clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The untold story of Super Bowl XL and more: An exclusive interview with Jim Zorn

New, comments

Revealing the untold story of Super Bowl 40.

Courtesy of Anthony May Photography
Courtesy of Anthony May Photography

Before we dive in, I want to take a moment to thank former Seahawks quarterback, coach, and Ring of Honor member Jim Zorn for taking the time to talk with me about a number of subjects. He was incredibly courteous, generous with his time, and provided great insight. I really appreciated what he had to say and Seattle was lucky to have Jim play for them. Without further ado, let's get to the interview. My questions are in bold and answers follow.

Upon entering the NFL, was there anyone that immediately took you under their wing? Any veteran guys?

Well, when I came into the NFL, the only guy I would have spent a lot more time with was Roger Staubach. I wasn't necessarily under his wing as much as he just showed me what a pro, a guy who had made it in the NFL, looked like. How hard he worked was an example to me of how hard I was going to have to work -- in order to be like Roger early in my career.

Was there a specific moment when you realized you & Steve Largent might become something extraordinary?

The very first game, I threw a ball. He was on the left side and it was a vertical route. I scrambled a little bit and I let the ball go and it was really far for him to catch it in stride. And he dove, we went prone, he just launched himself forward and he was completely laid out two feet above the ground and he caught the football. I think that was the one throw where I was like this is going to be pretty awesome -- because he was making me look good, you know what I mean?

And then point number two - I think with Steve, more than anybody else I've been around, thought like me in terms of putting in the extra time. Here, he was a fourth round draft choice from Tulsa that had gotten cut by the Houston Oilers. I was a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys, made the team, got cut -- and now I had a chance to play again in Seattle. What we had kind of thought about together was we're not going to allow not working hard enough to be the reason that we were going to get cut. They were going to have to get rid of us because we just couldn't play.

What was the locker room chemistry like in those first couple of years of the Seattle franchise?

Well the first year was very interesting, because there just seemed to be a lot of turnover of players even after the team was decided past that final cut. That week, we had several new running backs in and I still didn't quite know their names. I would just call them by their jersey numbers. Hey #44, come here. And so, that was unique.

What was unique about the locker room was our team came together very, very quickly because we had some veteran leadership. In that first year, we had some guys who had been on good teams but were kind of past their prime. They brought that to the locker room a little bit. I think everyone was just excited to be apart of something new and start new traditions - so that made the locker room a pretty good place to be in.

Who's the most underrated Seahawk that you played with?

Hmmm....underrated. Well, there were probably a few. One was Dan Doornink. Smart guy, smart player. I don't know...was (current Seahawks running back coach) Sherman Smith underrated? Because Sherman was really a good running back. What's funny about Sherman is he was a quarterback in college, we drafted him wide receiver and he was our starting running back. So how are you going to rate him?

Who's the most intimidating defensive player you went up against?

I could name a couple. One, Jack Lambert. I think Jack really enjoyed playing. Rulon Jones, who played defensive end for the Denver Broncos was a space cadet -- I mean he was really a guy who had a mission. I could name several of the 85 Bears. Mike Singletary. Steve McMichael was a really good player -- he was a defensive lineman.

You know, I would say those are the guys I can remember having a lot for respect for in how they approach the game. They brought the violence -- I wasn't necessarily afraid of that physical game, but they brought that attitude that you had to have to really be on your game against guys who really loved to compete.

As a scrambling quarterback, how did you work with receivers who weren't as accustomed to this format of improvisation?

Yeah good question. We worked on scramble drills. We realized very early in my Seahawk tenure that just because the play didn't happen on rhythm, if the ball didn't come out on rhythm, that they needed to start figuring out where they needed to be.

We had roles and what happened really made the game much like what you see in today's Seahawks -- it makes the game come alive, because the play isn't over. We just continued to move around, the receivers would move around.

The big difference was once that people saw I was willing to scramble - not only throw the ball but run up the field, we then designed scramble plays so Largent could run routes 20, 22 yards instead of just 18 yards or 15 yards. We did that at practice. We worked a lot on the idea that if the play breaks down in practice then we should scramble like it was a real game.

