1976: Seahawks Grow Up as They Lose to Vikings

Note: This is the first in a series (if anyone cares to read more) on key games in each Seahawks season beginning at the beginning, 1976. This is an entirely subjective selection. Game summary is augmented by asides, reminiscences, and trivia, so be prepared.

Seattle at Minnesota

November 14, Metropolitan Stadium

Seattle-Minnesota 1976 Highlights

When the Seattle Seahawks traveled to the old erector set, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, in November 1976, they had already reached their total of two victories on the season, winning the Expansion Bowl 13-10 in Tampa and beating the Atlanta Falcons 30-13 in the Kingdome just a week before. The 1976 squad remains the second-worst in Seahawks history, and the final five-game slide to 2-12 began with the game against the Vikings.

But this game was one of the best performances the young Seahawks gave all season as they played every team in the NFC (they would switch to the AFC in 1977). They were up against a team with Super Bowl pedigree, a Hall of Fame quarterback, and in cold weather on the road. As one might expect, the Seahawks had a lot of trouble that year with the perennial NFC powers. They had played the St. Louis Cardinals tough in their first game, but had lost at Washington 31-7, to Dallas in the Kingdome 28-13, and suffered a 45-6 thrashing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to Chuck Knox’s Rams. But in this 27-21 loss, the Seahawks showed the kind of grit and young talent that made them a rising team in the NFL over the following three seasons. It was a showcase for two scrambling number 10s—quarterbacks Fran Tarkenton and rookie lefthander Jim Zorn.

The game had some resonance for Seahawks Head Coach Jack Patera, who had been a defensive line coach for Bud Grant, working with the famous Purple People Eaters defensive line—Alan Page, Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, and Gary Larsen. Doug Sutherland replaced Larsen and brought youth to this aging crew, but with standouts like linebacker Matt Blair, cornerback Nate Wright, and veteran safety Paul Krause on hand, this Vikings defense had another championship run in them.

Patera knew he needed help with his own defense, which is why the Seahawks acquired a Purple People Eater backup whom Patera had coached for years, "Benchwarmer Bob" Lurtsema, after Week One. Lurtsema went on to start 25 games for Seattle at the end of his career, a sign of how desperate the Hawks were on the defensive line. Lurtsema started along with Steve Niehaus, the 6-5 behemoth from Notre Dame who was the team’s first draft choice. Niehaus was a bright spot, winning NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, but he and steady corner Dave Brown, chosen in the expansion draft from Pittsburgh, were not enough to make a solid defense. Niehaus eventually succumbed to injuries. He never fully recovered from shoulder surgery in 1977, and in 1979 the Seahawks traded him to Minnesota, where his career quickly ended. That was also Carl Eller’s last year in the NFL after a Hall of Fame career. He reunited with Patera in Seattle as the Seahawks continued trying to upgrade their line.

When the 2-7 Seahawks came to town, the Vikings were 7-1-1 and well on their way to home field in the playoffs, hoping to make up for Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach’s original Hail Mary to Drew Pearson that had eliminated them in the 1975 postseason. Watching that game on YouTube, you can see just what a mess the Met really was—it doesn’t seem like a pro sports venue at all. This Minnesota team was the last to advance to the Super Bowl, where they lost to Oakland, their fourth failure in the big game since the 1969 season.

So the ‘Hawks were up against it that sunny November day. If you were watching on television, you would probably have seen The NFL Today pregame show on CBS prior to the 10 a.m. Seattle time start, with Brent Musburger saying, "you are looking live" at a round of NFL stadiums with CBS coverage that day to kick off the show. Jim Thacker and Tom Matte called the game for CBS, played at a crisp 38 degrees at game time before 45,000 Minnesotans in the northern sunshine. I was just 11, and it was the first time I got to see the Seahawks on TV, though I had been interested in them since they had been born. The Boise market where I then lived didn’t get all their games.

The game began badly for Seattle, with Leonard Willis giving the Vikings field position at their own 45 after a 41-yard kickoff return. The Seahawks gave up 429 points in only 14 games in 1976 (still a team record), so it was no surprise when the Vikings found the end zone about six minutes into the game. Tarkenton’s short swing passes to Chuck Foreman and Ahmad Rashad, Foreman’s running, and Tark’s own five yard scramble put the Vikings down at the one. The Seahawks kept Foreman out twice before Brent McClanahan ran it in on the twelfth play of the drive.

