Chuck Knox’s career as coach of the Seahawks was over before it actually ended.
The popular and successful coach was officially fired on Dec. 27, 1991, but the unraveling of his ninth – and final – season with the team began long before the team ever played its first game, let alone its last.
“There was all kinds of writing on the wall,” tight end Mike Tice said at the time. “The feeling was there the entire year.” But why? How could the franchise turn its back on the coach who had led the Seahawks to their first playoff appearance in his first season with the team (1983) and also their first division title (1988)?
Call it a clash of strong personalities between Knox – who was old school, yet still cool – and owner Ken Behring. After the Seahawks’ early success under Knox, the team never won more than nine games in his final five seasons. His philosophy had morphed into keeping games as close as possible and then trying to make a play to win them in the fourth quarter.
Behring wanted more bang for his buck, not bang the drum slowly.
The opposite way they viewed things – this longtime NFL coach and this first-time NFL owner – was never more obvious than on Draft Day that year. With Knox hoping to land a linebacker in the first round to help his defense – or Brett Favre, if the team was to select a quarterback – Behring and club president Tom Flores opted for Dan McGwire.
The difference in opinion – and approach – was apparent after the Seahawks selected the 6-foot-8 quarterback from San Diego State. The year before, when the first-round pick was defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, Knox’s giddiness immediately after the selection was obvious as he talked with reporters. After McGwire was picked, Flores and Behring appeared to discuss the virtues of the selection – with Knox nowhere to be seen.
Flash forward to Week 5, when Knox was informed that the owner wanted to see his newest player actually play. Knox started McGwire against the Indianapolis Colts at the Kingdome. But, despite leading 17-3, Knox pulled McGwire at halftime in favor of veteran backup Jeff Kemp.
“Well, I just felt that at that point I wanted to put the experienced guy in there,” Knox said after the game of switching to Kemp, who had been starting because Dave Krieg broke his thumb in a season-opening loss to the Saints in New Orleans. “That was the reason that I made that decision.”
Later that season, it became clear just how much that decision had chaffed Behring. Before a Week 15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the Kingdome, Behring was overheard on the sideline telling associates, “I’m not going through this again next year. There are players on the bench that should be playing.”
The situation became so irreparable that the question in the press box during the season finale against the Los Angeles Rams at the Kingdome was whether Knox would exit the field through the tunnel that led to the Seahawks locker room or depart via the other one used by the Rams – the first NFL team he coached, the team that was most interested in him again, and the team he rejoined after being let go by the Seahawks.
It was a messy end to what at times had been a magical matching for Knox and the Seahawks.
But even with that 23-9 win over the Rams, the Seahawks finished 7-9 after dropping five of their final seven games.
Knox was on his way back to L.A. Flores was on his way back to coaching after a three-season absence. Behring was simply relieved.
“My philosophy is you play to win. Chuck’s philosophy is a little more to play not to lose,” Behring said after Flores was announced as the new coach on Jan. 6, 1992. “The end result is the same, but there’s a little difference in philosophy.”
Knox’s final season was as uneven as it was awkward. The team lost three of its first four games, only to win four of the next five. Then came the 2-5 limp to the inevitable.
The events that played out on the field, however, were not a complete loss.
After a disappointing rookie season, Kennedy showed glimpses of how good a player he was – and how great a player he would become. He was voted to the first of what would be eight Pro Bowl berths after collecting 67 tackles, 6½ sacks and making more of an impact than those stats would indicate.
Free safety Eugene Robinson had a 91-tackle, five-interception season and was voted the team MVP, leading a unit that allowed 261 points – eighth fewest in the league. Linebacker Terry Wooden, another member of that 1990 draft class, led the team with 105 tackles after sitting out the second half of his rookie season with a knee injury that required surgery. Rufus Porter, the other outside ’backer, had 10 sacks. Cornerback Dwayne Harper contributed four interceptions and 24 passes defensed.
Fullback John L. Williams paced an offense that scored only 276 points – fifth fewest in the AFC – by leading the team in rushing (741 yards) and was second in receptions (61) to wide receiver Brian Blades (70). The double duty earned Williams his second Pro Bowl berth.
On special teams, rookie kicker John Kasay scored a team-high 102 points and Rick Tuten averaged a club-record 43 yards on 49 punts after being signed as an injury replacement when Rick Donnelly’s back went out and Alex Waits’ leg went out. Chris Warren also was doing his thing – averaging 22.6 yards returning kickoffs to rank third in the AFC and 9.3 on punts to rank fourth, as well as sharing the team lead with 12 coverage tackles – while waiting his turn to become the team’s next 1,000-yard rusher.
The highlight moments in what turned out to be a lowlight of a season included: Blades catching 12 passes for 160 yards and two TDs in the season opener Warren returning a punt 59 yards for a TD, the Seahawks’ first since 1986, in the win over the Colts Harper and safety Nesby Glasgow making a stop on a fourth-and-1 play with 29 seconds left to ice a 13-7 win over the Bengals at Cincinnati Krieg completing 25 of 31 passes and throwing for two TDs in his first game back, a 27-7 win over the Steelers at Pittsburgh Kasay tying a NFL record by kicking two 50-plus field goals (54 and 51 yards) in a 20-9 win over the San Diego Chargers at the Kingdome Porter collecting a trio of sacks in a 13-10 upset of the eventual division champion Denver Broncos at the Kingdome and the defense holding the Rams without a TD, while running back James Jones scored twice, in the season finale.
But the most memorable event of the ’91 campaign was Knox coaching his final season with the Seahawks, and no one being surprised about it because of the way events had played out during the season and even the offseason.
“Because of the obvious,” as Flores put it, “which makes everything else anti-climatic.”