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‘A horrible experience’: Looking back at the 1980 Seahawks, 40 years after a strange season of misery

By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Steve Largent apologizes for not being able to recall much about the 1980 Seahawks, then pauses.

“It was not a memorable year,” Largent, a receiver who was the team’s first Hall of Famer, said in a recent phone interview.

On the surface, no it wasn’t.

The 1980 Seahawks went 4-12, tied for the third-worst record in team history behind the inaugural 1976 season (2-12) and the infamous 1992 season (2-14).

It was a season of misery that brought to a screeching halt the giddiness from the team’s first four years, when the Seahawks were regarded as the most successful NFL expansion team to that point.

The Seahawks had, almost overnight, built one of the NFL’s best offenses (ranking in the top eight in scoring each season from 1977-79) while playing a freewheeling brand of football – that memorably won over the likes of Monday Night Football broadcaster Howard Cosell – highlighted by their willingness to unfurl a trick play in any situation.

But with fans hoping 1980 could be a breakthrough to the playoffs after the 9-7 seasons of 1978 and 1979 had fallen just short, the Seahawks face-planted, a year that marked the beginning of the end for the team’s first coach, Jack Patera.

So why bother reliving it, even on its 40th anniversary?

Well, every season tells a story – even if an unhappy one – and the story of the 1980 Seahawks is among the strangest in team history, which also makes it one of the more interesting.

It was a season that featured the longest losing streak in team history (nine games, a record that stands) and probably the shortest postgame news conference by a coach (7.15 seconds, according to then-Seattle Times columnist Georg N. Meyers).

It was a season in which a team regarded to have possibly the NFL’s best home-field advantage playing in the deafening-when-full Kingdome – and it almost always was full during those early years – somehow lost all eight home games.

That remains the only season the Seahawks haven’t won a home game. It’s also only the 18th time from the 1970 merger through 2019 that an NFL team was winless at home in a season not shortened by strike.

But of those 18 teams, only the 1980 Seahawks managed a .500 or better road record. They bizarrely won their first four road games, ending up with a 4-4 road record that until the 2013 Super Bowl season had been bettered only twice in team history.

It was a season that began with popular kicker Efren Herrera calling out the rest of the squad for a lack of leadership during an appearance at a media luncheon following the first game of the season. And it ended with the initial appearance of Dave Krieg, the quarterback who eventually led the Seahawks to the playoffs for the first time.

So you might want to tread carefully while reading further. For better or worse, here is the story of the 1980 Seahawks.

Efren’s challenge

The AFC West was a bear in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and in 1979 it might have been the NFL’s best division with the Chargers, Broncos, Raiders and Seahawks all finishing 9-7 or better.

The Seahawks had every reason to believe entering the 1980 season that they could compete with the rest. They swept the Raiders in 1979 and, in winning five of their last six, beat the Broncos and Raiders to finish 9-7.

“We seemed to be heading in the right direction,” remembered Steve Raible, then a Seahawks receiver and now their radio play-by-play broadcaster.

Some thought all the Seahawks needed was a little better defense. The drafting of defensive end Jacob Green with the 10th overall pick proved to be a master stroke and provided hope that the defense might finally catch up to the offense.

But there were some ominous early signs.

Fifth-year quarterback Jim Zorn, who had thrown for more yards in his first four seasons than anyone in NFL history other than Joe Namath, suffered a chipped kneecap in the preseason and didn’t play much, with the Seahawks looking shaky as a result. The injury would bother him much of the season.

Then came the opener against always troublesome San Diego, a team that beat Seattle the first eight times they played, usually by substantial margins. The 1980 season opener fit the pattern, a 34-13 home loss as bad on the field as the score indicated.

A couple of days later, Herrera – who had caught a 20-yard pass on a fake-field-goal attempt against Atlanta the year before to spark a Monday night win and earn the on-air admiration of Cosell – appeared at the Puget Sound Sportswriters and Sportscasters luncheon. Typically, a local star athlete would tell a few jokes and spin a few tales to help writers fill a few column inches, and everyone would move on happily.

Herrera used the occasion to call out the rest of the team.

“I think at this point I feel we don’t have leaders on our team,” Herrera said. “I don’t think we have the players that really want to play hard.”

He added that the Chargers loss “wasn’t upsetting to a lot of other players, and that’s not right.”

Meyers wrote that Herrera had given those comments to “a startled group of lunching reporters expecting to be regaled by humorous anecdotes about kicking a football for fun and profit.”

Raible and Largent said Herrera was well-liked by teammates, both for his willingness to do whatever was asked and the credibility he had for making a number of clutch kicks (and having won a Super Bowl ring with Dallas).

But as Raible says, “We loved Efren, but for the kicker to be saying that …”

In the kind of thing that would break Twitter today for its racist stereotyping, Patera immediately fired back.

“I would think Efren probably got into a bad case of enchiladas,” Patera said when asked about Herrera’s comments, according to the Sept. 10, 1980, Seattle Times. “I think it is as much self-incriminating as it is team-incriminating. Anybody who has to look for team leadership probably doesn’t have it himself.”

Herrera’s comments, as well as the loss, led to a team meeting – maybe the earliest during a season in NFL history – to hash things out.

Adding to the oddity of the 1980 season, the Seahawks emerged from the chaos to win four of their next six games.

A brief surge

Raible said one big factor in the offense’s drop-off in 1980 – the Seahawks fell to 21st in points scored – was a knee injury suffered by running back Sherman Smith in the third game, one of about a dozen injuries to key players that year that proved pivotal.

