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October 8, 1978: One Short Kick

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Special thanks to 99-percent sure for their assistance on this article.

It is difficult to say that a two-year-old franchise with a 2-3 record suddenly found themselves in a make-or-break game, but the 1978 Seahawks came as close as a team could possibly get.  After a 2-12 opening season and a 5-9 sophomore season, Seattle began to turn some heads.  Five games into the 1978 season, the Seahawks had developed an unusual identity: a top-flight and nigh unstoppable offense ranked near the top of the league coupled with a critically underachieving defense that dwelt near the bottom of the league.

By the sixth game of the season, the Seahawks, led by coach Jack Patera, were a team searching for legitimacy.  After two straight losses followed by two straight wins, the Seahawks were destroyed by the Denver Broncos.  They had yet to defeat, or even be competitive with, a playoff team.  The usual pundits placed the Seahawks in a category of "not quite:" good enough to beat the bad teams, not good enough to beat the good teams.

The Seahawks' offense was strong.  Steve Largent was, well, he was Steve Largent, the master of both the routine and improbable catch.  He was a route-running expert, casually shaking off defenders and finding soft spots in zone defenses while addled defensive backs clutched desperately at him.  Sherman Smith was one of the league's top running backs, and the fullback David Sims would become one of the league's top scorers.

And there was Jim Zorn.  One of the most underrated aspects of Zorn's game was his mobility, his discreet shiftiness that must have made him appear as a phantom to pursuing defenders.  A cut here, and spin there, a juke there, extending the play long after the pocket collapsed and defenders had given up all techniques in favor of just trying to run him down and knock him over.  Jim Zorn wasn't a poor man's Fran Tarkenton, he was nearly a carbon copy.  Zorn would find a crease and exploit it; he would run for 290 yards and six touchdowns in 1978.  In his best running season, Fran Tarkenton, renowned for his escape techniques, would score four touchdowns and run for 376 yards.  1978, however, would be Fran Tarkenton's last season, and at times, Jim Zorn looked more like Fran Tarkenton than Fran Tarkenton did.

The Vikings were a good opponent to get the statement win, to advance upward in the clotted ranks of the league, where the haves and the have nots were almost perpetually aligned from season to season.  The 1977 Vikings had lost in the NFC Championship game, and the 1978 Vikings were tougher than their 3-2 record indicated, and were already well on their way to another playoff appearance.  The Seahawks were out to establish credibility, to show their stats were not just derived from running up numbers on weak opponents.

It was a win that was there, one that was ripe for Seattle to take.

And it all came down to one person.  Not Steve Largent or Sherman Smith or Jim Zorn.

The outcome of the game would rest solely on the shoulders of Efren Herrera, Seattle's kicker.

Of course, even in the modern NFL, kickers (and long snappers) are some of the most "disposable" players out there.  A few misses here and there by a kicker, and the coach instantly feels pressure from the media and fans alike: when will you get rid of the kicker?  If the coach sticks with the kicker, then the pressure builds on them both.  Every miss, regardless of the circumstances, becomes magnified, and then coach's competence is also called into question.  For some coaches, it is simply easier to find a new kicker.  Put out a call, hold a quick tryout session, bring in the kicker that has some experience and made most of the field goals on the practice field.  Get rid of the other guy, bring the new one in, repeat if necessary.

Blaming the kicker is as old as the league itself.  It is a highly visible position, one where all eyes of the fans are on one individual.  Yes, there's the snap and the hold, and there's sometimes a missed block, but when a field goal is missed, it occurs in front of the eyes of every fan, and even the most knowledgeable fan is quick to place most, if not all, of the blame on the kicker.  Casual fans still rule in the NFL, and it is the casual fan whose simple rubric is the most punishing: the one who misses the kicks receives the blame. Almost every other action in the NFL can be dissected and sliced in any way in order to absolve or blame the player's failures: a dropped pass, a missed tackle, a poorly thrown ball.  But there are few excuses for a missed kick, and the closer the kicker is to the uprights, the fewer the excuses become.

The psychological strain of each individual kick must be punishing, it must wear on the kicker, even those who are automatic, who stare down the uprights and then slice their arm in the air as if to guide the ball true and proper before the play even begins.  Even though the kicker surely knows that their reputation, their career, their very personality, are not solely dependent on one kick, every kick is important, often possibly the very margin of the game itself. All eyes are not only on the kicker, but so are the hopes of the teammates and the ire or adoration of the fans.  There's no in-between as a kicker: you either failed, or you succeeded, and the punishments and rewards are equally stark.  For a kicker, there's no immediate do-overs, and a try for redemption is almost entirely dependent on someone else.  If a receiver drops a ball, the pass can come back his way on the very next play, the very next series.  But for the kicker who has missed an extra point or a field goal, they must wait for their turn again, relying on the efforts of teammates, the very teammates who gave them an earlier try, to get the field position back.  Only then, only after the collective efforts of eleven other individuals have wended their way down the field, does the kicker get yet another chance.