Can you compare the 1983-84 Seahawks (when you were a player) to the 2005 Seahawks (when you were a coach) to the current Seahawks?

Okay, I will make one comparison and that is when you have a team that has been winning. Then when you get towards the last quarter of the season and heading to the playoffs, not guaranteed to make the playoffs but you're heading there, what happens to the team is the team starts to assume more responsibility and more confidence that they're going to do what the coaches are planning for them.

So the players kind of take over if you will -- and the coaches have to do less because the players are so willing to do more. They're finally living out, if you will, what the mission or the vision that the head coach has set out from the start. They start believing it.

That's probably the biggest comparison that I can make between the 1983 team that went to the AFC championship and lost, to the 2005 Seahawks who went to the NFC championship and won and went to the Super Bowl.

-What's your favorite moment as the quarterback for the Seahawks?

Oh gosh, I can't single out one moment. I can say that there were many moments that I could look at. I'll tell you what -- my favorite moments are when you start a drive backed up from the minus-20 and you drive the ball with your team 80 yards or however many yards it takes and finishes with a score.

There isn't much more satisfying than that. Maybe you're dominating, maybe you're overcoming some negative plays, whatever has happened -- you finishing the drive has got to be the most satisfying and memorable times in a game. And listen, I could talk to you about field goals, fake field goals, long passes, things you've highlights of. All of those were pure joy. But I can single out even one play that I didn't even get to participate in. We were playing the Chicago Bears in the Kingdome and Mike Ditka was the head coach. We ended up being ahead of them 31-29. And all they had to do was drive down and kick a field goal to win.

We lined up on a third down and Jack (Patera) called a fake and it was a punt on third down. He called a punt on third down. Dan Doornink is behind me, I go in motion, while I call out Largent's name -- we snap the ball to Doornink and he punts it right near the goal line and the ball is rolling to Largent. It gets to the one-yard line and almost goes right through Largent's legs in the end zone - and he touches it on the one-yard line. They had 99 yards to go and we ended up winning the game because they couldn't sustain a drive.

Ditka was just ticked that he wasn't ready for that. Well, that's one of my favorite plays and it truly is -- even though that didn't have anything to do with me. I could think of defense, special times -- there's many memories that players remember throughout their careers.

From your days as a player - what guys do you still keep in contact with?

Steve Largent, naturally. Sherman Smith. I was good friends with Dave Brown -- he's no longer living. I keep in touch with Steve Raible. You know, I keep in touch with Norm Evans. There's a list there. Sam Adkins and I are good friends. I keep in touch with some of the coaches, like Howard Mudd.

Matt Hasselbeck is an unrestricted free agent and has said he is leaning towards playing one more year. With Tavaris Jackson set to hit free agency, should the Seahawks consider bringing back Matt?

I'm not a coach so I would not know what they're thinking in any regards. I don't have an opinion about that. But I do know Matt would be great on any team at any ability. I believe he gives you a chance with his ability, but he's over the top when it comes to the value of being a teammate and a guy that understands what it takes to win and play in a major game.

Do you have any funny untold stories of Matt Hasselbeck?

I do, but I don't want to share them. (laughs)

I have a real fondness for Matt just because of the way I see Matt pre-teammate and it doesn't matter what your status on the team is for Matt. He would treat a big time player the same as he would the lowly rookie who is a free agent and needs to be fed because if he's not he's going to go to some fast food joint and eat food that he shouldn't be eating. And then, I think Matt has a priority - treats his family very, very well. The other thing is Matt is so capable on social media -- I try to go to him for learning things. He brings a lot to the table.

What skills do modern quarterbacks often lack that they would have needed to be successful in your era; with the flipside being, what part of your game would you have to work on the most to be successful nowadays?

First of all, I think players (these days) really lack fundamentals and techniques because in college you don't get as much time to work on fundamentals. So, I think the younger players come in lacking that. You try to help them -- but even in the NFL, it's harder to stick with a player and develop him year to year because we just simply look at a guy and say: he can or can't play -- and then we're done with him.