Rashad was off to a good start—he would end the day with nine catches. After missing the 1975 season with a knee injury, the former Oregon Duck (as Bobby Moore), Cardinal and Bill had signed with the expansion Seahawks as a free agent and seemed certain to make the squad. But in a head scratcher for fans, he was traded just before the season began to Minnesota—Tarkenton had lobbied for him. What fans did not yet know is that in Steve Largent and Sam McCullum, the Seahawks had enough talent at the position that they collected a 1977 fourth round draft choice (they chose wide receiver Larry Sievers, who didn’t make the team). Rashad spent the last seven years of his career in Minnesota, retiring after 1982 to irritate NBA fans with his ingratiating interviews with Michael Jordan and other stars.

Why Bud Grant thought he needed to try an onside kick in the first quarter in a home game against a defense as poor as the Seahawks’ is a mystery, but Zorn and friends took the gift at the Vikings’ 39-yard line after the ball bounced off a Viking. Seattle then unleashed their answer to Chuck Foreman, rookie running back Sherman Smith. Smith dashed for 9, then 15 as Krause saved a touchdown, then 3 more on first down. From the 12, Zorn showed there was a new scrambler in town. Avoiding the rush, Zorn went up the middle, veered right, and scored. Tied at 7.

Zorn and Smith, along with receiver Steve Largent and defensive lineman Niehaus, were rookie stars for the new team. An undrafted free agent from Cal Poly Pomona in a time when the NFL draft went twelve rounds, Zorn had been cut by Dallas just before the 1975 season. He had a tryout with the Rams but Chuck Knox didn’t sign him—perhaps a hint of things to come. Dick Mansperger, who had joined the Seahawks from the Dallas front office as part of Seattle’s effort to do things the Cowboy way—right down to a similar uniform scheme—signed Zorn. The lefty won the Seahawk starting job—and very quickly the hearts of Seahawk fans, with his mobility and daring.

Fellow rookie Smith had played quarterback in college, was drafted as a receiver, but became the team’s top running back as the season went on. This second round draft choice from Miami of Ohio had logged the team’s first 100-yard rushing game the week before against the Falcons, and Seahawks fans took to tall number 47 with his upright running style—he would be a fixture in Seattle’s backfield in the team’s first several years in the league. Both Zorn and Smith resurfaced as Seahawk coaches decades later—Zorn coaching Mike Holmgren’s quarterbacks and Smith Pete Carroll’s running backs.

After the teams traded missed field goals, Tarkenton and Foreman took over in the second quarter. Foreman dashed 36 yards to the Seattle 39. Tarkenton hit Sammy White for 20 over the middle, and after a penalty, for 29 more in the end zone, and the Vikes had a touchdown in just four plays covering 80 yards. White was well on his way to NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Nate Wright then intercepted Zorn at the Viking 9 and Minnesota held a 14-7 lead at the half. Things didn’t look good for Seattle. Tarkenton had gone 13-15 for 116 yards, and Foreman already had amassed 109 all-purpose yards.

But the Seahawks put up a real fight in the second half. On their second possession, Zorn took over on the Seattle 20 and immediately lofted an arcing toss downfield to a streaking future Seahawk radio announcer and local television personality. This was Steve Raible’s greatest moment as a Seahawk. A rookie wide receiver from Georgia Tech, always known in those days as "the fastest Seahawk," Raible proved it on this play, catching Zorn’s parabolic offering in stride and finishing the play untouched in the end zone. Just like that, Seattle had struck back to tie the score on an 80-yard go route, rookie to rookie.

Tarkenton dinked and dunked the Vikings to a old-style straight on field goal from Fred Cox. Future Hall of Famer Paul Krause victimized Zorn as he had so many others, picking off the lefty in the end zone and setting up another Viking field goal. After Raible fumbled on the last play of the third quarter, the Vikings had the ball and a 20-14 lead. The turnovers were mounting. Zorn flashed a lot of promise as a rookie but also threw 27 interceptions in 14 starts.

But as the final quarter began, the game suddenly got very interesting indeed. The Seattle defense held before another rookie, safety and special teamer Don Dufek, blocked Neil Clabo’s punt. The Vikings famously made a living off of blocking kicks—giving one up to these upstarts was a surprise. From the Viking 27, Zorn hit Raible for 15. On third and five on the Minnesota 7, Zorn found McCullum on a short pass at the four. Sam scored standing up against his old team and all of a sudden, the Seahawks had a surprising 21-20 fourth quarter lead.

