June 4, 2011

1974: Seattle Awarded NFL Franchise for ’76 Season

On June 4, 1974 the commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle, announced that the owners had awarded a franchise to Seattle for the 1976 season. With the approval of a team for Tampa the previous month, the league would be expanding from 26 to 28 clubs – the first adding of teams since the merger with the American Football League in 1970 (it had been rumored that the league might expand by four clubs, but in the end settled for two).

The only issue of concern had been the rental agreement for use of the new domed stadium being built in Seattle, but Commissioner Rozelle indicated that this had been resolved satisfactorily. The construction of the facility (later known as the Kingdome) had been the key to Seattle’s bid.

Other cities in the running were Phoenix, Memphis, and Honolulu (the latter two fielded World Football League teams that fall). Of the applicants, only Seattle received the recommendation for an immediate franchise by the NFL Expansion Committee. The vote had not been unanimous (acceptance by 20 of the 26 existing franchises was necessary). Both new franchises paid a fee of $16 million to enter the NFL. While Rozelle indicated that Tampa was very interested in moving the timetable up to 1975, it remained at ’76.

Heading the Seattle ownership group was majority owner Lloyd Nordstrom (who died before the team ever took the field), joined by Herman Sarkowsky (principal owner of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers), Ned Skinner, Lynn Himmelman, Howard Wright, and M. Lamont Bean. John Thompson, who had been the NFL Management Council’s executive director, was named general manager early in 1975, and Jack Patera, an assistant coach with the Vikings, was hired to be the team’s first head coach. A contest to name the club drew over 20,000 responses and came up with Seahawks for the fledgling franchise.

As was typical with expansion teams, an allocation draft of unprotected NFL veterans was held to stock the Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Seattle selected 39 players in that draft and, in the league draft of college talent, took another 25 rookies headed by first draft choice Steve Niehaus, a defensive tackle from Notre Dame.

As the team arrived at Eastern Washington University for its first training camp, there were plenty of personnel questions, beginning with who would start at quarterback. The two veteran quarterbacks taken in the allocation draft, Neil Graff from New England and Gary Keithley of the Cardinals, were nondescript career backups. A rookie free agent, Jim Zorn out of Cal Poly – Pomona (pictured above), who had failed to make the Cowboys the previous year (he was the final preseason cut after Dallas acquired RB Preston Pearson) won the job and provided plenty of excitement. A mobile lefthander who threw well – if not always accurately – on the run, Zorn set a rookie record with 2571 passing yards, but also led the NFL by tossing 27 interceptions as opposed to 12 TD passes.

During training camp, the Seahawks swung a trade with the Oilers for rookie WR Steve Largent out of Tulsa (pictured below), and it proved to be another fortuitous acquisition. The 5’11”, 184-pound receiver lacked speed, but proved to be sure-handed and able to get open with regularity. He led the club with 54 catches for 705 yards and four touchdowns, and would last 14 years in Seattle on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Yet another rookie, RB Sherman Smith, who was drafted by the Seahawks in the second round out of Miami of Ohio, made an impact. At 6’4” and 217 pounds, he had played quarterback in college but was projected to be a pro running back. He became the best of a mediocre crop of runners, topping the team with 537 yards on 119 carries as well as catching 36 passes for another 384 yards.

As for the remainder of the offense, while Smith showed promise, the running game as a whole ranked at the bottom of the NFL (1416 yards). Zorn placed second on the team in rushing with 246 yards, tied with FB Don Testerman, a rookie who had been drafted by the Dolphins but ended up starting eight games with Seattle.

A solid veteran wide receiver (although coming off of a knee injury), Ahmad Rashad, had been signed away from Buffalo, where he had played out his option, but he was in turn dealt to Minnesota just before the start of the regular season. Largent took his spot in the lineup, and across from him was WR Sam McCullum, a third-year player who was picked up in the expansion draft from the Vikings. He caught 32 passes for 506 yards and four TDs. While fifth-year veteran John McMakin was expected to start at tight end, he instead backed up Ron Howard, who hadn’t caught a pass in two seasons with Dallas but contributed 37 receptions for 422 yards with the ’76 Seahawks.

The offensive line was mediocre, containing two NFL veterans, 34-year-old ex-Dolphin OT Norm Evans and C Fred Hoaglin, in his 11th (and last) season. Only left tackle Nick Bebout, a fifth-year ex-Falcon, started every game on the line in 1976.

Defensively, Niehaus had a solid rookie season at the one tackle position. The other tackle, Richard Harris, had been a star rookie with the Eagles in 1971 but had not progressed in the ensuing five years. The ends were Dave Tipton and another 34-year-old veteran, Bob Lurtsema. 33-year-old Mike Curtis, once an outstanding middle linebacker for the Colts, played on the outside while ex-Steeler Ed Bradley started at MLB. Ken Geddes, formerly with the Rams, started nine games at the other outside position.

FS Dave Brown intercepted four passes, as did CB Rolly Woolsey. Another ex-Ram, Eddie McMillan, started at the other cornerback spot and Al Matthews was the strong safety. The unit gave up 27 touchdown passes but was also the most stable part of the defense throughout the season.

As for the specialists, John Leypoldt attempted only 12 field goals, but was successful on 8 of them. Rick Engles averaged a mediocre 38.3 yards on 80 punts.

In the end, the ’76 Seahawks went 2-12 to finish at the bottom of the NFC Western Division (they were shifted to the AFC West in ’77 and remained there until returning to the NFC as part of the 2002 restructuring). Their first win came in the sixth week of the season and was over the other expansion club, the Buccaneers (who ended up going 0-14).

The Seahawks improved rapidly, posting their first winning record in 1978, the franchise’s third year. Progress was not so smooth thereafter, however. They would not reach the postseason until 1983, under a new head coach, Chuck Knox, and with a different starting quarterback, Dave Krieg.