In my time, you actually could develop skill. One of the biggest skills that could be developed by a player is scrambling skills. The ability to move in the pocket, the other thing is the ability to throw on rhythm and have some efficiency. I see a lot of wasted motion and I see decision making that is poor. I've been working with several quarterbacks for the NFL combine and at the college level and I've been really surprised of the lack of football knowledge -- just pure knowledge.

At the college level, you have a cut down amount of time. If you have a fast paced offense and you're looking at cards on the sideline for the next play, you get to the NFL and you have to call a play in the huddle. You're nervous about that because you haven't done it. You wonder if you'll be able to remember a play in the playbook, let alone call a play in the huddle.

So, there are a lot of things that players have to adjust to when they get to the NFL level that they haven't experienced -- because they just don't do it at the college level. I could have used that -- just better understanding about defense and gap control and coverage overloads and identifying things, quicker.

And you think about, even a guy like Peyton Manning -- who is or isn't going to play, that's up to him -- for him in his first few years he had all this desire to really know the game and really know his offense. He took that and made it a very serious improvement in his game because he learned football at a really in-depth level. He could get you to show him what you were doing. He didn't do that right off the bat. There was a learning curve. Peyton Manning didn't get to be Peyton Manning by just showing up - he had the same kind of work ethic as most great players do.

As a coach, were there any specific players or coaches that inspired your offensive philosophy?

I loved the West Coast systems that I've been around -- I've actually liked all of them, but I think the West Coast system plays with the type of quarterback mentality that really allows the quarterback to play the game in a full way.

For example, a strong running game, a rhythm passing game, multiple personnel groups, multiple formations -- and yet it's the rhythm of the play that gets the ball out. And then the movement plays, the hard play action, kind of the realism of what you're trying to a show a defensive opponent. So I think -- Jerry Rhome, even though he wasn't the author of the West Coast system -- he understood rhythm, he understood play design that put people in positions so that you had a place to go with the ball most of the time.

Another major influence on me was Mike Holmgren, because he tried to stay with the West Coast game as it was in San Francisco when he was there with Bill Walsh. And I would contend that Bill Walsh, because I had already been in the league in 1975, I felt like Bill Walsh did a great job of developing an offense on some of the important things that he saw throughout the league as he played against opponents. So Bill Walsh developed plays that he would say he authored -- if you will. I can tell you right now Jerry Rhome authored the play and probably ran it at Tulsa before he ever came to the Seahawks. But, it would come under Bill Walsh design because they went to the Super Bowl with Joe Montana -- so they kind of became the authors behind it. I wouldn't say that about the whole offense -- but you pick and choose.

I look at the Patriots and I think Bill Belichick would do that as well -- and then it becomes their own -- and then other teams begin to look at them.

The whole idea is to steal from everybody else's good ideas so you can get better. I would say this: legendary coaches become legendary coaches because of sound concepts -- but the common thread is really good players. Better players than anybody else has. Any if you have better players than anybody else, what happens is you can become a very successful football coach and everyone wants to follow you.

You put in an average player in a scheme and that becomes an average scheme. Good players can make an average scheme better. Bad players can't make an average scheme much better. You've got a good scheme or a sound team and you have really good players -- you're in the playoffs because that's what you can do. You have to stay healthy but that's what you can do.

What was it like working under different head coaches and their philosophies?

I thought it was absolutely a great education and you also realize you can have a whole different way of seeing a play and understanding a play and still be successful even though you've had a different experience with that play. Other offenses might have the same play and they stole it from the West Coast offense - and yet they don't run the play like the West Coast teams have run the play. They run the play like they thought it was supposed to be run.

I would say this: the thing that's been the most impressive is it still has success -- but then they have other ideas that were born out of their thought process that has been very successful and all these plays can be intertwined in different offenses. It's the way you call them and the way you see them.

The most important thing between the coach and the players is that the players know why you called that play as a coach. So then, you just don't get into the idea of calling a bunch of players and it doesn't matter -- but that there is a reason that I'm calling this play. That was absolutely one of the most excellent concepts to learn with Mike Holmgren.

How do you feel about the catch rule these days? Many fans and media pundits view it as confusing -- what's your take?

