As he always did after the Friday practice, and following a victory, Mike Holmgren gathered the players around him for the presentation of the game balls.
The offensive game ball from a Week 9 win over the Oakland Raiders in 2001 was a slam dunk. Shaun Alexander, after all, had rushed for a club-record 266 yards and three touchdowns, including a record-setting 88-yarder, in the 34-27 victory. But when Holmgren reached into the box to pull out the offensive game ball, the Seahawks’ third-year coach presented it to Walter Jones.
Before a look that screamed “huh” spread completely across Alexander’s usually smiling face, Holmgren explained that Alexander was being presented a special game ball for his club-record effort. But that the offensive game ball went to the team’s Pro Bowl left tackle because Jones had been the first lineman in the 22-year NFL career of line coach Tom Lovat to grade out perfect in the game. Perfection. Think about that for a minute: 66 offensive plays, and even more blocks than that for Jones, 42 running plays, 35 by Alexander, 23 pass plays, and only one sack of Matt Hasselbeck, 497 total yards, then the fourth-highest total in team history, no sacks allowed by Jones, or even a single pressure, not one missed block, or even a mental error, technique that was as close to flawless as Lovat had ever seen.
“As a coach, you’re looking for things a player might do wrong,” Lovat said at the time, shaking his head. But no matter how many times he reviewed the video of the game, “It was hard to find something wrong with Walt,” he added.
So there it was, the first perfect score ever handed out by Lovat: 9.0, on a scale where that grade signifies an All-Pro player (which Jones was that season) 8.0 is a Pro Bowl player (which Jones also was) and 7.0 is a good player you can win with (which Jones obviously was, and then some).
That perfect 9 came from a coach who also had worked with Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf and Luis Sharpe with the Cardinals and Chris Hinton with the Colts.
“This kid is in that class, and better,” Lovat said.
And “that class” combined for 15 Pro Bowl berths. Jones had hit nine by the time he retired.
“Walt very rarely has a bad game,” said Lovat, adding that Jones usually graded out near an 8 and might “slump” to 7.6 or 7.5 on a down day. “He’s so smooth he’s never out of position. It just looks too easy.”
Asked about that performance recently, Jones just smiled – in as easy sort of way.
“You don’t think about that when you’re in the game,” he said. “You’re just trying to play your best game. If you mess up, you just try to go to the next play. As the game goes on, you’re thinking only about the next play.”
Jones didn’t even allow himself those “look what I just did” thoughts after the game.
“You don’t think that after any game, because you’re very critical of yourself,” he said. “If somebody comes to you and says, ‘Hey, you played a great game,’ you always remember one or two plays you wish you could have back.
“That’s the approach I always took.”
Well, what about during the video session on Monday?
“Still the same,” Jones said. “I’m always critical of myself. Somebody else might watch a play and say, ‘That was a perfect this or a perfect that.’ But I still can look at it, critique it and say I could have done this better or done that better.”
Jones pitching perfection on that November evening at Husky Stadium wasn’t lost on his teammates, however.
“Walt was always good, but he was unbelievable that day,” Alexander said recently. “I’m running behind him and just watching the bodies fly. A couple of times, I almost stopped just to admire what he was doing. You know, ‘Did you just see what Big Walt just did to that guy?’ ”
But the 2001 season wasn’t all about one player, and one game – even one as great as Jones, who just happened to have a perfect game that season.
It also was a season of transition. From Ricky Watters to Alexander. From Jon Kitna to Hasselbeck. From Cortez Kennedy to John Randle. And from a so-so season in 2000 to a 9-7 record that would serve as the springboard for the most successful five-year run in club history (2003-07) – five consecutive playoff berths, four NFC West titles in a row and the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance.
Let’s start with Alexander. His breakout game against the Raiders was the foundation for what would be the first of five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons – 1,318, to be exact. And with 14 rushing touchdowns and two more as a receiver, Alexander became only the third non-kicker to lead the team in scoring (joining Steve Largent, 1977 and 1981 and David Sims, 1978). All of this because injuries limited Watters to four starts.
Hasselbeck became the quarterback after Holmgren orchestrated a trade with the Green Bay Packers in March to acquire Brett Favre’s backup. Holmgren made the move to get his handpicked passer because he had tired of Kitna, who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals during the offseason. Hasselbeck struggled through an injury-interrupted and, finally, injury-shorted first season as an NFL starter.
Randle, the former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman, was signed in March – five days before Kennedy was released. He would lead the team with 11 sacks while playing Kennedy’s old spot at right tackle.
The wider transition was the Seahawks improving by three wins from a 6-10 record in 2000. But even winning their final two games, three of the last four and six of the last nine left them just short of the playoffs. They needed the Minnesota Vikings to defeat the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in the final “Monday Night Football” game of the season to secure the AFC’s final wild-card playoff spot. The Vikings lost, 19-3.
“All night long, you just felt like the Vikings were one play away,” center Robbie Tobeck said after he and some teammates had gathered at an Eastside pub to watch the game – and witness the dashing of their postseason hopes. “But we’ve got to let this be a lesson. Next year, we can’t leave it to someone else. We need to make sure it’s in our hands.”
It wasn’t in their hands in ’01 because they let too many games slip between their fingers during a 3-4 start – including a 27-3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the first games played after 9/11. Hasselbeck was sacked seven times in that game, and six more times in a 38-14 loss to the Raiders in Oakland the following week. Hasselbeck emerged from the beatings with groin and shoulder injuries that would force him to sit out four starts – all victories with Trent Dilfer filling in.
But there were some milestone moments in this season that came up a yard or two short here and there.
In addition to Jones and Alexander, who also caught 44 passes, the offense featured rookie Steve Hutchinson at left guard, Tobeck at center and Chris Gray at right guard Darrell Jackson catching 70 passes for 1,081-yards and eight TDs and Dilfer winning games in Week 4 and 5 and 16 and 17.
On defense, the linebacker trio of Anthony Simmons (123), Chad Brown (106) and Levon Kirkland (101) finished 1-2-3 in tackles while Willie Williams contributed 68 tackles and a team-high four interceptions in 14 starts after being re-signed to be the third cornerback.
The special teams were a hit-and-miss adventure, as Jeff Feagles averaged 43.9 yards on 85 punts and dropped 26 of them inside the 20, while Alex Bannister blocked a punt and returned it for one touchdown and set up another by recovering a fumbled punt. But Rian Lindell made only 20 of his 32 field-goal attempts and the coverage units allowed a 90-yard kickoff return and an 86-yard punt return for scores.
Despite Jones’ perfect performance, which aided Alexander’s record-breaking performance, the Seahawks just weren’t consistent enough – unless you count being consistently inconsistent.
Or as Holmgren put it, “We’ve been on a rollercoaster ride this year.”