Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Greatest Seahawk Of Them All

Growing up as a Seahawks fan in Oregon was not easy. People complained about being forced to watch their games on TV due to regional coverage rules. There was even a brief uprising attempting to argue that San Francisco or Oakland should be considered Portland's regional NFL team so their games could be televised instead of the Seahawks. Being a Seahawks fan was still a few notches above being a Mariners or Huskies fan (which I was, as well). At least there was Curt Warner and Steve Largent and Kenny Easley. There were players worth being proud of, even if the team was maddeningly middle-of-the-road.

The championship season of 1984 had come and gone by the time my Seahawks obsession really took root. Becoming a "watch every game" Seahawks fan during the 8-8 season in 1985 painted everything in a different light. Twenty years went by before I ever saw a Seahawks playoff victory. In that time, I had completed middle school, high school and college. I met my wife, got married, bought a house, had my first child, sold that house, bought a second house, and had my second child. I had been working for eight years after moving to Seattle. The franchise had played in both conferences, had four coaches, four general managers and three owners. I had been a season ticket holder since 1997, when one seat for a full season cost $100, so I bought two. My seats were the very last row of the Kingdome on the 50-yard line. You could touch the Kingdome ceiling, stand whenever you felt like it, and curse like a sailor. In those twenty years, the team had a winning record eight times, a losing record eight times and were .500 four times, for a combined record of 158-161 (15-game season in 1987). The team finished more than one game over .500 (i.e., 10 wins) twice during that stretch. The playoffs were the promised land.

I can vividly remember January 3rd, 1988 when I got to watch my first Seahawks playoff game against Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers. There was a fire in the fireplace, and like any good football Sunday, I never got out of my pajamas. The Seahawks battled their way to a 20-20 tie, before losing on a Tony Zendejas field goal in overtime. The following year the team lost to the Super Bowl-bound, Ickey Shufflin', Cincinnati Bengals 21-13. No team ever faked more injuries than the Seahawks did that day while trying to slow down the no-huddle Boomer Esiason offense. Then all went dark. Ten years went by before there was another playoff game to watch. Included in that retched span of seasons was the franchises worst team ever, a 1992 squad that set the NFL record for fewest points per game and surrendered 67 sacks. You know you are a Seahawks fan when your first response to 1992 is, "That was the year Cortez Kennedy won NFL Defensive Player of the Year!" Silver linings defined this franchise, all the way down to the uniforms.

Then, at the turn of the century, Mike Holmgren changed the course of Seahawks history. He had come to Seattle with a history of winning and grooming quarterbacks. His Green Bay team had seemingly populated half the NFL with their starting quarterbacks, while still always having plenty in reserve. He arrived with an aura that said "when," not "if." I remember thinking that he was exactly what this franchise needed, but that he had no idea the task he was facing. Seahawks teams have good quarterbacks, never great. Even in Dave Krieg's three Pro Bowl seasons, he threw a combined 52 interceptions. Krieg benefited from Pro Bowl receivers in Brian Blades and Steve Largent, the latter being a Hall of Famer. He was the embodiment of what the Seahawks franchise had been in the 20th century, a gritty underdog that would never back down from a fight, but was rarely talented enough to beat the best.

At first, it appeared the gravity of Seahawks mediocrity was winning its fight with Holmgren. He inherited Jon Kitna, and drafted Brock Huard. Kitna was Krieg-lite, with limited upside. Huard had real potential to be a fantastic NFL QB, but injuries kept him from ever fulfilling that promise. Then, in 2001, Holmgren brought in Matt Hasselbeck and Trent Dilfer. Hasselbeck was an apple picked from Holmgren's Green Bay tree, and came to Seattle with the tongue-in-cheek nickname "Mr. August" for his pre-season prowess. Dilfer had just won a Super Bowl with Baltimore, but was given about as much credit as the water boy for the victory due to a dominating defense. Hasselbeck was so bad in the early part of his career, I was among those chanting for Dilfer every time he stepped on the field. I hated Matt Hasselbeck. Some of the things I shouted are not fit for print. He looked nothing like a future franchise quarterback as he would scramble wildly around the field hucking passes blindly down-field that invariably were intercepted. His arm was not that impressive. His command of the offense was questionable as passes got thrown to empty spaces. That first 2001 season with the Seahawks saw him go 5-7 as a starter and Dilfer go 4-0. The only thing Hasselbeck had going for him was he was 26, and Dilfer was 29.