Well, I think they've eliminated a lot of gray area by making the guy finish what he started because its hard to see if a guy truly caught the ball going out of bounds or bobbling it. So I think they eliminated some of the gray -- but when you get so technical with it that it takes an instant replay to decipher it, I think you just hope you have a red flag so you can throw it.

Some of those things are happening so fast that you don't know whether it was a catch or not. Some of that you just have to know that the rules are good because they have instant replay. Some of the rules are tough to interpret when it comes to that final catch. The thing that's hard is if you're going to catch a ball and you can get pushed out of bounds and it being an incompletion -- they used to have it where if the official thought you would come down inbounds it would be ruled a catch. So, that's what made things really wacky for a while.

I think the catch is a much easier interpretation based on instant replay than pass interference. I think defensive pass interference is one of the most difficult concepts to identify in the NFL. But I think the way it was when I played -- you could actually physically chuck a receiver within the first five yards -- well that rule actually is still there.

But that rule is one of the most unenforced calls in the game because you can hold a guy as long as you don't tug his jersey. You can almost do so much more than you ever could when we played and it just got to the point where instead of enforcing the rule, we adjusted the rule or put ease on the rule and made amendments to it. It's made the game I think much harder to be consistent because where one official sees something that's exactly the same as we did last week -- it wasn't called last week but it's going to be called this week. That's one of the most difficult things I think players and coaches have to contend with. You have to get players to notice what official is going to be your backside official and what his tendency to call will be.

A lot of fans remain bitter from the calls in Super Bowl 40, did you feel they cost you the game or would you attribute it more to getting beaten by the Steelers?

I'll give you a pretty straight answer and it's an informed answer. With Mike Holmgren, and I was on his staff for seven years, one of the things that my responsibility was to always send in the video in question of questionable calls -- either that we felt like this should have been a call, we felt like this wasn't a call, that we felt like it shouldn't have been called, or we would say: interpret this for me -- we don't understand this situation.

Well, after the Super Bowl, I sent in 15 questionable calls of that nature. We felt this was wrong, we felt this should have been called, we felt this shouldn't have been called, interpret this.

You send it into the league office and then the league responds to you with all your questions. The league office will say: you were wrong here, this was the right call. Or, they're honest and they will say you're right and this should have been called this way.

Well, out of those 15 questionable calls, the league office agreed on seven of them. Almost 50% of the questionable calls made in that game were incorrect. Had those calls been made correctly, I absolutely believe we would have won the Super Bowl.

You said there were 15 questionable calls after the Super Bowl. For a typical, standard NFL game, how many questionable calls would you send to the league office?

Probably I'd send in -- because you go offensive, defensive, and special times -- I could send in, on offense, five to seven. That would be a major deal for me. Usually, I'll send in an average of three on offense. Every week would be different. One week it would be three; the next week it would be two. Or I don't have any this week. There would even be times when you didn't even have any.

Just on offense, it would turn out to be three to five. And then, you would get some more on defense and a few on special teams. I think the officials, they try to do a very good job -- they're not out there to do a poor job and every year they're trying to be as consistent as they can be. It's just a difficult game and it's hard to interpret the way that rules are sometimes written. It's a hard game.

I'm not trying to make an excuse that we did not earn the win because we ended up losing -- and we can say all we want with excuses about the officials.

Did you know that the official actually came back to Seattle at some point a couple years later and actually apologized? He came to speak for somebody and actually apologized on behalf of him and their staff -- apologizing to the Seahawks.

Even though it sounds like I'm whining and pining for an excuse to say, 'yeah we should have won it,' there's something to that in the fact that an official from the league would come and speak during an offseason speaking engagement and apologize to the Seahawks fans.

----------

Author's Note: Towards the middle of the interview I asked Jim what his take was on Russell Wilson's development in 2015. He gave me a fascinating new perspective.

Jim mentioned how so many people are quick to give opinions on the performances of quarterbacks after watching only the games. In passionate words, he told me how many people haven't earned the right to give an opinion. Us as fans, we don't evaluate the development behind closed doors and in practice -- so we'd really just be "spinning our wheels" if we were going to critique Russell and other quarterbacks. We're not quarterback coaches and we don't see the whole process -- so it's unfair to act like we can give accurate takes. I appreciated this fresh perspective.