Seattle has anew stadium, new uniforms, a new conference and, perhaps, a new identity. In the inaugural game at Seahawks Stadium, an Aug. 10 exhibition against the Colts, coach Mike Holmgren's offense was the model of efficiency. For 20 glorious minutes the Seahawks and their skeptical fans, who've seen the team go an NFL-worst 18 years without a playoff victory, were allowed to dream the dream.
Then came the crudest of wake-up calls, a high-low hit on quarterback Trent Dilfer that sent him to the turf, where he clutched his right knee and howled in pain. Dilfer feared his season was over, as did many of his deflated teammates, who had warmed to the veteran passer's upbeat leadership style during last year's encouraging 9-7 campaign.
"For a two-minute period I was pretty devastated," Dilfer recalls. "Then I calmed down and started to pray for perspective, and as they took me off the field, I was strangely at peace."
It turned out that the football gods weren't completely sadistic: Dilfer, who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, should return sometime before the end of September, possibly even for the team's regular-season opener at Oakland. As a result Seattle, the only team to switch conferences in this year's realignment, still harbors high hopes for 2002 despite joining a revamped NFC West that, in the Rams and 49ers, boasts two of the league's more potent attacks.
"I think we can be the best team in our division, no doubt," Dilfer says. "I've never been around a great offense, so I'm no authority, but we are an explosive, athletic group—excluding me, of course—that's capable of outscoring anyone."
At once self-effacing and unerringly optimistic, Dilfer's personality has become inextricably entwined with the Seahawks' sense of self-worth. The twice-discarded veteran captured the locker room last season when, after relieving injured and ineffective starter Matt Hasselbeck, he won all four of his starts, extending a two-year streak of victories to 15 (including the Ravens' championship run in 2000).
With Dilfer's health in question, the team's early-season fortunes may rest on Hasselbeck, who a year ago was being hailed as the answer to the franchise's long-standing quarterback woes. When Holmgren told him last March that the plan had changed, Hasselbeck was mad enough to start throwing things—except that most of his possessions were in boxes.
"The timing was kind of bad," Hasselbeck recalls, "because my wife and daughter and I were moving into a new house in the Seattle area. If they'd given me the news a couple of days earlier we probably wouldn't have closed on the house. At one point during the year Mike had come to me and said, 'Let's just not turn the ball over and become a running team.' So I told him, 'Hey, I played the way you asked me to.' But in retrospect that was just selfish talk on my part."
Hasselbeck and Dilfer have remained friends and supportive teammates. "Our team's on the verge of doing some great things," Hasselbeck says, "and Trent gives us certainty and credibility at quarterback."
Dilfer is determined not to let the knee injury derail this golden opportunity. Finally he has a team that will let him chuck the ball with abandon. Dilfer believes his once-suspect accuracy will continue to improve, and with a premier running back in Shaun Alexander, Seattle should be able to keep defenses guessing.