Don Dufek is one of those obscure players for whom true fans have a soft spot. A member of the University of Michigan hockey squad as well as the football team, he had already been drafted by the NHL and WHA (that’s the World Hockey Association) by the time the Seahawks took him as their second selection (126) in the 1976 draft. He played a little safety but mostly was a special teams demon, eventually becoming captain of that squad. The Seahawks cut him four times over his eight-year career with them, but they just kept bringing him back. He was part of Chuck Knox’s first two playoff teams in 1983 and 1984, along with Zorn, Largent, and Brown as original Seahawks who finally made the postseason in Seattle. Pro Football Reference gives Dufek an AV rating of only 2, earned in 1977 when he made five of his six starts at safety in his career, but he clearly meant more to the Seahawks than that.

Suddenly trailing the expansion team, the Vikings turned to some real old-school football. They ran right at the Seahawks, who had trouble all year (and throughout the 1970s) stopping the run. Tarkenton threw it only once in the first 12 plays of a 10-minute drive that ended up with a play-action toss to tight end Stu Voight, whose Scandinavian name made him a Minnesota favorite. Eleven plays on the ground, with Foreman and Robert Miller taking turns, used up much of the quarter and, seemingly, the Seahawks. 27-21 Minnesota.

But this is when I really became a Seahawks fan. I had seen enough on this day that I thought they could come through, even against the best team in the NFC on the road. And they gave it a go. Taking over at the Seattle 35, with 4:41 left, Zorn cranked it up again, stinging the Vikings once more on the drive’s first play. Sam McCullum had already paid his old team back, but here he was again, running a post in the chill north country air. Zorn found him at the Viking 20 and he didn’t go down until the 7 for a 53-yard gain.

McCullum had been plucked from Tarkenton’s receiving corps in the 1976 expansion draft. Given a chance to play regularly, he proved to be a steady producer for Seattle until he was controversially released by the team in the strike year of 1982—possibly for his union activities—when he was picked up again by the Vikings.

McCullum had not reached the end zone, but the Seahawks were in business. Then Jack Patera, who in later years would be known as the NFL’s greatest gambler, played it close, thinking perhaps of taking some time off the clock on the way to the needed touchdown. He turned to Sherman Smith, who found that old man linebacker Wally Hilgenberg could still play. Smith gained nothing on first down. Then the Seahawks ran a version of a play that would become a staple of their soon-to-be high flying offense, a delayed handoff, later evolving to a quarterback sprint out and draw. Smith found some room, cutting inside for six. Third and goal from the 1.

Run or pass? In the 1970s NFL, run was most likely, and that’s what the Seahawks did. Smith carried again, this time swarmed at right tackle by the People Eaters for no gain. Fourth and goal. Did Zorn have any magic left?

Alas, not on this day. Zorn’s pass to tight end John McMakin wasn’t close, thrown behind the receiver in the right end zone. I remember watching that play. It was a total failure, but I was a Seahawks fan for life.

Tarkenton took over with 2:23 left from the one. The Seahawks had a chance to the get the ball back on third and nine from the two. But here Fran Tarkenton showed the skills and savvy that made him one of the greats. He dropped back into his end zone, and here is what the game book says: "Tark to pass, rolls R, rushed, rolls L, pass good to Craig, gain 17. 2-MINUTE WARNING."

It was Steve Craig’s only catch of the game. Out of timeouts, the Seahawks could only watch as Tarkenton’s victory formation ended the game, 27-21.

No, it wasn’t a win. And it wasn’t always pretty. But the Seahawks never seemed to believe they couldn’t win this game. Four turnovers, including three Zorn interceptions (two by Wright), certainly hurt, but the ‘Hawks were at the Minnesota 1 with a chance to win the game late. Zorn had thrown for 278 yards, just edging the man to whom he was most often being compared. The Viking stars starred. Tarkenton’s 26-31 efficiency and Foreman’s 161 total yards led the way. For the Seahawks, Smith tallied 88 total yards. The strangest line: Largent, already an emerging star, had one catch for seven yards and another for minus-7, and that was it, unless you want to count his end-around that went for nothing.

This young team, on its first tour of the league, had lost again and would sputter to the finish. But the seeds of an entertaining and competitive squad were already in place. This game, even more than the two victories, gave Seahawks fans hope that better things were soon to come. In 1978, the Vikings, still winning but diminished by time, came to the Kingdome. Efren Herrera’s last-second field goal won that game for Seattle, their first against a winning team.