Going into the fourth quarter, the Seahawks were down 28-19.  The Vikings had been powered by Fran Tarkenton's slipperiness yet again, and although the Seahawks held firm in the pocket, Tarkenton spun and wheeled around, sometimes dropping back fifteen or twenty yards, heaving the ball back to the line of scrimmage.

Herrera had missed two extra points: one in the first quarter, when Seattle jumped out to a 13-point lead, and another in the second quarter.  Seattle would not score again until the fourth quarter.  Herrera would have to sit and wait, ponder when the next chance would arrive.

Down by nine, though, the Seahawks needed two scores to win, and the barest minimum would be a touchdown, an extra point, and a field goal.  In other words, in order to win, Herrera would need to score twice on a day where he was already one-for-three.

The first score was relatively easy: with nine minutes left in the game, Jim Zorn dashed off a 22-yard touchdown run, reaching the end zone, it seemed, before any Vikings knew he left the pocket.

Herrera's extra point was good.

After a stalled Vikings drive, Seattle took over with seven minutes left and started to chip away.  Three yards here, two yards there, and then a first down.  Over and over, down the field.  From the Seahawk 29 to the Viking 32, five full minutes of game time elapsed.  Everyone in the stadium knew Jack Patera's plan: to grind down the clock as much as possible.  This would be the last drive of the game. Patera had decided that the Seahawks would win or lose in the next two minutes.

The next play after the two-minute warning was a short pass to Sherman Smith, who glided down to the Vikings 17.

And now, all eyes were on Herrera.  At the Vikings 32, the idea of a field goal was possible, but not probable.  It would have been a long field goal attempt, one that was almost too much to ask of a field goal kicker.  But now, at the 17, with less than two minutes remaining, the man who had already missed two extra points was now in the position to finish the game, to put it to an end.  He would be the goat or he would be the hero.  He would become a sad story of a guy who just couldn't do it, or he would become the story of a guy who overcame adversity.  Somewhere in the upper reaches of the stadium, dozens of reporters no doubt cracked their knuckles and hovered their fingers over their typewriters, the formless narratives in their minds now waiting to be turned into solid words.

Seattle burned time and gained yardage, driving all the way down to the Viking 2.  Herrera trotted out onto the field; his final field goal would be the distance of his two missed extra points.  Redemption or failure.  Hero or goat.

There was precious little to say about the kick.  Field goals are all about context, and that is what makes them so punishing: it is rarely about the technique or the skill.  It is about the when and the where and the how.  Just as the field goal kicker has to rely on his teammates to allow him the chance to score, the field goal kicker has to rely on everything else.  Few columns are written about a kicker's technique on a kick, win or lose.  Words are always expended, however, on the moments immediately before and after a kick. It is as if the kick itself were a fixed point in time around which the rest of the game is suspended.  A field goal attempt is 20/20 hindsight that occurs in the exact moment it happens. For the field goal kicker, it is at once impersonal, automatic, and entirely personal, a vindication or indictment not only of their performance, but their decision to become a football player in the first place.

On October 8, 1978, Herrera made the game-winning field goal.

And the Seattle Seahawks made their statement.  By the end of the year, they posted a 9-7 record, and although they missed the playoffs, Jack Patera won coach of the year.  Steve Largent served notice that he was already among the league's best receivers.  Jim Zorn, Sherman Smith, and David Sims were one of the most dangerous backfields in the league.

Not long after, Efren Herrera would score 100 points in a season for the Seahawks.

Although the Seahawk rise to the level of playoff contenders was relatively short lived, the foundation for the franchise was laid here.  By the time the team made the playoffs for the first time in 1983, a new generation had taken over: Chuck Knox for Jack Patera, Dave Krieg for Jim Zorn, Curt Warner for Sherman Smith, and ... well, Steve Largent was irreplaceable.  He only became a better version of himself from season to season.

By 1983, Efren Herrera was out of the NFL.  Like most NFL kickers, his career dissipated quicker than most: a starter one season, tying, setting, or breaking records, and gone after the next, a lingering knee injury too worrisome for coaches to deal with.  Norm Johnson would replace Herrera, and Herrera, too, would not see the playoffs.

But, in this pressure situation, Herrera, with one kick, continued to prove that he was a necessary part of the team's vitalization, and, with one kick, he put the franchise on the path to its' first brush with respectability.