For the record, the story of Seattle's 27-24 victory over the Broncos at Denver's Mile High Stadium on Sunday, which moved the Seahawks up to an 11-2 record, tied with Denver at the top of the AFC West, will be written in the numbers: Dave Krieg, 30 pass completions in 44 attempts, 406 yards and no interceptions; and Steve Largent, 12 catches for 191 yards, his biggest day in a magnificent nine-year career, and the best day a Seahawk receiver has ever had. The story will bear two sad footnotes—Rich Karlis's 25-yard field goal try that hit the right upright with 39 seconds left and cost the Broncos a shot at overtime, and a bad call by an official that set up a fourth-quarter Seahawk field goal, which proved to be the margin of victory.
But the foundation for those numbers was built from the sweat and agony of the Seahawks' six interior linemen, who turned in one of the most remarkable performances of the year, one of the finest of modern-era football, which is keyed to stopping the air game through pressure on the quarterback. Krieg suffered no sacks. Zero. And that's for 44 throws.
Sackless games are not uncommon. When a team runs a lot and throws little, it will often go unsacked. Ditto when it's facing a defense that isn't very good at rushing the passer. But on Sunday the Seahawks came into the game with a running attack that was 21st in the NFL and next to last in the AFC in yards per carry (3.3). With Curt Warner's knee still in rehab, they knew they weren't going to run much on the Broncos—and the Broncos knew it, too. Seattle was going to have to put the ball in the air.
The Broncos aren't a great sacking team, but they're good enough—tied for fourth best in the AFC before the game. During the week, when coach Dan Reeves talked about Seattle's great takeaway-turnover ratio—29 more takeaways than turnovers—he said, "If you count sacks in there, sacks allowed and sacks achieved, we're ahead of them. We're Number One in the league. And you've got to count sacks, because they're almost like turnovers." Using Reeves's new math, combining a sack ratio with a takeaway-turnover ratio, Denver indeed led the Seahawks 43 to 41.
The Broncos worked hard at their pass rush schemes, their blitzes and stunts and twists, but the Seahawk interior line turned it all back. "A lot of the stuff I completed today," Krieg said, "a lot of the passes I was throwing to Steve, were possible only because I had the time. When you have time to watch a whole pattern develop, the good numbers will follow."
The idea was to work Largent inside, underneath the zone, and it takes a special kind of receiver to spend an afternoon heading toward the middle, where the linebackers live. If the time was there, Krieg could wait for Largent to run a deeper crossing route, into an area that had already been cleared out. That's how Largent got his longest gainer of the day—a 65-yarder in the third quarter that set up the touchdown that broke a 10-10 tie—crossing from left to right, shedding the coverage and heading for open space. Fourteen passes were aimed at Largent, and 11 were on inside routes, 12 if you count his three-yard touchdown, on which he started outside and then broke it back in, an optional move that Krieg read perfectly. And most of Largent's action came when he set up on the left side, away from the Broncos' All-Pro cornerback, Louis Wright.
The Seahawks wanted to work on the right cornerback, Mike Harden, and the safeties, Steve Foley and Randy Robbins, who was subbing for the dynamic Dennis Smith (out with a shoulder injury), but first they had to get Harden deep-conscious. They had to shock him, so they opened the game with a bomb to split end Daryl Turner, with Harden covering.
It shocked Harden all right—as well as the 74,922 fans—80 yards and seven points worth of shock only 15 seconds into the contest.
"Well, yeah, sure, I was a little shocked," Harden said. "I mean it was the first play of the game."
Turner caught no more passes after the 80-yarder. Krieg threw to him five more times, just to keep the rookie interested, but most of them were into Wright's coverage, a comfortable matchup for the Broncos.
The key, though, was time, time to get Turner deep on the first one, time to find Largent in traffic in the middle, time to win the game the only way the Seahawks could, since turnovers weren't going to be much of a factor this day. And that's where the offensive line came in.
To understand what Seattle did you've got to look at the background of coach Chuck Knox. Knox began his coaching life in pro football as an offensive line coach with the AFL's New York Jets in 1963, working for Weeb Ewbank, and he was way ahead of his time. Guys like Winston Hill and Sam DeLuca and big Sherm Plunkett, who'd been in other pro camps, used to rave about Knox's ideas, about the way he'd get them pass blocking by steering the defensive linemen with their hands—in an era that was still locked into the old fists-in-tight, elbows-out technique of the 1950s.
"Someday people will find out what a great coach Knox is," Hill used to say.
