time. But they just dominated us in that game, because they got the magnitude of the game and used their playoff experience. They upped their intensity.”
But what left an even more indelible impressive than the events of that day was what led to the Seahawks even being there. The Seahawks reaching the title game was an accomplishment for the ages by a band of who-are-these-guys players.
The first step occurred almost a year earlier – Jan. 26, 1983 – when Chuck Knox was hired to coach a team that had won 14 games the previous three seasons. With Knox came his “Ground Chuck” offense, so he orchestrated a move into the third spot in the draft to select Penn State running back Curt Warner – a trade with the Houston Oilers that cost the Seahawks their first-, second- and third-round picks. Knox then brought in a nucleus of veterans to help the returning players “learn how to win” – a group that included center Blair Bush, tight end Charle Young, guard Reggie McKenzie and Bryant.
All Warner did was rush for a conference-leading 1,449 yards and 13 touchdowns to earn AFC offensive player of the year honors. There also were the holdovers – future Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent, who caught 72 passes for 1,074 yards and 11 touchdowns and strong safety Kenny Easley and defensive end Jacob Green, who led an opportunistic defense with seven interceptions and 16 sacks, respectively.
But the move that helped make the season – not to mention Krieg’s career – came at midseason. With Jim Zorn struggling through a 10-quarter slump, Knox went to Krieg for the second half of a Week 8 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Knox stayed with Krieg, who engineered the upset of the Raiders in L.A. the following week and led the Seahawks to a 5-3 second-half record.
“You can’t say that was the key move, but it was another bold move,” said Johns – whose brother, Freeman, had played for Knox when he was coaching the Los Angeles Rams.
“Hiring Chuck was a bold move. Making the trade to get Curt was a bold move. Bringing in all those veterans who had been to war with Chuck was a bold move. But deciding to replace the franchise quarterback at midseason with this undrafted free agent who was from a college that no longer existed because he wanted a spark, that definitely was a bold move.”
After losing three of four during one stretch, however, the Seahawks needed wins over the New York Giants and New England Patriots in their final two regular-season games to even get into the playoffs. A 17-12 win at Giants Stadium was iced when right tackle John Tautolo was penalized for holding Green to nullify a fourth-down touchdown pass with 30 seconds to play.
“Jacob had been complaining the whole game: ‘Ref, he’s holding me. Ref, he’s holding me,’ ” said Johns, who led the Seahawks in receiving during the postseason with 11 catches for 168 yards – compared to eight for 157 for Largent.
“Jacob stayed on the ref, kind of like in a basketball game. And when we really needed it, they called it – finally.” After the game, fullback David Hughes wandered through the locker room repeating, “Win one, we’re in. Win one, we’re in.”
That win came the following week at the Kingdome, a 24-6 thumping of the Patriots that put the Seahawks into the postseason for the first time – a Christmas Eve matchup with the Denver Broncos, also at the Kingdome. Another impressive performance – 31-7 – sent the Seahawks to Miami to face the 12-4 Dolphins. The Killer B’s, as they were known, because their defense featured Doug Betters, Bob Baumhower, Kim Bokamper, Bob Brudzinski, Charles Bowser and the Blackwoods – Glenn and Lyle.
But the Dolphins featured a wealth of talent on offense, as well – rookie QB Dan Marino throwing to Mark Duper and Nat Moore and a line that included Pro Bowlers Dwight Stephenson, Bob Kuechenberg and Ed Newman opening holes for Tony Nathan and Andra Franklin. Oh, and some coach named Don Shula.
Gulp, double gulp and triple gulp.
Trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks rallied for 10 points in the final two minutes to pull out a 27-20 upset. Krieg passed for 16 yards to Largent on a third-and-2 play and then for 40 yards to the Dolphins’ 2 – Largent’s only catches in the game – to setup a scoring run by Warner. Sam Merriman recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and it led to a 37-yard field goal by Norm Johnson.
That remains the only time the Seahawks have won a road game in the postseason, and it set the stage for that wild afternoon in L.A. the following weekend – a loss that actually was a victory, just because the Seahawks actually got to the conference title game in a season where everything that happened was so improbable.
“The whole season, leading up to that AFC Championship game, was just amazing how we came together,” Johns said. “We weren’t expected to do anything, but we really came together under Chuck.
“It was really a magical year.”