clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Dec. 16, 2000: A Phantom Safety, a Comeback, and a Near-Loss

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

"There are a whole lotta people out there right now rooting for the Seahawks."

The 1999 Seahawks began the season with a meteoric rise.  Naturally, they would crash back to Earth with startling velocity.

They opened the 2000 season with a record of 2-2 before sinking to five straight losses.  It was enough to essentially eliminate the team from the postseason, and those heady days of the 1999 8-2 Super Bowl contender Seahawks evaporated amidst yet another season marred by failures.

It was a record that every Seahawks fan was familiar with, the very light wins column juxtaposed by the very heavy losses column.  Say what you will about .500 teams, but they have a nice balance: they lost as many as they won, and they are as good as they are bad.  It's perfectly rounded, inoffensive.  A few bounces of the ball and it becomes a winning record.  Another few games and they're talking playoffs.  The .500 record is the Tantalus of the NFL.

But at 2-7, there's such a disparity between those two numbers that even the most devout fans lose hope.  Announcers begin to refer to these teams as "underdogs," "competitors," or, in the case of the 2000 Seahawks, "spoilers."  Annual videos, produced by people no doubt desperately searching for positivity, highlight the team's "never quit" spirit.

The 2000 Seahawks weren't going to the playoffs, but they were talented enough to impact the playoff picture, to cripple some team's playoff hopes, or to entirely eliminate other teams whom they never even played that season.  A win against one team could toss other teams from contention or strengthen the position of still others.  In the stew of the playoff picture, the 2000 Seahawks weren't the ingredients, they were the spoon stirring the broth.

It was all the fans had to cheer for: watching another franchise's misery, even from afar, with every Seahawks victory.  This was psychological armor for fans: a loss was another loss, business as usual, affecting only the draft order.  With every loss, the macrocosm sank to microcosm, away from playoff seeding to individual player performances or draft positioning.  The future looked brighter only because the present was so incredibly dim.

But the wins. The wins were something to celebrate, the improbable victory over a heavily favored opponent that would be the stone thrown into the lake, the ripple effect dancing through several other cities.

Going into Week 16 of the 2000 season, the Seahawks were 5-9, a team whose chances were utterly ruined by that five-game losing streak. Since the start of their 1999 losing streak, the team had posted a 6-15 regular season record, a win percentage of .286.

The Oakland Raiders, however, were riding high, bound for the AFC Championship game, posting an 11-3 record, enjoying a six-game win streak during Seattle's losing streak.

The only surprise, then, was that the Raiders were only up 24-13 with 11 minutes left in the game.

That's when Seattle, however reluctantly, decided to mess with the playoff picture for all of the AFC contenders.

It started innocuously: touchdown in garbage time.  Five minutes left in the game and Shaun Alexander, who, in 2000, is backing up Ricky Watters, goes in for the score.  The 2-point conversion failed, and 24-19.

The Seahawks defense then stopped the Raiders and got the ball back.  Suddenly, the dormant Seahawks looked like a team ready to play the part of the spoiler.  The stadium started to murmur. This thing, this comeback victory that for the Seahawks would be relatively pointless, had now become not only a possibility, but a case of simple math.

But the Seahawks had gotten the ball on the 29, and then an illegal use of hands penalty would push them back to their own 19.

That's when Ricky Watters shuffled to the side, sidestepped a tackler, and broke through the line.  He raced 53 yards down the left hashmark, pursued by several Raiders.  One of them was Charles Woodson, who accelerated and then punched the ball out of Watters's hand at around the Raider 25.

Several Raiders went in pursuit of the loose ball and ...

The weather.  It was a typically rainy Seattle December day, the sort of day where playing football means that every tackle feels like a thousand needles getting pushed into your flesh.  It means that your vision constantly blurs, your eyes fogging over every few seconds.  It means that you're cold, wet, and your uniform is so tight and soggy that it feels like a second, undesirable layer of flesh, solely responsible for making your existence miserable.

