The phantom TD that changed Seahawks' history

It’s the play that changed the direction of the franchise. Then again, perhaps a different result would have only delayed the inevitable.

The infamous phantom touchdown quarterback Vinnie Testaverde scored on a fourth-and-goal sneak gave the Jets a gut-wrenching 32-31 victory over the Seahawks on Dec. 6, 1998, at the Meadowlands.

Replays clearly showed Testaverde’s helmet – not the football – broke the plane of the goal line. A day later, the NFL’s head of officiating, Jerry Seeman, called then-Seattle Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson to say the officials calling the game made a mistake.

“The most disappointing loss I’ve ever been involved in,” Erickson said after the game. “It just makes you sick.”

Apologies aside, the damage already was done for Erickson, who expected to lose his job if he didn’t make the playoffs.

The missed call put Seattle on the outside looking in at the postseason, saddled with a 6-7 record with three games remaining. The Seahawks won two of those games, finishing 8-8 and a game behind 9-7 New England in the AFC wild-card race.

The botched call helped usher in the return of instant replay a year later, led to the firing of Erickson and opened the way for the Seahawks to hire Mike Holmgren.

By coincidence, the Jets will be the visiting team today when Holmgren coaches his final game at Qwest Field for the Seahawks.

Had Erickson’s 1998 Seahawks made the playoffs and strung together a win or two in the postseason, the Holmgren era in Seattle might have been put off for a year or two, or perhaps permanently. It would have been hard to fire a coach who had taken a team to the playoffs.

“If he could have made the playoffs with the talent that we had, there could have been some longevity there,” said quarterback Warren Moon, who played on the 1998 Seahawks team. “That was a pretty talented football team. The biggest problem would have been the salary cap problem, which I wasn’t aware of at that particular time. But if we could have made the playoffs then, who knows? The next year we could have built off of that.

“Confidence has a lot to do with the difference between winning and losing football teams. And that team, being 8-8 and just not being able to get over the hump, getting over the hump would have been winning the Jets game and getting into the postseason. And that changes a lot of people’s perceptions.”

Rumors of Erickson’s departure had been buzzing around the franchise for weeks. Team president Bob Whitsitt reportedly thought Erickson had lost control of the players. He wanted to bring in a disciplinarian to take over the coaching reins.

Whitsitt fired Erickson a day after Seattle’s last game that season. Erickson finished four seasons in Seattle with a 31-33 mark, including three 8-8 seasons.

Erickson had lifted the Seahawks to respectability after a 21-43 mark the four years prior, but Whitsitt was looking for someone to help lead the team on a Super Bowl run.

And Holmgren fit the bill.

“Mike (Holmgren) came in as more of a disciplinarian-type guy,” Moon said. “He demanded a little accountability, where Dennis was more of a players’ coach. He kind of let the rules bend a little bit sometimes too much. Other than that, I loved playing for Dennis because of his offensive background.”

Moon said he would have enjoyed playing for Holmgren but never got a chance, moving on to finish out a Hall of Fame career with Kansas City. During a press conference this week, Holmgren said he would have liked to keep the veteran quarterback around when he took over the franchise in 1999, but the Seahawks were hampered by salary cap issues and Moon was due for a bump in salary that year.

Moon said that was part of the issue, but Holmgren also wanted to develop a young quarterback to help lead the franchise.

Although he didn’t get to play for Holmgren, Moon said he has a lot of respect for him and what he’s accomplished in a decade with the franchise.

“I’m very impressed with the way he’s done things,” Moon said. “When he first came in he pretty much took over Dennis’ (Erickson) players and made them winners, something they had not been able to do under Dennis’ regime. And they won the division.

“You can’t fault the consistency that they’ve had over the last six years. They’ve won the division four straight years. They’ve gone to the playoffs five straight years. They’ve gone to the Super Bowl once. He’s just done what I think everybody thought he was going to do when he came here.”