Up-and-down Moon leaves Seahawks uneasy QB raised team's hopes, but finish brings doubts

December 06, 1997|By Les Carpenter | Les Carpenter,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEATTLE -- When he threw his final pass Sunday afternoon, the one that ensured the Seattle Seahawks wouldn't go to the NFL playoffs, Warren Moon fell to his knees. He knelt there for a moment, with his hands clutching the sides of his helmet as if it had to be an awful dream.

Everything about the play had gone wrong. Moon's receiver, Mike Pritchard, was supposed to turn inside, but he didn't turn enough and, by the time the ball was thrown, Atlanta's Lenny McGill was able to step in the way and intercept Seattle's final hope of making something of the season.

There was symmetry in the moment. For Moon, 41, the oldest player to score a touchdown in NFL history, had once more brought the Seahawks to the brink of respectability. Yet just as the franchise seemed destined to thrive under its ageless quarterback, it stalled.

Moon's passes lost their crispness; they sailed over receivers' heads or out of bounds. Defensive ends pounded the quarterback into the ground. He didn't seem like the same player in late November that he did in the middle of October.

"We just haven't made plays," Moon said after the game. "We haven't made plays when we need to. Myself, I haven't made plays. There were plays I used to make and haven't made them."

This could have been the story of the year in the NFL. Its oldest quarterback, a man who had been to the Pro Bowl eight times, had been cast aside by the Minnesota Vikings after a season filled with injuries.

He signed as a backup with the Seahawks, who thrust him into a starting role midway through the first game when the regular starter, John Friesz, was hurt. Moon led them to a 6-4 record and rejuvenated a career many assumed was over.

Then the drive fell apart. The team lost three in a row. Where once the league's coaches talked as if the Pro Bowl was a certainty for Moon, there is nothing now. Sports Illustrated spent two weeks working on a story about his magical renaissance. It still hasn't run.

Sunday, when Seattle plays the Ravens at Memorial Stadium, Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson will start Moon, even though Friesz is under contract for another year and the team has a 25-year-old quarterback named Jon Kitna it thinks will be a star.

Seattle wants to know if it should commit another season to starting Moon. He will be 42 next November. That may be too old. It will want to know if he can handle another year of blitzing linebackers and late hits.

"I've not played the way I want to play these last couple of weeks and I want to play better," he said recently. "There have been some passes I've made that I should have completed; ones I know if I kept them on the money would have been completions."

The team's coaches will not criticize Moon. They know how far he's brought this team. Its offense had been flat, unimaginative. Its best playmaker, receiver Joey Galloway, didn't communicate well with the quarterbacks. It always seemed the Seahawks were falling short of their potential.

Moon changed that. He found a way to reach Galloway and brought out something never seen in receivers Pritchard and James McKnight. The high point came with a 409-yard, five-touchdown game against the Oakland Raiders. Moon was NFL Player of the Week. His college coach at Washington, Don James, presented him with the award.

"He has definitely been our glue," Pritchard said in the middle of the season.

Yet this was as much about Moon as it was his new teammates. He came here with something to prove. He walked with confidence, but no one saw the doubt that simmered inside. After all, he had been released. No one believed in him enough to hand him a starting job. Maybe, indeed, it was all over.

"The proving I had to do was to myself," he said. "I didn't want to go out on someone else's terms."

Yes, he has proved himself. In 13 games, he's thrown for 3,306 yards and 20 touchdowns. Sunday, he will break the team record for completions in a season (286) set by Dave Krieg in 1989. There will still be two games left in the season.

There is no doubt Moon can still play.

But his 15 interceptions also will linger as testament to his tendency to force plays. Twice, he was intercepted in overtime this year, and each turnover led to a game-winning field goal for the other team.

Now, Moon must play a meaningless game in Baltimore that could determine his future.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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