Since he purchased an option last April that allows him to buy the Seattle Seahawks for an estimated $200 million, billionaire Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has been boosting the fortunes of the long-struggling Seahawks as if he already owned them. In mid-February he gave the green light to sign former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Chad Brown, the best free agent on the market, to a $24 million contract. Before last weekend's NFL draft he gave the front office a thumbs-up to spend big, and the Seahawks wheeled and dealed their way into position to make two of the first six picks, selections that will cost more than $10 million in signing bonuses alone. All the while Allen has been jousting with the Washington State government over a plan to build a $425 million stadium. He has even offered to contribute as much as $200 million to help get the place erected.
But if legislators don't clear the way for the stadium, which would be funded mostly by tax dollars, here's what will happen: Allen will not exercise his option to buy the Seahawks, will write off the $25 million or so he will have spent on the team and will walk away. Seattle owner Ken Behring will look elsewhere for a buyer, and in all likelihood Cleveland or Los Angeles will pick up an NFL franchise that will have been richly enhanced by a mere passerby.
If that grim scenario comes to pass, pro football in the Great Northwest will at least have gone out in a blaze of glory on draft day 1997. At a time when most teams were looking for ways to avoid spending big money on rookies (page 100), Seattle was the most aggressive team in the draft, and the Seahawks came away with two players they desperately needed: Ohio State cornerback Shawn Springs and Florida State tackle Walter Jones.
In February the Seahawks, who by virtue of their 7-9 record in 1996 held the 12th draft choice, dealt quarterback Rick Mirer to the Chicago Bears for a first-round pick (No. 11), then traded that selection and their second-, third- and fourth-round picks to the Atlanta Falcons for the No. 3 choice and the Falcons' third-rounder. The third overall pick would be used to select the 6-foot, 200-pound Springs, a gifted cover guy.
But Seattle coach Dennis Erickson and his staff also wanted the 6'5", 301-pound Jones, a junior who played two years at Holmes (Miss.) Community College and only 12 games at the major college level. Jones was projected as a low first-round pick until he ran the 40 in 4.6 seconds for NFL scouts last month, causing his stock to soar. Nonetheless, on the eve of the draft, Seahawks vice president of football operations Randy Mueller sold Behring and Bob Whitsitt, Allen's go-between in the Seattle front office, on the idea of trying to jockey into position to select Jones. Then Whitsitt called Allen.
Aware that anti-Seahawks sentiment at the state capital was running high, Whitsitt warned his boss. "You could be out of this in three days. Dennis and Randy think they can move up and get this great tackle, but it could really push your costs up. If they get Springs and this tackle, it could cost $13 million in signing bonuses alone."
"What did we say when we got into this?" Allen replied. "If we're involved, we're involved. Are we still involved?"
"Yeah," Whitsitt said.
"Then we have to do it," Allen said.
Last Saturday, Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace went on the first pick to the St. Louis Rams, and then the Oakland Raiders took Southern Cal defensive tackle Darrell Russell. Seattle got Springs, and when Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware and Texas cornerback Bryant Westbrook went to the Baltimore Ravens and the Detroit Lions, respectively, the Seahawks thought they had Jones. Seattle had tentatively arranged a deal with the New York Jets, whereby the Jets would send the sixth pick to the Seahawks for the No. 12 and Seattle's third-and sixth-round picks. Or so Mueller thought.