The Seahawks’ first division title was 13 years in the making, and then took all 16 games in that 13th season to accomplish.
It was 1988, and the Seahawks left for their final regular-season game against the Raiders in Los Angeles needing a victory to finish 9-7 and capture the AFC West championship. The week before, the Seahawks had thumped Denver 42-14 at the Kingdome to hand the Broncos their eighth loss – and set the stage for what turned out to be a very wild finale at the L.A. Coliseum.
“It was a great feeling to win the division title for the first time,” Steve Largent, a captain on the ’88 team, said recently. “It was a lot of fun to finally win a division title.”
The Raiders compiled 441 offensive yards and 37 points on that cloudy Sunday afternoon. But the Seahawks were even better, if just barely. Norm Johnson kicked five field goals. Dave Krieg threw four touchdown passes to Brian Blades (two), John L. Williams and Largent, as the offense rolled up 490 yards. The defense withstood one final barrage from QB Jay Schroeder, as his final three passes fell incomplete – two in the end zone – after the Raiders had reached the Seahawks’ 45-yard line with 35 seconds left in regulation. The defensive line of Jacob Green, Joe Nash and Jeff Bryant – collectively known as the DieHards – led the try-hard, just-enough effort by combining for 20 tackles and two sacks.
“Dave Krieg just couldn’t miss that day,” Largent said of Krieg passing for 410 yards. “And we needed everything he had, because the Raiders were scoring just as fast as we were.”
After Schroeder’s 49th – and final – pass fell to the turf in the end zone, Krieg trotted out to take a knee as the final six seconds ticked off the clock. The Seahawks finally had their division title, but only after overcoming so much in the nine months that preceded it.
“I feel good about the way the football team responded to the things that happened to us during the year,” coach Chuck Knox said at the time. “I thought our football team did a good job of holding the bits and pieces together.”
Those bits and pieces should not have comprised a championship season, no matter how many ways they were aligned and with how much force:
In April, strong safety Kenny Easley, the most dominant defensive player in the team’s first 12 seasons, was traded to the Phoenix Cardinals for QB Kelly Stouffer. But Easley failed his physical when the Cardinals team doctor discovered a kidney ailment that would force Easley to retire.
In July, the Nordstrom family paved the way for the sale of the team by purchasing the remaining 49 percent interest from the minority owners.
In August, and in order, the release of Brian Bosworth’s autobiography, “The Boz: Confessions of a Modern Anti-Hero,” ignited bonfires of controversy and forced the once-outspoken linebacker into a self-constructed cocoon erratic wide receiver Daryl Turner, who had scored 30 touchdowns from 1984-86, was traded to the Cleveland Browns only to fail his physical it was announced that the Nordstrom family was selling the team to Northern California land developer Ken Behring and starting cornerback Terry Taylor became the first Seahawk to be suspended for violating the league’s drug policy.
It was a series of serious events which prompted Paul Moyer, Easley’s replacement at strong safety, to dub the Seahawks “Team Adversity” entering their regular-season opener at Denver against the Broncos – and QB John Elway, a favorite target for Bosworth’s verbal shots in his book.
But, as it turned out, the what-can-happen-next gods were just beginning to frown on the Seahawks.
Prior to that opener in Denver, Bryant ended his 41-day holdout by signing a new contract, while disgruntled Pro Bowl linebacker Fredd Young pulled a no-show for the team flight. Young was traded to the Indianapolis Colts four days later for a pair of first-round draft choices. During the game at Mile High Stadium, Largent received a concussion, eye injury and twisted knee on a brutal hit by Broncos free safety Mike Harden.
But the Seahawks prevailed 21-14, and gained some revenge after losing their ’87 opener to the Broncos in Denver 40-17. “It’s probably one of the most emotional wins I’ve ever had,” Moyer said after the game. “Just because we’ve been waiting all year for this game and we’ve gone through so much in (training) camp. Like I’ve said, we play well with adversity and we proved it today.” But the adversity bug wasn’t done biting the Seahawks.
In a Week 3 loss to the Chargers in San Diego, they lost Krieg for the next seven games when the quarterback separated his left shoulder in the fourth quarter. That forced Stouffer to step in, and he was 4-3 in Krieg’s absence.