The team was not lacking in talent. Walter Jones had been the left tackle since 1997, and Steve Hutchinson had just been drafted to play beside him. Robbie Tobeck was added as the center and Chris Gray was the right guard. Four-fifths of the famed 2005 Super Bowl line was in place. The backfield boasted both Ricky Watters and a rookie named Shaun Alexander. Darrell Jackson was in his second season and Koren Robinson was a heralded rookie. The defense had Chad Brown, Michael Sinclair, Shawn Springs, John Randle, and Anthony Simmons. Even with arguably the best left tackle in the NFL, and a bunch of notable surrounding talent, it was still the same old 9-7 (2001) or 7-9 (2002) Seahawks. It wasn't until Week 8 of the 2002 season, when Hasselbeck re-took the starting QB role from an injured Dilfer in Dallas, that the team's fortunes truly changed. Hasselbeck led that 2002 team to a 6-4 finish, including winning their final three, after a 1-5 start. He finished with an 87.8 QB rating, and followed it up with an 88.8 rating in the 2003 season that included 26 touchdowns and only 15 interceptions. No Seahawk quarterback had ever thrown for that many touchdowns with that few interceptions. The team ended up 10-6, and started a franchise-record stretch of five straight division titles.

Hasselbeck was special. My jeers had been replaced with hope. This could be the guy. He was making throws that were so well timed, and with such precision, that it was hard to picture how teams would stop him. His personality had grown on me as well. This was a man who had come from obscurity, struggled mightily and been humbled. He famously credited his turnaround to surrendering to Holmgren and the coaches strict guidelines of how to run the offense. Any man can tell you a story about a humbling experience that helped shape who he is today. Hasselbeck was just like any of us. His openness about his family, and his sense of humor made him that much easier to cheer for. Nothing was better than listening to Tobeck and Hasselbeck go back-and-forth. It was Entourage, Seahawks style. This was not like the 80s Seahawks. The ceiling was higher. You could feel it.

Hasselbeck certainly felt it when he declared, "We'll take the ball, and we're gonna score," after the overtime coin toss in the 2003 playoff game against Green Bay. Alex Bannister robbed him of the chance to make good on that promise by running the wrong route, but Hasselbeck earned a fan for life that day. No Seahawk had ever approached a team like the Green Bay Packers, with Brett Favre, on a stage like that with so much bravado. Loud and proud was something Seahawks fans generally only got half-right. Here was a player that had been ridiculed as much as any in Seattle, who had come back to be the unquestioned leader of the team, and he was saying, "I believe." Lots of people lampooned Hasselbeck for that statement. It immediately made him my favorite player.

His finest season fittingly coincided with best season in franchise history. His 98.2 rating in 2005 was a franchise best, tops in the NFC, and good for fourth in all the NFL. He completed nearly 66% of his passes and had a 24/9 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the way to leading the Seahawks to becoming the NFL's highest scoring offense. Shaun Alexander was given the MVP that year, but anyone that actually followed the team knew Hasselbeck was the central figure. Many of Alexander's big runs came on plays where Hasselbeck checked out of a pass and into a run. He was, without question, one of the top five quarterbacks in football that year.

Some will tell you that Walter Jones or Steve Largent are the greatest Seahawks of all-time. If you measure greatness by pure talent, it would be hard to argue against Jones. He was the best player at his position for a decade. Hasselbeck most certainly was not the greatest quarterback in the NFL, even for a season. It was his combination of talent, charisma, leadership and resolve that unlocked the best stretch of pro football this town has ever seen. His dignity, even in exit, makes him a man I'd want my children to look up to. His commitment to this city was unparalleled. When Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and almost every other sports star got a chance to leave, they ran. Hasselbeck was the first Seahawks free agent to re-sign after the 2004 season and immediately started recruiting others. He wanted to be here.