The offensive line unit that kept Krieg upright for 44 throws defies the current dictum that says you have to have high draft choices. Four of the five starters are imports. Blair Bush, the center, came from the Bengals, who wanted to make room for Dave Riming-ton. Left guard Reggie McKenzie, the 34-year-old warhorse, came with Knox from Buffalo, where he'd been the leader of O.J.'s Electric Company in the early 1970s. Frank Kush gave up on Bob Pratt, the right guard, in Baltimore. Right tackle Bob Cryder was a New England reject this year. Only Ron Essink, the left tackle, is a homegrown Seahawk, a 10th-round draft choice in 1980. When he went down with a bruised knee in the third quarter on Sunday, the Seahawks brought in Sid Abramowitz, who had been cut by the Colts this season.
The core of the unit, guard-center-guard, is small—too small by modern NFL standards. Bush is the heaviest at 252. McKenzie, who's listed in the program at 255, actually plays at closer to 240. Big, muscular defensive lines—like the Raiders', for example—give them trouble; they get their sacks. But against the Broncos the Seahawks matched up.
Give Knox's line coach Ray Prochaska some credit. Prochaska, who broke into pro football as an end with the Cleveland Rams in 1941, has been with Knox for 12 years, five with the Rams, five with the Bills and two with the Seahawks. There's no communication problem there.
The drama of Sunday's game was not lost on Largent, the heart and soul of the Seahawks, the club's leading receiver for every year of its existence—and some of them were very hard years indeed. "Just to play in a game like this, with two teams that have records like these, does something to you," Largent said. "In the old days I'd sit at home, watching everyone else in the playoffs, and I'd think, 'Hey, I'm as good as that guy.' It was very discouraging."
For Denver, the big topic during the week had been turnovers, the way the Seahawks could pop the ball loose, the way their defense forced them—and their special teams. The Broncos nodded and smiled and said, "Yeah, we have to be careful," but Denver's a pretty good turnover-creating team itself, and Bronco quarterback John Elway was coming off a roll, his 16-for-19, five-TD performance against the Vikings the week before. "He had them whining for mercy," linebacker Tom Jackson said. The Seahawks got a brief look at Elway as a baby last year—mop-up action in two games—but this was a different QB, a tougher and more confident one.
Elway spent Sunday afternoon digging himself out of a hole. He never had a lead to work with, and he didn't have the protection Krieg enjoyed. In the second quarter he brought the Broncos back to 10-10 on a five-play drive built around two sizable throws (41 yards to rookie wideout Ray Alexander and a 19-yard corner route to Butch Johnson for the score) and a 15-yard roughness penalty on defensive end Jacob Green. The Broncos tied it again at 17-all in the third quarter on a four-play series featuring a slight flimflam job—Elway rolled right and threw a crossfield screen pass that halfback Gerald Willhite broke for 63 yards.
Krieg, in the middle of a six-straight completion streak, put the Seahawks back in front, 24-17, two series later. The payoff was the three-yarder to Largent early in the fourth quarter. Then disaster struck Denver. A turnover. Not a forced one, which the Seahawks are so good at, or a sloppy one, but a turnover that was really an incomplete pass.
First and 10, Broncos on the move on their own 37. Elway hits his tight end, Clarence Kay, on a little dumpoff pass over the middle. The ball bounces off Kay's chest, off his left thigh, and onto the ground. Green falls on it. The line judge, Alabama Glass, calls it a fumble. Seattle ball on the Denver 38. Kay's back was to the official. It would have been almost impossible for Glass to judge possession, or lack of same, but it was a bang-bang call. He made the wrong one, and no one offered him any help.
"There's no way Glass can make that call," coach Reeves said. "There has to be some other official to help him, and there wasn't. There's no way he could see whether Kay had possession or not."
"The ball went through my arms," Kay said. "The referee across the field saw it clearly, and he should have called it incomplete, but he didn't say anything. Hey, if I thought it was a fumble, I'd have gone for it."
Glass told the press box pool reporter, "I was behind the play, looking in at an angle, so therefore I saw the man have the ball in his hands [not true...it was never in his hands], the foot down, the second foot clearly down, and then the ball come loose."
How could he have seen it if he was behind the play? And did he ask for help?
"I looked at the umpire, yes," Glass said. "He agreed with me."
The Seahawks turned the fumble into a field goal, and now the Broncos were down by 10, but they put together a drive and scored with 4:32 showing. Then Knox did something he never would have done in the old days. He called on Krieg to throw four straight times, two of them bombs that fell incomplete. He didn't try to work the clock.
"These aren't the old days," Knox said. "You have to keep moving the ball, especially when the other side has a guy who can bring it like Elway."
The Broncos got the ball back on their own 21 with 2:51 left, and two minutes and 12 seconds later they were on the Seattle eight, lining up for the field goal that could tie it. The dream ended when Karlis's kick hit the upright.
"We work so hard to stay in the game, then certain parts break down," Karlis said. "Like my field goal. I feel bad."
Cheer up, Rich. The Broncos-Sea-hawks rematch is set for Dec. 15 in Seattle. It'll be worth waiting for.