Before the Julius Campbell and Gerry Bertier characters broke into their memorable “left side, strong side” slam-dance celebration in the 2000 movie “Remember the Titans,” that scene had been played out in the Seahawks’ locker room.
It happened in the final weeks of an otherwise forgettable 1998 season, when the Pro Bowl rosters were announced. Representing the Seahawks was not only left end Michael Sinclair, the NFL sack leader with 16˝, but also strong-side linebacker Chad Brown, who produced a team-leading 150 tackles and left cornerback Shawn Springs, who had a career-high seven interceptions.
When Sinclair learned that this trio had joined perennial choice Cortez Kennedy on the AFC squad, he cracked a sly smile and offered, “Left side, strong side.”
But even the strength of this left-side trio could not prevent the Seahawks from finishing a disappointing 8-8, and then-club president Bob Whitsitt from firing coach Dennis Erickson after four seasons and a 31-33 record.
“We’re kind of stuck at this 8-8 hurdle for the last four years,” Whitsitt said at the time. “And although that’s a good mark – it’s better than where the franchise was before Dennis got here and I do think he did a good job getting us there – we need to get over that hurdle, and there are a few more hurdles to get over.”
The conventional thought at the time was that a one-point loss to the New York Jets in Week 14 – when referee Phil Luckett mistook the white helmet of quarterback Vinny Testaverde for the ball in awarding the Jets a game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left in the game – had cost Erickson his job. The reality was that Whitsitt had decided to move in another direction before that game was ever played.
Whitsitt explained that he has reached the point where the Everett-born Erickson would either be fired with one year remaining on his contract, or have his contract extended.
“We chose to shake hands and move on,” Whitsitt said.
The decision did not leave the players shaking their heads.
“It wasn’t really surprising because it’s been talked about for months now,” former guard Brian Habib said on Dec. 28, when the talk turned into action. “It wasn’t surprising, but it was saddening.”
How did this happen? How did Erickson return home as a hero after leading the University of Miami to two national championships, only to have his dream job taken from him after just four seasons?
Springs provided part of the answer in the locker room at Mile High Stadium, after a season-ending 28-21 loss to the Denver Broncos.
“Please do not interview me. I will tell you the truth,” Springs began. After a pause, and some prodding, he did just that, “It should have been 45-0, Broncos. We stink. Some people quit. Some people played. It was obvious. You all saw it.” What was witnessed during Erickson’s final season were the same problems that had been obvious during his first three seasons: The Seahawks, despite being better, were not good enough to get over the hurdle that Whitsitt would mention the day after that final loss to the Broncos.
Was it fair to put it all on Erickson? Probably not. But you can’t fire all the players, so it’s the coach who usually goes.
“True enough, the players have to make plays and win,” defensive tackle Sam Adams said. “But all the weight of the team falls on the head coach’s shoulders. Right or wrong, that’s just the way it is.”
And that was the Seahawks in 1998.
When they were right, they could be downright dominating – like in the three-game winning streak to open the season, which included a 38-0 shutout of the Eagles in Philadelphia a 33-14 drubbing of the Arizona Cardinals at the Kingdome and a 24-14 win over the Washington Redskins, also at home.
But when things went wrong for the Seahawks that season, well, they could be downright dismal – like when they followed the three-game winning streak with back-to-back-to-back losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Broncos by scoring 10, 6 and 16 points.
The rest of the season followed that same jagged-edge pattern, as they never won more than two in a row or lost two in a row. Not bad, but not good enough, either.
Not in a season when the Seahawks had expected to make the playoffs for the first time since 1988 and post their first winning record since 1990. That didn’t happen, because the Seahawks were not good enough against the good teams. The combined record of the teams they beat was 46-82 (a winning percentage of .359). The combined record of the teams they lost to was 80-47 (.630).
As Brown put it, “Some teams know how to win. We know how to lose to winning teams.”
An offense that had ranked third in the league and topped the NFL in passing in 1997 slumped to 23rd overall and 24th in passing – despite free-agent addition Ricky Watters leading the club with 1,239 rushing yards, catching 52 passes and scoring nine touchdowns and Joey Galloway catching 65 passes for 1,047 yards and 10 TDs, and also scoring twice on punt returns.
The training-camp holdout by quarterback Warren Moon didn’t help. Neither did the fact that he missed the final five games because of cracked ribs. The offense averaged 27:05 time of possession, still third-lowest in franchise history. That will happen when 43 percent of your possessions last three plays or fewer.
The defense scored 10 touchdowns to lead the league, while punter Jeff Feagles paced the special teams by averaging 44.1 yards on 81 punts – with 27 downed inside the 20-yard line. But the defense also had 10 starters or key backups miss a combined 46 games because of injuries.
The most disappointing aspect in this season of unfulfilled expectations that cost Erickson his job?
“The fact that we were so talented and didn’t produce results,” said Brown, who was voted team MVP and also All-Pro after producing the second-highest number of tackles in franchise history – three shy of Terry Beeson’s club record from 1978.
“This year, my expectations were sky high. We just didn’t get it done. I was fooling myself, and that’s frustrating, too.”