2006: Coming up just short

Coming off the most successful season in franchise history, the 2006 Seahawks were seemingly poised to make another Super Bowl run. But, as in 1985, they fell short of those expectations.

The gap between the Seahawks’ 1985 and 2006 seasons covered 20 years.

It also included three owners – the Nordstrom family, Ken Behring and Paul Allen; four coaches – Chuck Knox, Tom Flores, Dennis Erickson and Mike Holmgren; 16 quarterbacks who started at least one game – from Dave Krieg, to Warren Moon, to Matt Hasselbeck, but also including Gale Gilbert, Bruce Mathison and Glenn Foley; six leading rushers – from Curt Warner, to Chris Warren, to Shaun Alexander; nine leading receivers – from Steve Largent, to Brian Blades, to Bobby Engram; and 11 leading tacklers – from Fredd Young, to Eugene Robinson, to Lofa Tatupu.

But one thing bridged that gap, and all those individuals: Unfilled expectations.

“I feel like this is probably the hardest season,” former fullback Mack Strong said following the overtime playoff loss to the Bears in Chicago that left the Seahawks one step shy of a return to the NFC Championship game.

“Of all the years I have played professionally, this is the hardest one.”

Record: 9-7 (first in NFC West)

Playoffs: 1-1, beat Dallas in a wild-card game; lost at Chicago in divisional game

Owner: Paul Allen

Coach: Mike Holmgren

Captains: OT Walter Jones (off.), MLB Lofa Tatupu (def.), snapper J.P. Darche (ST)

MVP: not awarded after 1998 season

Man of the Year: CB Marcus Trufant

Largent Award: FB Mack Strong

Leading scorer: K Josh Brown (111 points)

Leading passer: Matt Hasselbeck (210 of 371 for 2,442 yards, with 18 TDs and 15 interceptions)

Leading rusher: Shaun Alexander (896 yards)

Leading receiver: Darrell Jackson (63 receptions for 956 yards)

Leading tackler: Tatupu (123)

Special teams tackles: LB Kevin Bentley and LB Niko Koutouvides (14)

Interception leader: FS Ken Hamlin (3)

Sack leader: LB Julian Peterson (10)

Leading scorer: K Josh Brown (111 points)

Pro Bowl selections: Jones, Peterson, Strong, Tatupu

All-Pro: Jones (second team)

National honors: none

That’s saying a lot, because the 2006 season was Strong’s 14th with the team – a tenure which started with five seasons that did not produce a single winning record and also included the growing pains of Holmgren’s first four seasons.

Yes, the Seahawks won the NFC West in ’06 – for the third consecutive season. Yes, they advanced to the playoffs – for the fourth season in a row. Yes, they posted a winning record (9-7) – for the fourth time in as many seasons. Yes, they won a playoff game for the second consecutive season – the first time that had happened since 1983-84.

But the sum of all that did not add up to what was expected: A second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl.

Flash back to ’85, when the Seahawks were the preseason pick to win the AFC, but instead finished 8-8.

Different generations. Similar disappointment.

“For me, it wasn’t the kind of year that I anticipated having,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said at the time.

Like ’85, when the Seahawks opened with back-to-back road wins in Cincinnati and San Diego, the ’06 team started 3-0 and won four of its first five games.

Like ’85, that’s when things started to go wrong – on multiple levels.

The Seahawks gave up 31 and 35 points in back-to-back losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs. They rallied to win four of their next five games, including a 16-0 shutout of the Oakland Raiders. But Holmgren’s West Coast offense then lost its bearings against a trio of West Coast/NFC West teams in losses to the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers.

Injuries played a part, as Hasselbeck missed four starts with a bruised knee and leading rusher Shaun Alexander sat out six because of a broken foot. So did ineffectiveness and inconsistency. Even more telling was the fact that the team’s best players who had their best seasons in the run to the Super Bowl in ’05 did not match those efforts. Not even close.

“This was, in some respects, the balancing act for me: dealing with my own frustration and the questioning of why things are happening,” Holmgren said.

Like too many dropped passes (43, up from 22 in ’05).

Like too many missed blocks (34 sacks of Hasselbeck in 12 games, compared to 24 in 16 games in ’05; a 3.6-yard average for Alexander, compared to 5.1 in ’05).

Like too many turnovers (22 interceptions for Hasselbeck and backup Seneca Wallace, compared to nine by Hasselbeck in ’05).

Like too many injuries (offensive starters combined to miss 48 games, compared to 13 in ’05).

Like not enough sacks (seven in the final seven regular-season game, after the Seahawks led the league with 50 in ’05).

Like not enough forced turnovers (which made for a minus-8 differential, compared to plus-10 in ’05).

Still, the wild-card round of the playoffs produced a wild 21-20 win over the Dallas Cowboys at Qwest Field – when holder/QB Tony Romo dropped the snap on what would have been game-winning field goal and was pulled down shy of a first down and the end zone by Jordan Babineaux in a play that was voted the decade’s best by readers of Seahawks.com.

But the 27-24 loss to the Bears in overtime the following week included a couple of plays that provided the proverbial microcosm of this coming-up-just-short season. It happened late in the fourth quarter, and with the score tied at 24, when the Seahawks had a third-and-1 at the Bears’ 44-yard line. A first down would have put Josh Brown on a downhill path to a potential game-winning field goal.

Instead, Alexander was stopped for no gain on third down and then lost 2 yards on fourth down after Hasselbeck bobbled the snap.

“If the snap was smooth, I think I could have run for a touchdown,” Alexander said after the game.

In ’05, Alexander had converted each of his 16 third-and-1 situations to lead the NFL. On this day, in this season, he couldn’t get 1 yard in two cracks at it.

“Things came easier for us last season,” Hasselbeck said. “We got all the good bounces, kicked a number of game-winning field goals, very few guys got hurt and our offensive line was healthy all season.”

The 2006 season also was memorable because the Seahawks played without All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent during the offseason; traded their 2007 first-round draft choice to the New England Patriots for wide receiver Deion Branch, who averaged 44 receptions in four injury-plagued seasons before being traded back to the Patriots; Alexander’s club-record string of five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons was snapped; Pro Bowl center Robbie Tobeck missed half the season and then announced his retirement in the hallway at Soldier Field after the playoff loss to the Bears; and Strong played his final full season.

It was all part of a season that, while still successful, did not come close to meeting expectations.

“I am not apologizing for anything,” Holmgren said. “We are all disappointed, but we’re not apologizing.”

Agonizing, perhaps, but not apologizing.