In October, Bosworth finally had arthroscopic surgery to remove a piece of cartilage from his left shoulder after he had problems wrapping up ball carriers for five games and cornerback Patrick Hunter suffered a lacerated kidney when his car rolled down a steep hill and he missed the next five games.
Not exactly the kind of events that should translate into the Seahawks’ first division title. But win the West they did, before losing to the Bengals in Cincinnati 21-13 in a divisional playoff game.
The title-worthy performances came from the expected, as well as the unexpected.
Williams was voted team MVP after compiling 1,528 combined yards rushing (877) and receiving (651 on a team-leading 58 receptions), which was second only to the Colts’ Eric Dickerson (2,036) in the AFC. Williams also became the first player other than Largent to lead the team in receptions, and he scored on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard pass.
“It’s pretty obvious this has been my most productive year the stats show that,” the man who gave new meaning to the term full-back said at the time. “But I just want the team to keep going. I’m just glad I’m a big part of this offense.”
So big, that Warner started referring to Williams as “The Big Man.” And Williams also helped the team keep going by throwing punishing lead blocks for Warner, who had what would be the fourth – and final – 1,000-yard season of his too-short career with the Seahawks.
Punishing blocks? “I’ve seen him knock mouth pieces out,” guard Bryan Millard said.
Warner also scored 12 touchdowns, including four in the Week 15 romp over the Broncos. The team averaged 130.4 rushing yards per game, and Williams 4.6 per carry, with the line of Ron Mattes, Edwin Bailey, Blair Bush, Millard and Mike Wilson, as well as tight end Mike Tice, paving the way.
The rematch with the Broncos at the Kingdome also was memorable because Largent got even – and then some – with Harden for his concussion-causing hit in the opener. After Harden intercepted a Krieg pass in the second quarter, Largent launched himself into the Broncos’ safety, sending Harden flying like a rag doll.
“I was down (on the turf),” Tice said after the game. “But I heard it. He hit him as good as I’ve seen any linebacker since Dick Butkus.”
Largent smiled when asked about the payback collision before offering, “It wasn’t a matter of who it was. It’s just funny it worked out that way. It couldn’t have happened any more perfectly. It obviously wasn’t premeditated. It was just kind of a Walt Disney type of situation, storybook.
“I was definitely trying to hit him as hard as I possibly could.”
Krieg, meanwhile, threw 18 TD passes, compared to only eight interceptions, in his nine starts – including eight to rookie wide receiver Brian Blades. And Krieg returned from his stint on the sideline playing as if he had something to prove – which he did because of Stouffer’s arrival.
In his first game back, Krieg engineered a 10-play drive to set up Johnson’s game-winning field goal with one second remaining in a 27-24 victory over the Houston Oilers – the team that had knocked the Seahawks out of the playoffs in 1987. In a 35-27 win over the Raiders on “Monday Night Football” at the Kingdome, Krieg threw five TD passes, while Warner (130) and Williams (105) became the first Seahawks tandem to surpass 100 rushing yards in the same game.
On defense, free safety Eugene Robinson had the first of his four 100-tackle seasons, while Green contributed a team-high nine sacks and Moyer paced the unit with six interceptions. Linebacker Dave Wyman finished second in tackles with 97 – 17 fewer than Robinson, who would go on to become the franchise’s all-time leading tackler.
On special teams, Rufus Porter led the unit with 16 coverage tackles and was voted to the Pro Bowl. Johnson hit 22 of 28 field-goal attempts in scoring 105 points. Rueben Rodriguez had the best of his three seasons with the Seahawks, averaging 40.8 yards on 70 punts. Bobby Joe Edmonds contributed a 65-yard kickoff return, while averaging 22.5 yards and a 41-yard punt return, while averaging 9.7 yards.
But the Seahawks avoided being a .500 team by winning that final game against the Raiders – despite putting up breakeven numbers in points scored, 339-329 touchdowns, 39-38 rushing touchdowns, 14-14 receiving touchdowns, 22-21 and even return touchdowns, 3-3. That win over the Raiders proved to be even more significant in hindsight, because the playoff spot that went with the division title would be the Seahawks’ last until the 1999 season.
“It’s like your first kiss,” Largent said. “The first time you win the AFC West, it’s awfully exciting.”