On January 25, 1998, at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, the Denver Broncos of John Elway, Terrell Davis and Mike Shanahan took the Lombardi Trophy from TitleTown to the Mile High City by beating the defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. It was a thrilling game, a 31-24 nail-biter that went right down to the wire – the Packers were driving for the tying score when LB John Mobley batted away Brett Favre’s 4th and 6 pass to TE Mark Chmura with 32 seconds left. It was Denver’s first Super Bowl championship in five tries.
It was also Mike Holmgren’s first in his current string of five consecutive postseason losses.
I have seen writers attempt to compare Seattle’s 2005 team to some of the high-powered San Francisco teams of the 1980s. While I can certainly see why such comparisons would be easy to make, I don’t think they stick. Although those 49ers always had great backs like Roger Craig and Ricky Watters, San Francisco’s championships were written on the wind, as Joe Montana and Steve Young aired it out over nearly two decades to a historically impressive and efficient degree.
Instead, I would submit that the 1997 Broncos and the 2005 Seahawks are what could be called “hybrid offenses” – squads born of the West Coast Offense, but altered to fit the strength of their running backs.
The '97 Broncos ranked #1 in the NFL in both yards and points on their way to a 12-4 record. Seattle is currently ranked #1 in yards and 4th in points. Both teams were 8-2 after 10 games.
Quarterbacks – After more than a decade of trying to hoist his team on his back while warring with coach Dan Reeves, John Elway got some help in the late ‘90’s with the ascent of Terrell Davis, a 6th-round draft pick out of Georgia in 1995. Never about stats, Elway’s numbers nonetheless became more balanced with Mike Shanahan’s arrival as Denver’s head coach in 1995. In 1997, Elway completed 280 passes in 502 attempts for 3,635 yards, 27 TDs, 11 INTs and an 87.5 passer rating. With Davis becoming the offense to a greater degree, it was Elway’s job to provide balance and leadership. This, he was easily able to do.
Through ten games in 2005, 7th-year QB Matt Hasselbeck has completed 200 passes in 316 attempts for 12 TDs, 7 INTs and an 89.3 passer rating. Projected over 16 games, Hasselbeck’s numbers (320 of 506 for 3,771 yards, 19 TDs and 11 INTs) are quite similar, except for the touchdowns. This of course, can be explained by Seattle’s proclivity to give the ball to Shaun Alexander in the red zone.
Comparing Matt Hasselbeck to John Elway in the big picture? Ridiculous, to be sure. Hasselbeck will have to play out of his mind for another decade for such assessments to bear fruit. However, the season stories are remarkably similar – both quarterbacks are playing second fiddle very impressively in their own offenses.
Running Backs – West Coast offenses are supposed to be predicated on an approximate 60/40% pass-run ratio, right? Of course if you’re Andy Reid, circa 2005, that pass ratio crawls up into the realm of the ludicrous. Not when you have THESE guys! Terrell Davis, meet Shaun Alexander. In 1997, erstwhile Bill Walsh acolyte Mike Shanahan ran an offense which ran the ball 520 times out of 1,033 total offensive plays for a run percentage of 50.3. In 2005, WCO maven Mike Holmgren has called 310 running plays out of a total of 627, for a run percentage of 49.4. Moral? When you have a guy who rushes for 1,750 yards (as Davis did in 1997) or 1,966 (as Shaun is on pace to gain this season through ten games), you throw the book out the freakin’ window and go with THE MAN!
The other moral? Balance is good.
If this Alexander/Davis comparison really applies in terms of production, Seattle had best re-sign #37 during or after the season. 1998 was Davis’ finest season, as he rushed for 2,008 yards on 391 carries for a 5.1 average.
A 5.1 average. With 391 carries. Yow. We’ll just have to hope that Davis’ short career isn’t part of the line.
Another similarity – T.D. and S.A. are both considered “system backs” to a degree – the common presumption is that any NFL back could succeed behind the amazing offensive lines of either team. This has proven to be true in Denver, and would most likely be so in Seattle. But it’s indicative to note that no Denver back has come within 400 yards of Davis’ career high since the end of his injury-shortened career (Clinton Portis was closest with 1,591 yards in 2003), and Denver hasn’t won a playoff game since Davis’ retirement. Of course, the absence of a certain #7 may have just a little bit to do with that.
Both players were/are cutback geniuses; furious downhill runners who were/are tough to stop once they got/get rolling.
Wide Receivers – Underrated “B+” receivers who make a team go? Rod Smith, meet Darrell Jackson. Of course, Denver didn’t have to deal with Smith out due to injury for several weeks – Denver’s #80 caught 70 footballs for 1,180 yards and 12 TDs. Jackson’s caught 29 balls for 376 yards and 2 TDs in only four games.
Now, if you really want to get scary with the comparisons, try this: White, 6’5”, possession receivers who were originally drafted by the New York Giants? Yes, that’s both Ed McCaffrey and Joe Jurevicius. In ’97, McCaffrey caught 45 balls for 590 yards and 8 TDs. So far in 2005, Jurevicius (who has carried a great deal of the load in Jackson’s absence) has 36 catches for 421 yards and 5 TDs.
Denver’s ’97 team has a huge advantage at the tight end position – all-timer Shannon Sharpe vs. Jerramy Stevens, a potential All-Pro who’s still finding his way. However, that deficiency on Seattle’s part is countered by the presence of WR Bobby Engram. Seattle has redefined their WR corps around possession as opposed to flash and the big play.
Offensive Line – You could win multiple Super Bowls with either of these lines. Denver’s infamous, undersized, media-fearing, chop-blocking unit led by OL coach Alex Gibbs featured starters Gary Zimmerman, Mark Schlereth, Tom Nalen, Brian Habib and Tony Jones from left to right in 1997. RT Jones, perhaps the least-known of those linemen, had what may have been the most impressive and important performance next to Davis’ in Super Bowl XXXII when he shut Reggie White down. As in: One tackle, zero assists, zero sacks.
None other than Fritz Shurmur, the late, great former Green Bay defensive coordinator, put Denver’s line into perspective: "They didn't do anything really that we hadn't seen on tape," Shurmur said after the Super Bowl. "But in the last three games, their offensive line was playing as well as I had seen anyone play all year. They push you to one direction or another and then he reads and cuts into a hole. If your guys are not up the field enough, he gets by you. We had been playing very well against the rush in the playoffs, and I thought we would do better against them."
If that brings a ring of familiarity to the souls of Seahawks fans, so used to the utter dominance of the Jones/Hutchinson/Tobeck/Gray/Locklear line and what it does in concert with Shaun Alexander…well, that’s because it should.
Summary: Whether this 2005 Seahawks team has the offense to take it to and through the Super Bowl is still open to debate - but it would appear that all the pieces are there.
Who would know that better than Mike Holmgren? After all, he's seen this offense before...and now, he's on the right side.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com.