“We want the ball, we’re going to score.”
How could eight little words – uttered in jest by the Seahawks’ No. 8 – reverberate from Green Bay, to Seattle and even to Honolulu?
That will happen when the utterer is quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and the utterance takes place after the coin flip in the Seahawks’ wild-card playoff game against the Packers at Lambeau Field – and referee Bernie Kukar’s mic was still on.
That did happen to Hasselbeck in the final game of the Seahawks’ 2003 season, with the score deadlocked at 27 on a chilly afternoon in early January of 2004. The Seahawks had scored with 51 seconds left in regulation to tie the game – on a 1-yard run by Shaun Alexander that capped a seven-play, 67-yard drive. They then won the coin flip. Hasselbeck leaned in to take what he thought was a friendly jab at former teammate, and still friend, Ryan Longwell – the Packers’ kicker and a co-captain who also was at midfield for the coin flip.
But in addition to Longwell, his words were audible to everyone at Lambeau and anyone watching on TV.
To say Hasselbeck heard about his confident pronouncement definitely was the understatement of the season, and early offseason. “That’s all I get, ‘Oh, you’re thatguy,’ ” Hasselbeck said a few weeks later after a Pro Bowl practice.
He got it after the game against the Packers, which ended the Seahawks’ season. He got it on his flight to Hawaii. He got it from his NFC teammates once he arrived in Hawaii.
The fact that the Seahawks did get the ball, but did not score, only increased the volume. The fact that it was the Packers who scored – when cornerback Al Harris intercepted Hasselbeck’s pass that was intended for Alex Bannister and return it 52 yards for the game-ending score – took it to a deafening level.
“If I could change anything, we would have scored,” Hasselbeck said.
But not the belief behind his words.
“Would I do it again? Probably not,” he said. “But I do believe it 100 percent, and do I believe in our ability to score on pretty much anybody now? I do.”
That’s because the Seahawks had done exactly that during a regular season that saw them finish 10-6. With Alexander scoring 16 touchdowns and 19 more coming from the receiving trio of Darrell Jackson (nine), Bobby Engram (six) and Koren Robinson (four), the Seahawks scored 404 points – third most in franchise history. The only NFC teams to score more that season were the St. Louis Rams (447), Packers (442) and Minnesota Vikings (416).
So words alone – even the infamous eight offered by No. 8 – cannot truly convey what the Seahawks accomplished in 2003.
They advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and only the second time since 1988. They posted double-digit victories for the first time since 1986, when they also were 10-6. They sent five players to the Pro Bowl – with left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson joining Hasselbeck, Alexander and Bannister, who went as the special teams player on the NFC roster.
“Just being here and watching all these other players, I’m starting to really realize just how good our team is,” Alexander said after the Pro Bowl game. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if we keep everybody together, we’re going to do some great things.”
Prophetic read by Alexander, as ’03 was the start of a five-season stretch where the Seahawks would advance to the playoffs each season, win four NFC West titles, capture the NFC Championship and play in the Super Bowl for the only time in franchise history. But ’03 was the first step toward those “great things” Alexander spoke of.
There were some not-so-great hiccups along the way – like a 22-point, post-bye loss to the Packers at Lambeau in Week 5, which snapped the Seahawks’ season-opening three-game winning streak a devastating 44-41 overtime loss to the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 12, when the Seahawks had led by 17 in the fourth quarter and back-to-back losses to the Vikings in Minnesota (34-7) and Rams in St. Louis (27-22) in Weeks 14-15.
But the team, and the players, found ways to more than compensate – like going 8-0 at home for the first time in franchise history and 5-1 against their division opponents.
That perfect slate at Seahawks Stadium started with a 27-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, the Seahawks’ first season-opening win at home since 1986. The team’s first shutout since 1998 came the next week against the Cardinals in Arizona, as rookie free safety Ken Hamlin had a hand – and helmet – in four of the Seahawks’ six takeaways.
A Week 7 win over the Chicago Bears gave the Seahawks the best start in franchise history (5-1). And in a 34-7 romp over the Cleveland Brown in Week 13, the Seahawks had a 300-yard passer (Hasselbeck), 100-yard rusher (Alexander) and two 100-yard receivers (Robinson and Jackson) in the same game for the first time.
This also was the season the tradition of raising the 12th Man flag in the south end zone prior to kickoff began, when 12 original season ticket holders ran it up the flagpole for an Oct. 12 game against the San Francisco 49ers. Since then, the list of flag raisers has included former players, led by six who are in the team’s Ring of Honor – Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy (twice), Dave Krieg, Kenny Easley, Curt Warner and Jacob Green former coaches and front-office executives – Chuck Knox, Jack Patera and Mike McCormack owners past (John Nordstrom) and present (Paul Allen) Olympians Apolo Ohno and Hope Solo Mariners Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Ichiro and other dignitaries – Don James, Lenny Wilkens, Gary Payton, Jim Whittaker, Kasey Keller, J.P. Patches and the late Dave Niehaus.
The performances of the players, and therefore the team, only fueled the 12th Man mania.
Alexander had his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season (1,435) and scored at least 16 TDs for the third season in a row, thanks in large part to the blocks thrown by Jones, Hutchinson, center Robbie Tobeck, right guard Chris Gray and right tackle Chris Terry. Jackson had 1,137 yards on 68 receptions to go with his nine TD catches, while Engram added an 83-yard punt return for a score to go with his six receiving TDs. Hasselbeck passed for 3,841 yards and 26 TDs, both career highs at the time, while becoming the first Seahawks QB to start all 16 games since Rick Mirer in 1993.
The defense, in its first season under coordinator Ray Rhodes, got 100 tackles from linebacker Anthony Simmons, who led the team for a third – and final – time. Strong safety Reggie Tongue topped the unit in interceptions (four) for the second consecutive season. Linebacker Chad Brown had seven sacks among his 86 tackles, despite practicing only once a week because of the severe foot injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the second half of the 2002 season. Rookie cornerback Marcus Trufant, the team’s first-round draft choice, broke up 20 passes and also had 78 tackles.
On special teams, Bannister earned his Pro Bowl berth by making 18 coverage tackles and downing five of Tom Rouen’s punts inside the 10-yard line, while rookie kicker Josh Brown scored 114 points.
As Chad Brown put it after the breakthrough season, “We’ve definitely taken strides, and we’re so much better than we were a year ago. There’s a lot of positives we can take out if this season.”
Including those optimism-inducing eight little words that were spoken by No. 8 just before the Seahawks’ final play of the 2003 season.