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The NFL
Peter King
September 28, 1998
BallhawksA speed-oriented defense is the key to Seattle's rapid resurgence
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September 28, 1998

The Nfl

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Loss Leaders

Even after doling out contracts totaling $82.7 million to free agents Sean Gilbert, Doug Evans and William Floyd and first-round draft choice Jason Peter, the Panthers stumbled out of the gate 0-2. "It's not time to panic," Evans says. No? After losses to the Falcons at home and to the Saints in New Orleans? Here's how the four newcomers have fared in the early going.

Player, Position

Contract

Skinny

Sean Gilbert, DE

Seven years, $46.5 million

Two sacks against Saints, but they rushed for 207 yards

Doug Evans, CB

Five years, $22.5 million

Beaten on 44- and 64-yard touchdown passes

Jason Peter, DE

Five years, $7.5 million

Two games, three tackles, one torn biceps

William Floyd, FB

Four years, $6.2 million

Threw wobbly end zone interception against Saints

Ballhawks
A speed-oriented defense is the key to Seattle's rapid resurgence

Darrin Smith has done a lot of things in his football life. He was a 185-pound pulling guard during his junior year at Norland High in Miami. He played strongside linebacker on two national championship teams at Miami. He was an outside linebacker for the Cowboys for four years, during which he won two Super Bowl rings. He was a nobody for the Eagles last year, missing nine games because of injuries. And on Sunday, for the injury-depleted Seahawks, he moved from his outside linebacker spot to middle linebacker—all 6'1", 230 pounds of him.

After taking pain-killing injections for one broken rib and one bruised rib before the game, Smith went out for his first play and lined up across from 326-pound Redskins left guard Tre' Johnson. What was going through Smith's head? "All I thought was, I'm Dick Butkus," he recalled later, "and I'm going to make every play today."

In fact, he played four strong quarters, making seven tackles (he continues to lead the team in that department) and intercepting a Trent Green pass to set up the touchdown that put Seattle ahead 17-7. Then on fourth-and-goal from the Seattle five midway through the fourth quarter, he hog-tied 249-pound lull-back Larry Bowie four yards short of the end zone. Walking off the field after Seatde's 24-14 victory, Smith's exultant voice could be heard above the blaring music. "We play like a bunch of crazed dogs!" he yelled. "And I'm a big-time player, baby."

Smith exemplifies the new breed of Seahawks. "Winners," says defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua, the former Chief who signed with Seattle as a free agent in 1997. " Darrin Smith. Chad Brown. Mark Collins [from Green Bay]. Shawn Springs [from Ohio State]. Winning guys, winning programs. There's no old Seahawks mentality."

With smart draft moves and expensive free-agent signings, Seattle built a defense keyed by speed rushers. Traditionally a slow-starting team, the Seahawks have bolted to their first 3-0 start since 1986, attacking weak sisters Arizona, Philadelphia and Washington (combined record: 1-8) with blitzes almost 60% of the time.

But in the next three weeks Seattle travels to Pittsburgh and Kansas City, then returns home to face Super Bowl champion Denver (combined record: 7-2). "We need to win a game we're not supposed to win to find out how good we are," says Randy Mueller, the club's vice president of football operations.

"Sometimes guys are so hungry to make plays that I feel like an auctioneer in the huddle," says defensive end Mike Sinclair, who has racked up six of the team's league-high 19 sacks. "I'll say, 'Who's going to make the next play?' And everyone will start saying, 'Me!' It's like, Going once, going twice...sold! To Darrin Smith! Or whomever."

A second-round draft pick by the Cowboys in '93, Smith has always been known for his speed (4.55 in the 40). But Dallas has never paid its linebackers big money, and Smith became a free agent after the '96 season. He signed a one-year deal with the Eagles, but a sprained left ankle and torn ligaments in his right ankle shelved him for most of the season. His days as an NFL standout appeared to be over. But Seattle, the only team talking to Smith about a starting job, came up with a four-year, $11 million deal.

"Call it blind optimism," Smith says, "but I never stopped believing I was an impact player. In Dallas I was a system player. In Philly I was hurt. Here I'm in the game all the time. I blitz. I cover. I make plays. I'm part of an arsenal, and nobody's going to work harder than me to make plays."

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