- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Thirty years ago, the Seattle Seahawks were born with Jim Zorn under center. They lost their 1976 franchise opener to the Cardinals -- back when the Cards played in St. Louis -- and stumbled to a 2-12 record.
Zorn, however, had a distinguished career; he threw to future Hall of Famer Steve Largent and his No. 10 is featured in the Seahawks' Ring of Honor. Today, he is Seattle's quarterbacks coach. He is keenly aware of this yawning void: The Seahawks are 0-for-29 with respect to the Super Bowl. Only four teams -- the Cardinals, Lions, Browns and Saints -- have a longer run of Super Bowl futility.
It has been 21 years since Seattle won a playoff game.
"I've been here a long time," Zorn said Wednesday from his Kirkland, Wash., office. "These are good times. The organization has never been in a position like this. Everything we have in front of us, everything is at home.
"It's really quite a setting."
Strong -- is there a football name that better captures the essence of a particular position? -- is a symbol for these Seahawks, who labor in the anonymity of the Pacific Northwest. Strong is in his 13th season in Seattle, but he has yet to savor the satisfaction of winning a playoff game.
"We are not there yet," he said quietly last week. "We still have a lot of work to do."
Judged against the backdrop of the team's history, he's right.
Last year, the Seahawks won three of their last four regular-season games to make the playoffs for the third time under head coach Mike Holmgren. But a surprising 27-20 loss to the St. Louis Rams at home left Seattle in a shambles.
It was the third straight playoff loss for Holmgren in Seattle and the franchise's sixth straight, going back to 1984. There was speculation in Seattle that Holmgren might have to win a playoff game this season to save his job (he has one year left on the $32 million contract he signed in 1999).
Moreover, the Seahawks had nine starters who were unrestricted free agents, including the three most important offensive players: running back Shaun Alexander, left tackle Walter Jones and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Alexander was questionable at best after he said that he was "stabbed in the back" by Holmgren because the coach called a quarterback sneak in the final regular-season game against Atlanta that he felt cost him the rushing title he lost to Curtis Martin by a single yard.
No, it did not look good.
"The ship," Zorn observed, "was listing."
Motoring toward Detroit?
As we now know, things turned out well for the Seahawks.
Alexander apologized, Holmgren accepted and Seahawks owner Paul Allen did not give in to impatience. Thanks to some $30 million in salary cap cushion, the critical free agents were re-signed. Holmgren, whose record going into the season was a middling 50-46, has seen his team blossom into the NFC's best.
Zorn points to the offseason hiring of Tim Ruskell as the team's president of football operations, a role equivalent to a general manager. He also credits Mike Reinfeldt, Seattle's vice president of football administration, with signing the free agents within the framework of the cap.
"Those guys and Mike Holmgren, they just went to work," Zorn said. "They did the obvious things they had to do. There were more subtle things, too: Joe Jurevicius [wide receiver, Tampa Bay], Kelly Herndon [cornerback, Denver], Andre Dyson [cornerback, Tennessee] were all good free-agent pickups. The drafting of [USC linebacker] Lofa Tatupu was another key."
While the victory over the Colts was built on a field that was not completely level -- Colts head coach Tony Dungy, mourning the death of his son James, was not on the sideline and the Colts rested many of their starters -- it is not a stretch to imagine the Seahawks as the NFC entry in Super Bowl XL. It is not farfetched to see them winning in Detroit and hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy in their 30th season of existence.
The Seahawks play the regular-season finale in Green Bay Sunday, a triumphant return for Holmgren. The Packers are in disarray at 3-12 with similar prospects for the near future, regardless of whether quarterback Brett Favre returns. Holmgren, who coached the Packers into two Super Bowls, winning the first (XXXI) over the New England Patriots, has much to be proud of.
Seattle has already earned its first-ever conference top seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Those 13 victories are a franchise record, as are the 11 consecutive victories. The Seahawks went 8-0 at home for the second time in three seasons. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Seahawks' regular-season record of 32-15 is the NFC's best.
Alexander, running behind Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson, a matched Pro Bowl set for the last three seasons running, has a serious grip on the NFL rushing title with 1,807 yards. He scored three touchdowns against the Colts to tie Priest Holmes' all-time NFL record of 27 in a single season, set in 2003. San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson is second in touchdowns, no fewer than eight behind. Alexander has reached the end zone more times than nine NFL offenses.
Alexander, who has scored 162 points, can break former Packer Paul Hornung's 45-year-old record of 176 points with three more touchdowns at Green Bay. He can break Holmes' TD mark with one score.
Hasselbeck, often overlooked in the wake of the running game, has quietly had a terrific season that earned him a trip to Hawaii. His passer rating is 98.1, the league's fourth-best, after Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer. In the month of December he's completed 76 percent of his passes for 777 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception -- posting a gaudy passer rating of 135.5.
There are some minor concerns going into the playoffs. The defense has been shaky against some lesser teams. The secondary has been beat up, but safety Ken Hamlin is the only starter not expected back for the postseason.
The numbers suggest the Seahawks have a chance to reverse their recent postseason ineptitude. A No. 1 conference seed has reached the Super Bowl 31 of the last 35 postseasons, including the last seven consecutive seasons. For Seattle it's just a matter of changing the local culture. The city of caffeine, courtesy of Starbucks, hasn't won a major championship since 1979, when the SuperSonics, led by Finals MVP Dennis Johnson, took the NBA title.
"When it started here, we wanted to create a tradition," Zorn said. "We had a bunch of enthusiastic athletes, but we never quite built a sustained thing. We had some success in the 1980s, but it went sour again. For the last few years we've had a team that was expected to win."
Good things, the old adage goes, come to those who wait. No one has been waiting longer than Zorn and his starting fullback. In 13 seasons, six as Alexander's personal valet, Strong finally received his first invitation to the Pro Bowl.
"It seems to be our year," Strong said cautiously. "We have an opportunity to do something very special in this city."
What would winning the Super Bowl mean to Zorn and the Seahawks?
"Objectively, it would mean we accomplished the goals we set out in training camp," Zorn said. "Emotionally I have a lot of passion for this football team. It would create a tremendous amount of lasting emotion after not making it for so many years. It would be a major, major accomplishment.
"For all the people involved with the Seahawks -- Steve Largent is still a good friend of mine -- they'll feel a lot of pride. They'll know all the sacrifices they've made over the years were worth it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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