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Laying it on the line

The only problem with Bryan Millard being voted into the right guard spot on the Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team is that it left Chris Gray on the outside looking in.

The left guard, of course, is Steve Hutchinson, who generated almost as many votes (1,411) for the reader-selected team as Millard (758) and Gray (656) combined. But when it came to the other guard spot, the readers remembered a player who performed at a high – and at times dominating – level. Even if Millard did it from 1984-91.

As Millard put it in the 18th profile in a series of stories on the players selected to the team, “Think about it. I wasn’t just an offensive lineman; I was an offensive lineman from 20 years ago. So to have the fans remember me is very, very humbling.”

Still, it’s difficult to overlook Gray, who started a club-record 121 consecutive games from 1999-2006 – and 145 overall, at three different positions.

“There’s a guy who doesn’t get enough respect,” said Lofa Tatupu, the middle linebacker on the 35th Anniversary team. “Chris Gray was one of the best O-linemen I ever played against. That was one of the toughest dudes I ever met. And what a nice guy.

“Looking at him, he’s always got that same expression – just kind of stares at you. But get him on the field, man, and he was just unbelievably tough.”

Robbie Tobeck, the center on the 35th Anniversary team, played next to Gray from 2000-06. Tobeck also casts a vote for Gray, by casting a blanket vote for the entire unit that was so dominant during the team’s run to the Super Bowl in 2005.

Left tackle Walter Jones, Hutchinson and Tobeck made the reader-selected team. Gray and right tackle Sean Locklear did not – as Howard Ballard was voted the right tackle, with Locklear finishing third in the balloting at tackle behind Jones and Ballard.

“I would vote for that line,” Tobeck said of the ’05 unit. “I always take that unit as a whole.

“You’ve got a Hall of Famer in Walt and possibly in Steve. But each guy on that line had their place. If you had taken one cog out of there, it’s not the same line.”

That became apparent as Hutchinson left after the ’05 season in free agency, Tobeck retired after the 2006 season, an injury forced Gray to retire during training camp in 2008 and Jones retired last year after spending the 2009 season on injured reserve following microfracture surgery on his left knee.

Together, this foursome played 35 seasons for the Seahawks (13 by Jones, 10 by Gray); started 481 games (180 by Jones, 145 by Gray); and was voted to 13 Pro Bowls (nine by Jones).

Here’s the line on that line, from the player who anchored it:

Tobeck on Jones: “Walt was your shutdown left tackle who had his way of doing things that you kind of followed as an example.”

Tobeck on Hutchinson: “Steve was a heckuva athlete; very strong.”

Tobeck on himself: “I had my role, which was to kind of coordinate it and quarterback it and be the ornery little pisser – the guy who’s always stirring it up.”

Tobeck on Gray: “Chris was our conscience. We wouldn’t have been as good a line without Chris. And what I mean by conscience, he was the guy that was always thinking of the scenario we might get in a game; and reviewing the plays with us; and pulling the notes out that we’d taken during the week and going over them on Saturday or going over them before the game in the locker room. We was constantly talking about what-if scenarios that you don’t have time to cover in your meeting room. About twice a season, he would come up with something and we’d walk out on the field and say, ‘Thank God Chris covered this.’ ”

Tobeck on Locklear: “ ‘Cornbread’ was the young guy we’d mess with. He was just trying to fit in and keep up.”

Tobeck on the entire group: “Everyone was equal in their own way, if that makes sense. It wasn’t like Michael Jordan and the Bulls. It wasn’t Walter Jones and the line. That’s what it’s all about. It’s that family within a family. If your team is a family, if you come together as a family – and you do on those good teams – then the offensive line is a family within that family. And that’s a special thing.”


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Better than Brown?

After the Seahawks signed linebacker Chad Brown as a free agent in 1997, then-vice president of football operations Randy Mueller allowed himself a congratulatory moment.

“There’s no question this is the best signing we’ve ever had,” Mueller said.

Mueller should know, because he’d been with the team since 1983. Plan B free agency didn’t begin until 1989 and the current system started in 1993.

And Brown did nothing to let Mueller and the team down. He led the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons, was voted to the Pro Bowl twice and put up numbers during his eight-season stay in Seattle that rank among the Top 5 all-time in tackles (fourth, 744), sacks (fifth, 48), fumble recoveries (third, 13) and fumble returns for a touchdown (first, 3).

But that watershed signing of Brown happened 15 year ago. Has the club added a free agent since that would make Mueller alter his assessment? (You tell us below…)

Here, in chronological order, are a dozen candidates – including Brown, of course:

LB Chad Brown (1997) – see above.

QB Warren Moon (1997) – He started 24 games in two seasons, posting an 11-13 record. In ’97, he passed for 3,678 yards (third-highest in club history) and 25 touchdowns, including a club record-tying five in a 409-yard passing performance against the Raiders – three weeks shy of his 41st birthday.

RB Ricky Watters (1998) – He led the team in rushing for three consecutive seasons (1998-2000) and his 4,009 yards rank No. 5 on the team’s all-time list. He also scored 22 rushing touchdowns, which also ranks No. 5, and averaged 51 receptions from ’98-2000.

OL Chris Gray (1998) – Signed to add depth to the offensive line, he started 145 games in 11 seasons – at three different positions (center, right guard and left guard). Including in his unexpected run were a club-record 121 consecutive starts from 1999-2006.

P Jeff Feagles (1998) – He was one of the best directional punters in the league during his five-year stint with the Seahawks. He ranks second on the club’s all-time list in career punts (385) and third in career average (42.1 yards). He averaged 44.1 yards in 1998 and had 34 punts downed inside the 20 in 1999.

C Robbie Tobeck (2000) – Like Brown, Tobeck was voted to the 35th Anniversary team. He started 88 games from 2000-06 and was the QB of the line during the team’s run of winning the division title four consecutive seasons (2004-07) and advancing to the playoffs five years in a row (2003-07).

WR Bobby Engram (2001) – He holds the club record for receptions in a season (94 in 2007) and was the leading receiver on the 2005 Super Bowl team. Engram, who was voted to the 35th Anniversary team as the third wide-out, ranks fifth in career receptions (399) and fourth in receiving yards (4,859).

DT John Randle (2001) – He played the final two seasons of his Hall of Fame career with the Seahawks, and made the most of them. Randle led the team in sacks in 2001 (11), when he was voted to the Pro Bowl; as well as in 2002 (7).

WR-KR Nate Burleson (2006) – Voted to the 35th Anniversary team as the punt returner, Burleson also finished second on the team in receptions in 2009 (63) and 2007 (50). He is the club record-holder in career punt returns (125) and return yardage (1,288), and had scoring returns of 94 and 90 yards.

LB Julian Peterson (2006) – He was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of this three seasons with the Seahawks (2006-08) and had 19½ sacks in his first two seasons, including team-leading 10 in 2006. He also averaged 83 tackles.

DE Patrick Kerney (2007) – He led the NFC with 14½ sacks in 2007, when he also was voted to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro. Injuries limited him to 16 starts combined in the next two seasons, but he still led the team in sacks in 2009 (five). He’s also the reason Grant Wistrom, Bryce Fisher and Chike Okeafor didn’t make this list.

K Olindo Mare (2008) – He has been the team’s leading scorer in each of his first three seasons with the Seahawks, and holds the franchise record for consecutive field goals made (30 in 2009-10). His mark is the sixth-longest in NFL history, and 14 more than the second-best streak in club history.

The other 11 are definitely worth considering. But better than Brown? You make the call.