In 1997, Ken Behring owned the team. Allen was considering buying it, but only if the public would approve a new stadium in a vote later that year. Behring agreed to draft Jones under one condition: Allen had to pay for him even though he didn’t own the team yet.
Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories looking back at draft-day decisions that shaped the future of the Seahawks — one that worked out well and one that didn’t. The first story looked at the 1991 decision to pick QB Dan McGwire over Brett Favre. Today we go back to 1997, when the Seahawks nearly passed on left tackle Walter Jones.
The Seahawks almost didn’t draft Walter Jones because of money — until Paul Allen stepped in.
By the numbers
Some key numbers from Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones’ 12-year Seahawks career:
180: Games played.
9: Holding penalties in 5,703 Seahawks pass attempts.
23: Sacks allowed.
But in 1997, the Seahawks almost didn’t draft Jones because of money. Those were troubled times for pro football in Seattle, and the franchise’s uncertain future rippled across the draft in a few ways:
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• The Seahawks had gone eight years without making the playoffs.
• Owner Ken Behring had briefly moved the team to Los Angeles in 1996. He wanted out of Seattle, and when he realized the NFL wouldn’t allow it, he wanted to sell.
• Only a few people in Seattle had the deep pockets to buy the Seahawks, and among those few, only Paul Allen had the money and general interest.
• ”There is no Plan B without Paul Allen.” That’s how then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue put it in 1997.
• Allen wouldn’t buy the team without a new stadium, which hinged on a statewide vote and which received political pushback.
So to recap: In 1997, Ken Behring officially owned the team, yet Paul Allen was considering buying it, but only if the public approved a controversial new stadium in a vote later that year.
“Everything was hectic,” said Dennis Erickson, then the Seahawks’ coach, in a slight understatement.
It got only more hectic during the 1997 draft. The Seahawks had traded quarterback Rick Mirer that offseason for a first-round pick, which they flipped for the No. 3 overall pick.
They had targeted a talented cornerback out of Ohio State, Shawn Springs. But the Seahawks also had the 12th choice, and general manager Randy Mueller wanted to trade up to take an athletic offensive lineman who had played just one season at Florida State: Walter Jones.
“Those were the two guys we exactly wanted,” Erickson said. “When we sat in that room in the weeks before the draft, we felt we could get those two guys.”
The problem was that Behring didn’t want to pay for two expensive rookies. (Strangely, that thinking wasn’t unusual at the time. Peter King wrote in Sports Illustrated that “most teams were looking for ways to avoid spending big money on rookies.”)
“The Behrings were going to trade those picks for a package of things: a lower first-round pick and future stuff,” said Bob Whitsitt, the former Sonics and Trail Blazers general manager who served as Allen’s liaison and would become the Seahawks’ president. “It’s real simple: They didn’t want to put up the cash necessary for the kind of signing bonuses those guys would get, and they didn’t want to have the aggregate dollars committed to those high draft picks.”
That’s when Allen had a choice to make. Whitsitt told him that Behring had agreed to draft Springs and Jones under one condition: Allen had to pay for them.
Bob Gogerty, the late political strategist, recalled a conference call with Allen, Whitsitt, Bert Kolde and lobbyist Bud Coffey shortly before the draft.
“I remember very vividly Paul going around and saying, ‘What are the chances we’re going to actually get something done in the legislature?’ ” Gogerty said in 2013. “Well, it didn’t look good at all. Finally, he said, ‘If we do get through the legislature and we do something, it would be a shame, a tragedy, to let those guys go.’”
The deal was simple. The Seahawks would draft Springs with the third pick, and they would trade up to the sixth pick to take Jones. But Allen would be on the hook for about $25 million even if he never bought the team.
On the day of the draft, Whitsitt met with David Behring, Ken’s son, and signed the papers. Later that day, within 45 minutes, the Seahawks landed both Springs and Jones.
It was not the most important or strategic moment in the fight to keep the Seahawks in Seattle. But it was a powerfully symbolic one.
“That draft did two things,” Whitsitt said. “Paul wanted to have the best team possible if he bought the team. Why blow that opportunity? And it also showed the fans who were getting ready to vote in a few months that Paul was going to be a terrific owner. He didn’t even own it yet, and look what he’s doing.”
Springs had a nice career with the Seahawks. He played seven years and made a Pro Bowl. But that draft will always belong to Jones, the player who almost got away.
In more than 180 career games, Jones gave up only 23 sacks. Even more amazing, he was called for just nine holding penalties in 12 seasons.
He was so good that Chad Brown, a Pro Bowl pass rusher, tried borderline impractical moves against him in practice because Walter Jones was where conventional moves went to die.
“Sometimes I think Walt made me a worse pass rusher,” Brown said, laughing.
Jones made the playoffs six times. He played in Seattle’s first Super Bowl. His legend grew huge over time, and that legend is now inseparable from the Seahawks.