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December 19, 1999: An overthrow and a fumble

Can one overthrown pass change the outcome of a season?

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

"If this ball is thrown in the right spot, it's over."

These words spilled from the flabbergasted lips of the announcers.

It seems like this is the moment every quarterback dreams of; the moment every quarterback practices for.  The deep ball, delivered on time and on target.  Catching the receiver in stride, placing it so that they almost have no choice but to catch it.

But it seems like no matter how many times they practice that deep throw, angling the ball to nose down into trash cans, hitting receivers in stride on the practice field, throwing it over and over again until the skin on their hands turns to stone, the perfect deep ball seems to be, at times, a matter of luck rather than skill.

Throw it to a place and hope the receiver is there, that they didn't get tripped up.

Cock the arm and hope your blocker keeps that blitzer's outstretched hand from brushing your elbow, radically altering the trajectory of the pass.

For Jon Kitna, it was not only the deep ball pass, but it was a pass that would have won the game in sudden death overtime, against a divisional rival, and quite probably secure a playoff berth for a franchise that hadn't experienced the playoffs in years.

It was, in other words, the perfect sandlot scenario for every kid who had ever wandered into their backyard with a football.  It was the walk-off home run to win the game.  In those backyards, scattered all across America, the kid wins the game, goes home a winner, a champion.

The reality for adults is much starker.

Mike Holmgren's first year as a Seahawks coach had been, to a point, successful.  That point was the tenth game of the season.  The Seahawks were finally, finally, a franchise in transition after so many futile years of what-if scenarios.

At that tenth game of the season, the team was 8-2 and there was talk of the Seahawks being a Super Bowl contender, talk that zipped around Seattle for the first time in almost a decade and a half.

Then, the skid.

It could be that opposing teams caught up to them, cracked their code.  It could be, as the announcers opined, that the team let the success get to their head, got sloppy, careless, reckless.

Whatever the cause, the 1999 Seahawks went from 8-2 to 8-5, losing three games in a row.  Their division rivals, Kansas City, were threatening to take the AFC West from the Seahawks and win the bid for the playoffs, the bid that the Seahawks once had sewn up, easily.

The Seahawks went to Mile High Stadium to face the Broncos in Week 15.  With only two games left in the season after this one, each game magnified in importance, as if each game was worth two or three times the one victory.  Every win was a step closer to the goal, every loss a precipitous fall to irrelevancy.

The game went back and forth in scoring.  In the final minutes of the game, the Seahawks scored twice, aided by an onside kick to give them the extra possession.  A touchdown with 54 seconds remaining and a field goal with 9 seconds remaining.

The momentum clearly rested with Seattle, and they stopped Denver's first possession in overtime.  They quickly earned a first down, moving to midfield, and the crowd began counting the yards remaining until the inevitable field goal to win the game.

It was an overthrow, clear and simple.  Joey Galloway did what Joey Galloway always did: quick footwork at the line coupled with a frightening acceleration.  He was all the way past the corner within the first five yards, and the safety was late coming over.  The Broncos had left Joey Galloway in single man-to-man coverage.

And they were going to pay for it.

Kitna threw the ball, and it bounced harmlessly downfield.  It was a yard too deep, just beyond Galloway's outstretched hands.  It would have been the game winner, the walk-off home run, the childhood fantasy enacted.  The end of a tough, brutal game made sweeter by the ending.  It would have been the sort of game that went from forgotten to the one that Kitna's grandchildren would have known by heart, the one they wished he would stop talking about.  It was a mythology ready to be born, repeated over and over again with the words, "We were tied and it was sudden death overtime..."

But it was too deep.

On the next play, the game ended.  Kitna was sacked, fumbled for the second time that game, and the Broncos returned the loose ball for the touchdown.  A legendary game turned into a heartbreaker in the span of ten seconds.

Of course, one single play doesn't determine a season.  This one play, however, altered the trajectory of the season, and announcers and pundits switched from "Super Bowl contender" to "backing into the playoffs" when describing the team.  The sheen on the 1999 Seahawks had worn off.

The Seahawks would win the division anyway, beating Kansas City in the next week, but losing to the New York Jets in the final week of the season.  If there was such a thing as "backing into the playoffs," it would be this: a record of 1-5 during the last six games of the season.  Their wild card opponent, the Miami Dolphins, had done the same thing, posting a 2-6 record in their final half of the season.  Both teams were running on fumes when they met, their fast starts melting away into distant memories.

The number three seed Seahawks would play the sixth-seeded Miami Dolphins at home in the wild card round of the playoffs.

The Seahawks would lose by a field goal.

The deflating sensation for the fans and the team would become resoundingly worse when those same Dolphins went to Jacksonville the next week and posted one of the worst defeats in modern NFL history, losing 62-7.

Yes, a 55 point loss.

Every season is filled with the what ifs: what if this player hadn't gotten injured, what if that fumble hadn't occurred, what if that call hadn't been made.  For the 1999 Seahawks, the what if may have been a little unfair: that overthrow was magnified by its in-game importance, not the season's importance.  Most likely, even with a win, the Seahawks would have managed a number three seed anyway.  The 14-2 Jaguars and the 13-3 Indianapolis Colts clinched their divisions, just above the 11-5 Buffalo Bills and the 13-3 Tennessee Titans (if one needs only a glimpse at the changing fortune of NFL franchises, re-read that sentence again).

Thus, the 10-6 or 11-5 Seahawks would have still retained the number three seed, and they still would have faced the Dolphins.

But the "what if" is more mental than practical.  The invigoration of such a win could've propelled the team forward, flipped some collective mental switch, something that was the difference of a single field goal in the wild card round.  Something that would have provided a shift in attitude, a resurrection of that speculative early-season cockiness.

These are the thoughts of a fan, an announcer, a player who has experienced losses in all of their forms.  In the 1990s, there was no such thing as "playoffs" for the Seahawks.  Their last winning record was the bookend to the decade: 1990, also a 9-7 record.  The other seasons were all losing seasons or .500 seasons, and the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl, were exercises in abstract mental exercises only ("if these three teams lose this week, but two of them win next week, and one of them ties...").

Thus, the what ifs are borne from the innate greed of someone who has gone far too long without pleasure.  Seahawks fans wanted it all, and they wanted it in 1999.

In the long term, it is easier to see the beginnings of the 2005 Super Bowl team, the new players, the coaching strategies, even the new stadium rising from the ashes of the Kingdome in the next few years.

In the short term, however, one throw landed to the turf with a thud that seemed to echo across the hearts of minds of every Seahawks fan.