It was a season that began with renewed hope and ended in the most unexpected way.
Who knew that when Chuck Knox was hired on Jan. 26, 1983, to coach the Seahawks that his first season would not end until Jan. 8, 1984, and with a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC title game.
“I don’t think there was an expectation there that we were going to win a couple games at the end and then end up where we did,” said Blair Bush, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Cincinnati Bengals to be the center on Knox’s first team.
Those couple of wins at the end of the regular season came against the Giants at Giants Stadium and then the New England Patriots at the Kingdome. They allowed the Seahawks to finish 9-7 and earn a wild-card playoff berth – making them the first playoff team in franchise history.
But what followed was even more stunning. The first playoff team in Seahawks history then won the franchise’s first playoff game by knocking off the Denver Broncos 31-7 in that wild-card game at the Kingdome, on Christmas Eve no less. That sent the Seahawks to Miami for a divisional playoff game against the defending AFC Champion Dolphins and all that entailed – Don Shula, Dan Marino, the Killer B’s defense.
As Michael Wilbon wrote in the Washington Post the day before that game: “Marino drives to work every morning in a new gold Corvette that matches his hair and arm. (Dave) Krieg, signed as a free agent, comes in a Pinto.”
A double-digit underdog, the Seahawks pulled out a 27-20 victory.
“When we came down here, nobody gave us a chance,” Knox said at the time. “They thought we were going to be blown out. Even after the Dolphins went ahead late in the fourth quarter, I thought we could come back. Our whole bench thought we could come back. We have been coming back like that all season. I can’t tell you how proud I am of this team.”
The upset of the Dolphins upset the NFL apple cart, as it sent the Seahawks to Los Angeles the following week to play the Raiders in the AFC Championship game. The Seahawks lost 30-14. But as with the 2005 run to the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance that also ended in disappointment, it was the ride that made the 1983 season so memorable.
That Seahawks’ first playoff team is being honored at halftime of Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at CenturyLink Field on the 30th anniversary of its unexpected accomplishments. And there’s even a historical symmetry with today’s opponent, as the Seahawks and Buccaneers entered the NFL as expansion franchises in 1976.
The best place to start in chronicling that ’83 season is at the beginning.
Knox inherited a team that had been stocked with talent by former general manager John Thompson and the coach Knox was replacing, Jack Patera – who had been fired during the strike-shortened 1982 season and replaced on an interim basis by Mike McCormack, who became the team’s general manager.
There was wide receiver Steve Largent, who was eight seasons into what would become a Hall of Fame career. There was Jim Zorn, the quarterback since the inaugural season in 1976. There also was the defensive nucleus of linemen Jacob Green, Joe Nash and Jeff Bryant; the safety tandem of Kenny Easley and John Harris; cornerback Dave Brown; and linebacker Keith Butler.
“We already had some players,” said Green, who would become the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. “Guys like Kenny Easley and Jeff and Joe and Dave Brown. There was some talent.”
But not enough, and not at the right places for Knox and his Ground Chuck offense.
The Seahawks traded their first-, second- and third-round selections in the 1983 NFL Draft to the Houston Oilers for the No. 3 pick overall and used it on Penn State running back Curt Warner. He would rush for 1,449 yards and 13 touchdowns in his rookie season.
“Chuck brought in a kid out of Penn State who I think, as long as I’ve been covering the NFL, I’ve only seen a couple of guys who could run like Curt Warner ran,” said Steve Raible, a former wide receiver for the Seahawks who was in his second season as the analyst for radio broadcasts of the team’s games and now handles the play-by-play duties. “Jack and those guys put together a pretty good nucleus of players. But you added Curt Warner and a couple of other guys, then all of a sudden you’ve got the makings of a pretty darn good team.”
But Knox deemed that the Seahawks also needed a mental makeover, so he brought in veterans like Bush, tight end Charle Young, guard Reggie McKenzie, fullback Cullen Bryant and wide receiver Harold Jackson to “teach these guys how to win,” as Knox would put it.
“I remember Chuck coming in and deciding, ‘We can win with you guys,’ ” Raible said. “But he had to fix the attitude, and it worked.”
The season was not without its transitions. It started with Knox and his staff. It continued with the selection of Warner in the NFL Draft. It also included the addition of key veteran players. And at midseason, there was Knox’s decision to bench Zorn at halftime of a Week 8 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Kingdome and go with Krieg. The following week, Krieg led an upset of the Raiders in Los Angeles – the second time the Seahawks had beaten their AFC West rivals in three weeks – and the legend of “The Man from Milton” was born.
“Hiring Chuck was a bold move. Making the trade to get Curt was a bold move. Bringing in all those veterans who had been to war with Chuck was a bold move,” said Paul Johns, the fourth-leading receiver and punt returner on that ’83 team who is now assistant director of fan development. “But deciding to replace the franchise quarterback at midseason with this undrafted free agent who was from a college that no longer existed because he wanted a spark? That definitely was a bold move.”
A lot of times, those kinds of transitions don’t translate into success. And it appeared to be one of those seasons for the Seahawks as they took a 7-7 record into that Week 15 game against the Giants, including three losses in their previous three games.
The Giants had seemingly won that game, and ended the Seahawks’ hopes, with a fourth-down touchdown pass with 30 seconds to play. But right tackle John Tautolo was penalized for holding Green to nullify the score.
“Jacob had been complaining the whole game: ‘Ref, he’s holding me, Ref, he’s holding me,’ ” Johns said. “Jacob stayed on the ref, kind of like in a basketball game. And when we really needed it, they called it – finally.”
Jeff Rutledge’s fourth-and-17 pass was incomplete, and the Seahawks were a win away from completing what seemed a dream when the season began.
After that Giant escape, fullback David Hughes wandered through the locker room repeating, robotically, “Win one, we’re in. Win one, we’re in. Win one, we’re in.”
The one win came the following week at the Kingdome – 24-6 over the Patriots. Then it was on to the playoffs, for the first time.
As easy as the win over the Broncos in the wild-card game was, that matchup with the Dolphins in Miami was just as unnerving – beginning with the team’s beyond-late arrival because of a problem with a sensor box on their charter flight. They finally arrived, blurry-eyed and “exhausted,” as Nash put it.
Trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks rallied for 10 points in the final two minutes to post the 27-20 upset. Krieg passed for 16 yards to Largent on a third-and-2 play and then for 40 yards to the Dolphins’ 2-yard line – Largent’s only catches of the game. Warner then scored what proved to be the game-winner. Sam Merriman recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and Norm Johnson kicked a 37-yard field goal.
“Nobody thought we had a ghost of a chance of winning,” fullback Dan Doornink said. “The pressure was sort of off because, ‘How could we beat Miami?’ ”
How, indeed. It remained the only road playoff victory in franchise history until the Seahawks defeated the Washington Redskins in a wild-card game in January.
And it was a ride that still generates goose bumps 30 years later.
“The whole season, leading up to that AFC Championship game, was just amazing how we came together,” said Johns, the Seahawks’ leading receiver in that very first postseason. “We weren’t expected to do anything, but we really came together under Chuck.
“It was really a magical year.”
One that those involved never will forget, which makes Sunday’s reunion even more significant.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Johnson, the kicker on that team as well as the Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team. “We had a lot of great players on the team. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of those guys who I probably haven’t seen in 30 years.”