The Seahawks’ 1990 season was just another year with a 9-7 record – one of five with that record in the team’s first 15 seasons, not to mention the most common record (nine times) in the franchise’s 35 seasons.
Or was it? While the record might have been redundant, the performance of the defense was redoubtable. The ’90 season started a three-season span where the Seahawks were the only team in the NFL to rank among the Top 10 in defense each year: ninth in ’90 eighth in 1991 and tied for 10th in 1992.
But 1990 might have been the best, because the Seahawks also ranked 10th against the run and 11th against the pass – compared to 15th and 10th in 1991 and 20th and fourth in 1992.
Give a lot of the credit to coordinator Tom Catlin, because his players did – and still do. Especially in 1990, when the Seahawks switched from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 alignment after selecting tackle Cortez Kennedy with the third pick in the NFL Draft.
“Tom would always say, ‘Save your questions until the end,’ ” Dave Wyman, a middle linebacker on the ’90 team and now a radio analyst for the Seahawks, said recently. “Not that anyone ever asked a question, because he explained everything so thoroughly.
“But one time I actually asked a question. And he said, ‘Good question, Dave.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ Because he was just amazingly detailed and just the way he taught was so thorough. What he had us doing was just so sound. That’s why we were as good as we were.”
Which was pretty darn good. Just 10 teams allowed fewer points than the Seahawks (286) in 1990, but six of the 32 touchdowns they surrendered where on returns (four on fumble recoveries, two on punts). So only six defenses allowed fewer TDs than the Seahawks: Giants (21), Steelers (22), 49ers and Chiefs (24) and Dolphins and Raiders (25). All but the Steelers won at least 11 games and advanced to the playoffs.
The Seahawks allowed 17 or fewer points 11 times, and 10 or fewer three times.
The defense that did all this was a mix of the old (linemen Jacob Green, Joe Nash and Jeff Bryant) the new (draft choices Kennedy, Terry Wooden and Robert Blackmon) the borrowed (strong safety and leading tackler Nesby Glasgow) and the in between (Eugene Robinson, Dwayne Harper, Patrick Hunter, Tony Woods and Wyman).
Green led the club with 12½ sacks, in his next-to-last season with the Seahawks. Robinson had 82 tackles – one less than Glasgow – and three interceptions to share the team lead with Harper.
But Catlin also had to overcome a rash of injuries to his linebackers that claimed, at one time or another, Wyman (eight games), Darren Comeaux (eight games), Wooden (eight games) and Rufus Porter (four games) – leaving Catlin to start Joe Cain and Dave Ahrens, who had been signed during the season.
“That’s a good testament to Tom Catlin,” Wyman said. “He just plugged them into that defense and everybody knew what to do. Tom was just so good at getting people ready and coaching them up.”
The ’90 season also featured one of the most memorable plays in franchise history. It happened on Nov. 11 at Arrowhead Stadium, when QB Dave Krieg somehow whirled away from what appeared to be an eighth sack by the Chiefs’ Derrick Thomas and fired a 25-yard pass to Paul Skansi, who made a leaping catch in the end zone as time expired to tie the score at 16 – at a venue where the Seahawks had not won since 1980.
Said Thomas: “I thought I had him. He just stumbled back and caught his balance and threw the pass.”
Said Skansi, who made eye contact with Krieg just as the QB spun from Thomas: “The defense dictates who Dave goes to. I saw Dave scrambling. I saw the ball leave his hand. I just went up and made the catch.”
Said Krieg: “He skied. Paul wanted it. He had his body between the defenders and the ball. He did what he had to do to make the catch we had to have.”
But Norm Johnson still had to get the Seahawks to 17 by kicking the PAT. The snap from Grant Feasel was high, but holder Jeff Kemp got the ball down in time for Johnson to win it.
Leave it to coach Chuck Knox to tie the appropriate frazzled bow on the upset of the Chiefs by offering, “It was a very strange game. I don’t know how many more like this I can take.”
Be careful what you don’t wish for, because the Seahawks’ next three games also were decided on the final play: a 24-21 loss to the Vikings, who won on a 24-yard field goal as time expired a 13-10 win over the Chargers, courtesy of a 40-yard field goal from Johnson three minutes into overtime and a 13-10 win over the Oilers, on a 42-yarder by Johnson in overtime after Wyman had recovered a Woods-forced fumble.
The offense had other memorable efforts that season, as well. Do-it-all fullback John L. Williams did just that, leading the team with 73 receptions and adding 714 rushing yards while being named team MVP and voted to his first Pro Bowl. Derrick Fenner, a 10th-round draft choice in 1989, ran for 14 touchdowns and added a 15th as a receiver – totals that lead the AFC and set club records. Krieg passed for 3,194 yards and 15 TDs, but also threw 20 interceptions.
Fenner’s TDs came in bunches: three in a Week 3 loss to the Broncos three more the next week against the Bengals in the Seahawks’ first victory of the season and two in a season-ending win over the Lions.
One of the defense’s finest hours – or three hours, if you will – came in a 20-14 win over the Packers in Milwaukee. The Seahawks set club records by holding the Packers to zero rushing first downs and 13 rushing yards.
Another was the three-point win over the Oilers in overtime. And again, the players point to Catlin, who left the Seahawks after the 1995 season and died in 2008 at the age of 76.
“We didn’t get in the playoffs that year because the Steelers couldn’t beat the Oilers on the final Sunday night of the season,” Wyman said. “Warren (Moon, the Hall of Fame QB) was hurt and the Oilers had Commander Cody Carlson playing quarterback. And they beat Pittsburgh (34-14).
“I remember watching that game going, ‘All the Steelers had to do was look at our film (from Week 13).’ Because Tom Catlin had had this ‘42’ defense he came up with. We were showing six in the box and then just sprinting out of there. Just the way we played zone defense is something I still try to teach the kids today.
“That’s what allowed us to shut down that run-and-shoot offense. And I remembered being so (perturbed), going, ‘Man, all Pittsburgh had to do was look at our film.’ Because we really shut them down, and that was with Warren.”
Catlin was a beyond-no-nonsense, tougher-than-nails throwback. He had played linebacker for Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma. He played in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, and then coached in the league for the Dallas Texans, Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and Seahawks.
In his 1988 autobiography, “The Boz,” former Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth referred to Catlin as “the most serious man on the planet.” That’s because coaching football, and getting his players to play it the right way, was serious business to Catlin.
“I was admittedly naïve coming out of Stanford,” said Wyman, a second-round draft choice in 1987. “I was buddies with my coaches there. We were all friends. Then I get to the NFL and Tom Catlin is just as dry as can be.”
“It was tough. You know it’s a business and everything, but it just seemed kind of cold to me.”
Warm to the notion that you’d just made a good play, and Catlin could ice the idea with one of his stoic stares.
“It was tough in the beginning, because this guy didn’t even talk or anything,” Wyman said. “But by the time my career was over, that was the one thing I probably appreciated about him the most – it was all about football.”
And in 1990, while the Seahawks weren’t entirely all about defense, the defense was the best part of a 9-7 season that would be the team’s last winning record until 1999.