Coach Chuck Knox likes to tell people that his Seattle Seahawks are a long way from where he wants to take them, but, he adds begrudgingly, they do seem headed in the right direction. Take last Sunday, when the Seahawks pointed their face masks straight at the Denver Broncos, who then had the seventh-best defense in the NFL, and piled up 399 yards of offense—a nicely balanced 216 in the air and 183 on the ground—on their way to a 27-19 victory. That win moved Seattle into a tie for second with Denver in the AFC West at 6-4, one game behind the 7-3 Raiders. By the by, Seattle had twice beaten the Raiders in the last month.
If all this sounds familiar, it should. Take the snap and drop back 11 seasons to 1973, when Knox, in his first head-coaching role, arrived in Los Angeles to take command of the badly flagging Rams. Fourteen games later, reconstructed L.A. was 12-2 and had won the first of five straight division championships under Knox. Nothing fancy; just hard-nosed conservative football—too conservative, it would turn out, for Carroll Rosenbloom, then the Rams' owner. Exit Knox after the 1977 season with a 54-15 record.
Now cut upheld to Buffalo, where in 1976 and '77 the Bills had won only five games. With Knox at the controls, the Bills won five times in '78 and seven in '79, and in '80 topped their division with an 11-5 record. But financial storm clouds were gathering; Bills' owner Ralph Wilson and his money were not easily parted. Good players got away; others, such as Running Back Joe Cribbs, were unhappy. Buffalo went 10-6 in '81 and dropped to 4-5 in '82.
So, when the troubled Seahawks called an audible, Knox was ready and willing to carry the ball. He immediately closeted himself with a projector and reel upon reel of past Seahawk games. When he emerged several days later, he announced that Seattle's most pressing needs were: I) a strong running back 2) help on the offensive line and 3) players who could provide leadership.
Knox's philosophy is that if you can't run the ball, you might as well not play. Last season Seattle's top rusher. Fullback Sherman Smith, who's now with the Chargers, ran for only 202 yards. Hence Knox's No. 1 priority, which was taken care of when the Seahawks traded up from the ninth spot in the first round of the draft to the third and took Curt Warner, the 5'11", 205-pound All-America running back out of Penn State. Against Denver, Warner ran for 134 yards, giving him 889 this season—94 yards more than the entire Seattle running corps got in '82.
The lack of leadership and skilled muscle on the offensive line was remedied by trading draft choices for 6'5", 242-pound Guard Reggie McKenzie, an 11-year veteran from Buffalo, and 6'3", 252-pound Center Blair Bush, a five-year vet from Cincinnati. Tight End Charle Young, who two years ago was named by the Super Bowl champion 49ers as their most inspirational and courageous player, was signed as a free agent.
No one in Seattle was sure what to expect from Denver. After a shaky, 2-3 start behind Quarterback John Elway, the $l million rookie from Stanford, the Broncos had given the ball back to 29-year-old Steve DeBerg, who better understood Coach Dan Reeves's highly sophisticated multiple offense. From that point, they had won four straight and, surprisingly, were tied with the Raiders for the division lead.
Denver came into the Kingdome with six victories, but study these names: Cliff Stoudt, Mike Pagel, Gifford Nielsen, Turk Schonert, Ed Luther and Bill Kenney. Those were the quarterbacks the Broncos had faced when they had beaten Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston, Cincinnati, San Diego and Kansas City.
Those were almost as big mismatches as throwing Elway into NFL battle with Reeves's Dallas-styled playbook. Complicated? You bet. Even the simplest Bronco play can be run out of any of 40 different alignments.
"John's biggest problem," Reeves said, "was I'd send in a play and then he'd have to call the formation. It was all strange to him, like a foreign language. He had to call it, get up to the line and get it off, all in 30 seconds. He didn't have time to look at the defense: everything was a blur. He couldn't call an audible. Everybody knew he was having trouble. They came after him with some stuff even I couldn't recognize. But in the last four weeks John has come a long way. He's been able to learn a lot on the sidelines." Little did Reeves suspect that against Seattle he would have a chance to see just how much Elway had absorbed in his four weeks as a spectator.
Seattle started Dave Krieg at quarterback ahead of the slumping Jim Zorn for the second straight week, and proved it could drive the ball against Denver's defense in the first half. But after 30 minutes, all the Seahawks could show for their 239 yards was a 6-3 lead. Then Seattle's specialty teams took command. As Denver's Zack Thomas was gathering in a Seattle punt on his own 14 early in the third quarter, he was parted from the ball by a savage hit by Dave Brown. Seattle's Shelton Robinson covered the ball and Krieg promptly hit Steve Largent on a post pattern for a TD and a 13-3 lead.
Facing fourth-and-19 at their own 24-yard line on their next series, the Broncos sent Luke Prestridge back to punt. In raced Seahawk Cornerback Kerry Justin, and Prestridge, fearing his boot would be blocked, tried to run for the first down. Eric Lane dropped him at the 30. This time Krieg called a play action pass and hit Wide Receiver Paul Johns, who made a superb catch in the end zone.
Suddenly, not even four minutes into the third quarter, Seattle led 20-3.
Near the end of the period Denver, showing considerable character, drove 72 yards to score, with the touchdown coming on a one-yard run by Sammy Winder. That made it 20-9—Rick Karlis missed the extra point—but on the drive the Broncos lost DeBerg for at least six weeks with a shoulder separation. DeBerg was hurt two plays before the score, when he was hit just as he lofted a pass over Wide Receiver Rick Upchurch's head in the end zone. As he fell, DeBerg jammed his left (non-throwing) shoulder into the Kingdome's artificial turf. On that down, Seattle was called for pass interference and the ball was placed at the one. "I stayed in for two more handoffs," DeBerg said later, "but the shoulder was hurting so bad I didn't even think I could do that."
Elway took over on Denver's next offensive series and quickly proved that his time on the sidelines hadn't been idly spent. He completed three of five passes for 48 yards and moved the Broncos to the Seahawk 26. From there Karlis kicked a 43-yard field goal.
Then after Seattle had seemingly put the game out of reach on a 10-yard scoring run by Krieg, which pushed the score to 27-12. Elway got Denver moving again. This time he took the Broncos 73 yards in 11 plays, the last a 25-yard pass to Wide Receiver Steve Watson in the end zone. That made it 27-19. But Elway still wasn't done. Getting the ball back at the Denver 35 with 3:39 to play, he guided the Broncos to the Seattle eight, completing four passes en route. There. Denver stalled and lined up for a field goal, figuring that an onside kick could put it in position for the winning TD. But Karlis missed the 26-yard chip shot, and the Broncos never got another try.
Said Elway about the multiple offense that had put him on the bench, "I'm liking it more and more. Now I can see the big picture. Before, I was memorizing it. Now I'm learning."
But so are the Seahawks. They're learning how to win.