And, as the rain grew heavier, the field at Husky Stadium grew soggier and soggier.  When a player went to the turf, a fine spray of mist encircled them, reflexively jumping up from the turf.  Players slid across the surface well beyond where they were considered "down."  A referee would mark the ball two or three or five yards back from where the player had been brought down, and, then, as if he had fallen into some invisible creek, slid to a stop.

That's what happened to Marquez Pope.  The Raiders defensive back fell on the ball at around the three, but his momentum carried him into the end zone. Seahawks tight end Itula Mili reached down and grazed Pope with his hand while Pope lay in the end zone.

Something important had happened, and no one quite knew what.  The officials gathered.  They gathered again.  The Raiders sideline, led by Jon Gruden, himself possibly already contemplating a career in broadcasting, crept further and further toward midfield.  The announcers reviewed a frame-by-frame slow motion replay of the entire play, from handoff to fumble to slide.

The officials spoke some more and then decided:

It was a safety.

The score suddenly became 24-21.  And Seattle would get the ball back.

After the free kick, for a brief moment, the Seahawks offense looked began to look like what Mike Holmgren surely dreamed of: opening the drive with a 20-yard pass and then a 16-yard completion, followed by a few runs, and Seattle had completely flipped field position.  They were at the Raider 9 within two minutes. A pass to Darrell Jackson and Seattle was in front, 27-24.

There were 33 seconds left in the game.  And those who thought they had seen one of the most bizarre plays in NFL history just five minutes earlier were entirely unprepared for the next sequence of events.

Jeff Feagles bobbled the hold on the extra point.  The ball, lubricated by the constant rainfall, squirted through his hands.  Rian Lindell started to fall onto the ball, but Feagles instead decided to kick the ball across the field and out of bounds.  It was an odd decision for Feagles, and Holmgren was armed with the appropriate expletives when Feagles returned to the sidelines.

The illegal touching penalty was declined by the Raiders.  They were still within a field goal.

Rian Lindell hit the kickoff out of bounds.  The penalty placed the ball at the Raider 40 to start the drive.  Holmgren broke out newer, more advanced expletives.

After a quick incompletion, Rich Gannon found Andre Rison in the flat.  Maurice Kelly closed on Rison and hit him high just as the ball arrived.

It was a personal foul, and the Raiders advanced another 15 yards.

Within nine seconds of game time, the Raiders were on the Seahawk 45.  And they didn't have to do anything to earn that field position.  They just watched this Seahawks team implode all on its own.

But this time, the team implosion would be incomplete.  Gannon, harassed by the Seahawks defensive line all day, threw too far in front of his receiver.  The ball deflected off of his hands and arced into the air.  Willie Williams, already falling to the ground, let the ball land in his hands for the interception.  It was Gannon's third interception of the day.  He would end with only 11 interceptions in the 2000 season.

The Raiders went on to the championship game, losing to the Ravens.  But the controversial ruling made this safety join the franchise's B-team of officiating mishaps, blunders, oversights, or just plain odd rulings in Raiders lore.  The safety and the loss didn't change the trajectory of the Raider season all that much, unlike The Immaculate Reception or the Tuck Rule.

As for the Seahawks, they would close out the season with a blowout loss to Buffalo, and the rebuilding would continue.  Within a few more seasons, the team would be in the playoff picture, rather than trying to manipulate it from afar.  But, in the moment, even after a come-from-behind win against a divisional opponent, 6-10 would leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans. The luster of the early 1999 start and the freshness of Mike Holmgren's tenure had worn off, and fans found themselves looking for answers to even newer questions.  Some of the answers appeared in the offseason: Trent Dilfer, Matt Hasselbeck, John Randle, Steve Hutchinson, and Levon Kirkland would arrive.  Shaun Alexander would score 14 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.

But, for the time being, the sweetness of a prove-the-critics-wrong come-from-behind victory had quickly washed away, lost in the familiar feeling of yet another losing season.