Those of you that read this blog know my challenges with jersey selection. I had given up on ever buying another one. A funny thing happened, though, last year before the Saints game. I was waiting for an oil change and decided to buy a Seahawks lottery ticket at a nearby 7-Eleven. It was the first lottery ticket I had purchased in probably 10 years. It was a winner. A fat $50 gift card to the Seahawks Pro Shop. That probably would buy me a pen, so I sat on it for a bit. Heading into the first pre-season game this year, I was determined to use it. That's when it hit me. The only player I can't curse by buying his jersey happens to be my favorite Seahawk of all-time. I walked over to the "sale" rack and found one Hasselbeck jersey that was my size. The price? $50. Wearing that jersey is not about being stuck in the past. It's about honoring the best this franchise has ever produced. It represents the pinnacle of what this franchise has achieved, and until someone eclipses what Matt accomplished as a player and a person, it will not be replaced. Thank you, Matt. 

11 comments :

Anonymous said...

Absolutely awesome read! I feel the same way about Hasselbeck. He was and always be a class act individual.

@cowardlyescape

Anonymous said...

I loved your article. I have two Hasselbeck jerseys and I proudly wear them. Thank you Matt for everything you did for all seahawks fans.

Lisa said...

Awesome! Great article! Matt was missed the day he left Seattle for many reasons. Thanks for the great read!

Anonymous said...

Still have an '8' that is now too small for my youngest son, packed away in a "memorabilia" box. When we pull it out one day and he asks "Why Hasselbeck?", I might just point him back to this article. Encapsulates so much of what I've felt over the years. Don't comment on blogs much, but thanks Hawk Blogger, and thanks Matt for being the rare athlete these days that a dad can point at and say to his kids "Follow him, and you'll be alright..."

Steve in Spokane said...

Matt is my favorite player ever. As a life long seahawk fan, I miss him this year. A great leader, competitor and person. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

BP said...

Exactly. Matt was, and is, simply the best. Watching him drop 358 on Baltimore last Sunday was bitter sweet and reminds us what he is STILL capable of with a little protection. It is so hard because we could use his leadership and skill, but we probably wouldn't have seen it as the team just couldn't have protected him. The fact that Matt didn't finish his career as a Seahawk is sad. But as hard as it is to say, it is undoubtedly better for his health (we would've let him get killed back there), and probably better for our psyche that he leaves us with the fondest memories. We'll just have to wait until his playing days are over and he returns to Seattle with his family as we know he will. Maybe the next time we see him at the stadium will be the inevitable Ring of Honor induction. Thanks Matt. (sorry for the long comment)

Chrisizup said...

Disagree with your assessment of Krieg and saying Matt was anything more than the same style of player, neither will be a Hall of Famer. Krieg did it all with a ragtag O-line, his best season came with a weak dentist as his RB. Hass had an MVP RB and 2 ProBowlers on the left side of his line. Stats are still very similar between the two. Greatest Seahawk ever? Nahh, not even the greatest Seahawk on the Super Bowl team. Nice to wax poetic, but it ain't so. Best Seahawk ever candidates include Alexander, Largent, Easley, Jones, Kennedy, and then Krieg and Hasselbeck. He was effective in Holmgren's offense, but never came close to being the best in the league at his position, which Jones, Largent, Kennedy, Alexander and maybe Easley all did.

SeattleShamBombs said...

Love all the players mentioned in this blog, and love this read. Been a Hawks fan since early 80's and grew up watching this guy named Largent, who was traded cause he was to slow. The coach who traded him later said it was the worst trades he ever made. Largent also showed great class on and off the field, was humble and never cocky. Again, love every player mentioned but Largent is my choice. Again Hawk Blogger great read. GO HAWKS!

SeattleShamBombs said...

Traded from Houston to Seattle...

Anonymous said...

awesome read! i only own two jerseys... #8 and #12. probably wont by another. Great job.
Toni

Anonymous said...

awesome read! i only own two jerseys... #8 and #12. probably wont by another. Great job.
Toni

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