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Great Unknowns

Hasselbeck and Seahawks are used to anonymity in Seattle, but that may be about to change if they can live up to their billing as an NFC favorite.

September 07, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Even though Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck helped the Seattle Seahawks to the playoffs in 2003 -- and their highest victory total in 17 seasons -- he still cruises around largely anonymous in a city he could wind up leading to its first Super Bowl.

"It's just like being a normal citizen," he said. "The only thing I get is people who do a funny little double take and say, 'I feel like I know you from somewhere. Where'd you go to high school?' That's the extent of it."

Some things never change. Twenty-one years ago, when his team reached the AFC championship game and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders, Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg led a similar everyday-guy existence, much of it by design. He shared an apartment on Lake Washington with a buddy, didn't venture much out of his Madison Park neighborhood, and tooled around in a 1980 Ford Pinto -- eye-catching only in that it was canary yellow.

"It's still parked in my driveway," said Mike Casey, who shared the apartment with Krieg for four years, and -- because Casey also played at Milton College about two decades before Krieg did -- didn't charge the kid rent until the paychecks started rolling in from the Seahawks. "They're awful-looking. About the only thing you can say about those cars is they're economical -- and Ralph Nader hated them."

That Seahawk quarterbacks are afforded the man-on-the-street treatment says as much about the city as it does the quarterbacks; it's a place that almost always pays closer attention to college football than the NFL. When it comes to football, people there usually think Washington Huskies first, Seahawks a distant second.

But now that the Huskies are in a down cycle -- not to mention the struggling SuperSonics and Mariners -- the time is right for the ascending Seahawks to fill the void. And the interest level is definitely on the rise. The Sept. 26 home opener against San Francisco is about 5,000 tickets shy of a sellout. It's not a rollicking bandwagon yet, but it's not a sputtering Pinto, either.

"We've been in a valley for a long time," said Gary Wright, vice president of communications. "And now we're starting to climb out."

That climb began last season when the Seahawks came oh-so-close to collecting their first postseason victory since 1984. They suffered a 33-27 overtime loss in a wild-card game at Green Bay, when Al Harris stepped in front of a sideline pass by Hasselbeck and returned it 52 yards for the winning touchdown.

It was an especially excruciating moment for Hasselbeck, once the backup to Packer quarterback Brett Favre. So confident was Hasselbeck that the Seahawks were on their way to victory, he got a little cocky when Seattle won the overtime coin flip. "We'll take the ball, and we're going to score!" he said, his words broadcast to everyone over the official's open microphone.

Now, a bit older and wiser, Hasselbeck is more conservative with his predictions. But his team looks as if it's ready to roll. Every starter returns for an offense ranked sixth overall last season. Hasselbeck is an accurate passer who does a nice job of throwing on the run. He has an outstanding pair of running backs behind him in tailback Shaun Alexander and fullback Mack Strong, and some capable receivers in Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram. The Seahawks did drop more than their share of passes last season, though, and improving in that area was a point of emphasis at training camp.

"You're going to have dropped passes, that's part of football," Hasselbeck said. "Ours just happened on some key plays, so I think that's why people made more of it than it was. The important thing, I think, is just to keep your confidence high and just play, do what comes naturally. If you start pressing on things like that, it just gets worse."

The Seahawks have bolstered their defense with free agents such as end Grant Wistrom and cornerback Bobby Taylor, and have a promising linebacker Tracy White, who steps into the starting lineup while Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Brown recovers from a broken leg. Brown, the team's best pass rusher, is expected to sit out the first four games.

There is no denying the Seahawks were a better team when playing in their dazzling new stadium last season. They were 8-0 at home, an alarming 2-6 on the road.

"I don't think it was any magical thing you could put your finger on," Strong said of the road woes. "You could try to do a lot of different things to try to shake it up. But still it's on the players, it's a mental thing where people just have to focus and concentrate. They have to understand what's at stake. There are a lot of expectations this year."

In some circles, the Seahawks are the chic Super Bowl pick. They are second in Sports Illustrated's power rankings, and other publications -- among them Pro Football Illustrated and The Times -- have picked them to win the NFC.

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