By John Boyle Herald Columnist
When Dennis Erickson watched the end of the Seahawks’ controversial 14-12 victory over the Packers on Monday night, the former college and NFL coach enjoyed the moment as a fan.
Erickson did coach the Seahawks for four seasons after all, and as an Everett native he enjoyed seeing the home team win. Not long after Golden Tate’s now infamous touchdown gave Seattle the victory, however, Erickson’s mind flashed back to 1998. And not long after that, his phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
Erickson does, after all, know all too well what it’s like to be involved in a game that ends on a dubious call. Back in 1998, which would end up being his final season as the Seahawks’ head coach, Erickson looked on helplessly as the officials awarded New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde the winning touchdown in the final minute of a game despite one nagging little detail: The ball never crossed the goal line. Didn’t come close to crossing it, in fact.
That December loss was the difference between an 8-8 record and a 9-7 season that would have resulted in a wild-card berth. Erickson was fired after the Seahawks missed the playoffs, and can only wonder if his life would have gone a different direction had his team made the postseason.
“It always will bug me,” Erickson said in a phone interview. “You go on the road at that time of the season when a win could have gotten us into the playoffs. There’s a lot of different things that season, job wise. You’ll never forget something like that, particularly when it was so obvious.”
So obvious, in fact, that Erickson said he got a phone call from an official days later telling him they had made a mistake.
“But it didn’t make much difference at that point, did it?” he said.
After that season, Erickson would go on to coach Oregon State, the San Francisco 49ers, Idaho and Arizona State, but that single play still stays with him after all these years.
“It was one of the most obvious things I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I think about it a lot, but it’s behind me. I can’t worry about it. Obviously it was devastating. I remember everyone in the locker room being devastating.”
While that officiating mistake might have cost Seattle a playoff berth and Erickson his job, it did do some good for the game. That offseason, replay reviews were voted back into the NFL, with that blown call being the impetus for making the change.
“I don’t know if I’ve done much in coaching,” joked Erickson, who won two national titles at Miami (though we don’t need to remind Husky fans that one of those was a split championship). “But I helped bring in instant replay, so those guys can all thank me for that.”
And just as Testaverde’s phantom touchdown helped bring back replay, Tate’s controversial touchdown also appears to have been a driving force for change. Less than 48 hours after Monday’s game, the NFL and the locked-out referees reached a contract agreement that ended the brief and messy replacement official era.
“Change happens when things like that happen,” Erickson said. “Now all of a sudden they’ve worked out a labor agreement. Sometimes it takes something like that or like what happened to us to create a change.”
So even though Erickson was happy to see the Seahawks win Monday, he also can empathize with the Packers and their fans. He’s been there and knows what it feels like when you have been wronged. But what Erickson also realizes is that one call wasn’t the deciding factor in that season. If Seattle had won its final three games following that New York loss instead of two of three, it would have made the playoffs. And if his team had made a few plays earlier in the Jets game, it wouldn’t have come down to that Testaverde run. There was nothing for Erickson to do about that loss other than get his team ready for the next game, just as the Packers have to move forward and prepare for New Orleans this weekend.
But even now, 12 years and several jobs later, Erickson still wonders sometimes what might have been.
“If they had had replay back then, who knows?” he said. “But those are the key words: Who knows?”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.