Smith may be better remembered by newer Seahawks fans as the team’s running backs coach from 2010-17, becoming particularly close to Marshawn Lynch.

But Smith was also the Seahawks’ first great running back, leading the team in rushing its first four years and scoring 11 touchdowns in 1979. Raible recalls the sprint draw being a big part of the offense at that time, with Zorn dropping either to the left or right and able to hand off to Smith, or at other times able to pull the ball away from Smith and throw on the run to receivers.

Without Smith, who missed the rest of the season and never played at the same level again, the run threat to opponents from that play wasn’t the same, nor was the Seahawks’ offense.

“We ran much of our passing game off of that look,” Raible said. “So that was hurt when we lost Sherman.”

Still, the Seahawks went on a run following the season-opening loss. A few weeks later they won back-to-back games, 14-0 at Washington (the first shutout in team history) and 26-7 at Houston. The Oilers had reached the AFC title game the previous two years.

After the win at Washington, defensive end Bill Gregory was quoted as saying that since Herrera’s comments, “We’ve come together as a team.”

They’d soon fall apart.

‘That’s it’

The 1980 Raiders captured the fabled organization’s second Super Bowl title.

But on Oct. 26, 1980, the Raiders and Seahawks were both 4-3 as they faced off in Oakland, California, hoping to keep pace with the Chargers in the AFC West. The Seahawks had swept the Raiders the past two years, giving hope they could continue their apparent hex on Oakland, which two games earlier had to turn to Jim Plunkett – who hadn’t started a game since 1977 – to take over for injured Dan Pastorini.

The Raiders scored the first 23 points, and neither team’s season was the same afterward. The Raiders won 13 of their final 15 games, including the Super Bowl, and the Seahawks’ loss began a franchise-record nine-game losing streak.

The Seahawks returned to Seattle for a three-game homestand as frustrating as any in team history. They lost to the Eagles, Chiefs and a rematch with the Raiders on a Monday night. And in acting as the opposite of the Russell Wilson Seahawks, they blew a fourth-quarter lead each time.

Backfired fake punts in the fourth quarter factored heavily into the Eagles and Raiders losses, the teams that would reach the Super Bowl that season.

Trailing the Eagles 24-20 with 1:53 left and holding all three timeouts, the Seahawks tried a fake punt on fourth-and-18 from their 16-yard line, a pass from punter Herman Weaver to linebacker Joe Norman falling incomplete.

In the rematch against the Raiders, the Seahawks led 17-7 in the fourth quarter when miscommunication over whether a fake punt had been called resulted in a block. That spurred a Raiders comeback and an eventual 19-17 Oakland win. The Seahawks outgained the Raiders 391-227 in the loss.

But it was a 31-30 loss to the Chiefs sandwiched between those games, in which Patera sent Herrera out for a 60-yard field-goal attempt on the final play that predictably failed, that seemed to upset the Seahawks coach the most.

Patera had won the NFL Coach of the Year award in 1978, and players swore by his no-nonsense ways. Largent said players appreciated that there wasn’t a lot of wasted time in his meetings.

“He didn’t have a lot of long lectures,” Largent said. “He was all about what happened in the last game and how did we do and what we needed to do to prepare for the next game, and then we were out.”

Patera sometimes had a prickly relationship with the media. It reached its nadir following the Kansas City game, in which Seattle blew leads of 17-3 at halftime and 23-10 entering the fourth quarter to fall to 4-8 after Herrera’s 60-yard attempt on the last play fell a reported 5 yards short. It was one of five times that season the Seahawks blew a fourth-quarter lead.

According to an account from Meyers in the next day’s Seattle Times, Patera greeted the media after the game and said, “Go ahead.” When reporters were slow to respond, Patera said, “That’s it,” and walked out.

Meyers wrote the next day: “four printable words, 7.15 seconds.”

‘A horrible experience’

Everything got worse from there. With a beat-up team and playing three games in 11 days, the Seahawks were blasted 51-7 at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. No Seahawks team has allowed more points since, and that game remains the franchise’s largest margin of defeat (it was 51-0 before they scored in the final minutes on a tackle-eligible pass from Zorn to Ron Essink, the second time that day they had tried that play).

The Seahawks lost three more to end the season – including at home to the Giants (who finished 4-12), which caused Largent to say they had lost to a team “made up of guys picked up out of the street.”

The season ended mercifully with a 25-17 home loss to Denver, the ninth in a row, in which Zorn and backup Sam Adkins were injured in the first half, forcing Patera to throw into duty an undrafted rookie named Dave Krieg.

Krieg was sacked on the first play of his career, one of a team-record seven allowed. The play was recorded in a large photo in the next day’s Seattle Times. Krieg played one more series before Zorn returned.

Largent and Raible said not much was made then of the team not winning a home game all season – the franchise, after all, was only five years old.

Few bothered to sugarcoat how bad the season had been.

“It was a horrible experience,” Patera said after the game.

Amazingly enough, the next day the Seahawks handed Patera a five-year contract that reportedly included a hefty raise, the team saying that it wanted to maintain stability.

That stability lasted 18 games, as Patera was fired following a 6-10 season in 1981 and a 0-2 start in 1982.

After a few fits and starts, Krieg replaced Zorn for good in 1983, after Chuck Knox took over as coach. The 1983 season served as a turning point for all involved. Krieg and Knox led the Seahawks to the playoffs that year and into a new era.

It was left to the team’s 1979 first-round pick, defensive tackle Manu Tuiasosopo, to write a fitting epithet to the 1980 season following the final game against Denver.

“I’ll be danged,” Tuiasosopo was quoted in The Seattle Times, “if anyone wants to go through that again.”

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