By Scott M. Johnson
CLEVELAND – They shelled out almost $70 million in contracts for new players.
They talked about all their new offensive weapons, and vowed to improve on last season.
They did so much tinkering with their roster that only nine of 22 starters were the same as last year.
And then, when the Seattle Seahawks made their season debut Sunday, they had to jump onto the back of a 24-year-old kicker just to beat the lowly Cleveland Browns.
Rian Lindell scored all of the Seahawks’ points in Sunday’s season opener, none more important than the final three. Lindell kicked a 52-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in regulation to give Seattle a 9-6 victory, the Seahawks’ first season-opening win since 1998.
“It’s a great win for us,” said Lindell, who kicked a 48-yarder to beat San Diego last season. “You kind of need to win the season-opener to get the season off on the right foot.”
Lindell’s right foot, to be exact. The Washington State product hit three of four field goals to provide all of Seattle’s points. The young offense, with two rookies and new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck playing most of the game, never got in a rhythm, but got just close enough when the game was on the line.
After a key 49-yard kickoff return by Charlie Rogers gave the Seahawks the ball at their own 47 with 1:59 remaining, the offense took advantage of a pass interference call and inched the ball to Cleveland’s 34-yard line before Lindell equaled his career long field goal. He has now hit all four of his attempts from beyond 50 yards since being signed by the Seahawks five weeks into last season.
Coach Mike Holmgren said the team played for the field goal on its final drive, which explained why the Seahawks let the clock run down as far as it did. One of the keys to the drive was a 2-yard dive by Hasselbeck on fourth-and-1, a play that came just before the field goal attempt.
Although Holmgren had already passed up a field goal on fourth down one play previous, he did not bat an eye after Hasselbeck got the first down.
Lindell, whose first field goal attempt of the day hit the right upright, cleared the crossbar by at least five yards on the game-winner.
As the players celebrated on the field, the previous 59 minutes of frustration seemed to melt away.
Perhaps lost in the win was the fact that it wasn’t a very appealing performance by either team. Hasselbeck was steady in his starting debut, completing 20 of 34 passes for 178 yards, but he also threw two interceptions. The defense held its own for the most part, but let up to allow the Browns to drive 61 yards and tie the score at 6 on Phil Dawson’s 22-yard field goal with 2:14 remaining.
With as much roster turnover as the Seahawks have seen, the choppy play could be expected. Both Holmgren’s offensive play-calling and the defensive calls of coordinator Steve Sidwell were more conservative than usual. Holmgren did not want to overwhelm Hasselbeck too early, while Sidwell was trying to overcome the loss of the team’s three most experienced cornerbacks to injury.
“I will admit that as Matt and I grow together, the play selection and what I ask him to do will evolve,” Holmgren said. “I probably hamstrung the guys a little bit (with the play-calling). I didn’t think the protection was good. I had the feeling that (Hasselbeck) was being pressured.”
The Browns sacked Hasselbeck five times and kept him from making any big plays. The longest pass play ended up being a 34-yard pass to running back Ricky Watters, who ran for the final 32 yards. The Seahawks had only one drive of more than nine plays, and got inside the Cleveland 20-yard line only once.
“Offensively we struggled,” Holmgren said. “That did not surprise me, because we are pretty young in some areas.”
Seattle resorted to throwing a lot of screen passes and dumps over the middle. An example of how conservative the passing game was came in wide receiver Darrell Jackson’s line: 17 yards off five receptions.
Presented with the possibility of Cleveland knowing what to expect because the team added former Seahawks quarterback Josh Booty to the roster one week ago, Hasselbeck just shrugged.
“We’re not trying to trick people,” Hasselbeck said. “Our offense is, we’re going to line up, and we don’t really care if you know what we’re going to do, we’re going to execute it anyway. That’s kind of been the philosophy of this offense, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Defensively, the Seahawks had more success, but were also careful. Cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Paul Miranda were both starting for the first time, while six other starters were also new to the lineup. As a result, the team started out playing conservative, but got more aggressive as the game went on.
“Within the defense, they had to do certain things, and they played it,” Holmgren said. “I don’t think Steve (Sidwell) made too many concessions for those guys during the play-calling.”
The Browns were held to 239 yards of total offense, which is 160 less than the average total given up by the Seahawks last season.
“(In 2000), we would have found some other way to shoot ourselves in the foot,” said linebacker Chad Brown, who had eight tackles and two sacks. “But enough of that last-year talk. This is a new team with new leaders, and those guys know nothing about last year.”
A new year also brings a new mark: For the first time since 1999, the Seahawks are over .500.
“We can build on this one,” Holmgren said after earning his first season-opening win with Seattle. “We can build on it.”