In the perpetual sparring between light and shadow, there is little debate as to which corner John Friesz works.
It has been more a matter of fate than choice. We’re thinking of his late ascent as a high school quarterback in Coeur d’Alene, his record assaults in the backwoods of college football when he was obviously capable of playing Main Street, the injuries and contract politics which have, on occasion, turned his National Football League career into the equivalent of a bungee jump.
You can catch him on the up-bounce daily in Cheney, where the Seattle Seahawks train and where Friesz is preparing at last to be their starting quarterback - preparing for all possible scenarios, even to handle the elastic tug of the cord that would pull him down, back to the shadows again.
A Moon shadow, in this case.
It’s the craziest thing.
Friesz is, certainly, a parochial favorite - doing his thing in front of neighbors and old college pals just 50 miles from his hometown, playing correspondent for the local TV station, serving as a most accessible spokesman. Our man in training camp.
And after playing footsie with first-round phenoms for much of his eight-year NFL career, Friesz has as his boss the ultimate in advocates: the man who once recruited him to college at Idaho, who loves his stuff the way no other pro coach has.
So why this notion that Friesz is merely keeping the playbook warm?
Well, possibly because the one Seahawk who would never make it into the locker room after practice without a security escort happens to play the same position.
It is the craziest thing.
The Seahawks have gone from banking on Rick Mirer becoming The Franchise to having a future Hall of Famer as their backup quarterback.
“To get a guy like Warren Moon in our situation,” admitted Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson, watching Moon sign autographs for another swarm of kids, “is unbelievable.”
So is the atmosphere.
In time, the media will manufacture a controversy. But for the moment, there is none, and only tacit competition even on days when Moon looks absolutely brilliant.
Warren Moon may have passed for more yards than anyone except Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton and John Elway - and that’s not counting the 21,000-odd yards in amassed in a six-year apprenticeship in Canada - but he isn’t beating any drums with his resume.
“Right now, it’s John’s team, no doubt about it,” Moon said. “He deserves to have it be his team just because of how he performed last year. He’s the No. 1 guy, and I respect that. If I were in that position, I’d expect the guy behind me to respect it, too.
“But I’m used to competing and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to play as if I expected to be the starter and whatever happens, happens.”
Coming full circle
What happened to bring Warren Moon back to Seattle, where he was a Rose Bowl hero at the University of Washington so many calendars ago?
He got expensive. He got hurt. He got old. More or less in that order.
It’s hard to know whether the Minnesota Vikings were concerned more about the injured ankles that limited Moon to just eight games last season, or his 40th birthday last Nov. 18, or his $4.3 million salary. In any case, they asked him to take a pay cut to $500,000, which was a rather tactless hint that he buy himself a gold watch and arrange a retirement roast at the Moose Lodge.
“The last three years or so, if I had a bad game or two, I’d hear that maybe I was too old and can’t do it anymore,” Moon said. “When I got hurt last year, I really heard it. It didn’t make much sense to me. Why couldn’t I get hurt? Younger guys get hurt all the time and they’re just hurt. If I get hurt, it’s because I’m old.
“If you have a down week or a down day of practice even, people look at you harder because of your age. I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s human nature.”
It is human nature, too - or at least Moon’s nature - to resist conventional wisdom.
“Last year was so frustrating, because the year before was probably my second-best year ever,” he said. “If I’d played all of last year and had a good year, I might have retired after last season. But I couldn’t go out after being injured. I had to prove to myself that I could still play - that’s what I’m doing out here.
“Because you do start listening to some of those doubters. For the first time, I listened to that stuff and decided I had something to prove.”
That he opted to prove it in Seattle is something Erickson called “the best thing that’s happened in my coaching career.” Surely it was the best thing to happen to the autograph seekers who smother him in Cheney, where he graciously signs virtually every request.
San Diego was Moon’s other option (“I’m from California and Kevin Gilbride coached me at Houston, where we had a lot of success”). But Erickson pointed out that, playing on the name he made for himself as a Husky, “a lot of things can happen for him in the future” in Seattle. And, if the many off-season improvements the club made pan out, a lot of things can happen now.
The clock’s running
Just how quickly they happen, John Friesz knows, will have as much to do with his security as the big contract extension he signed in the off-season.
“Honestly, it’s critical for us to get off to a good start,” he said. “You look at how each of the last two seasons went, where we finished strong but our fate wasn’t totally in our control. It’s important for us to have a good September.
“And the first month is important to me because if we’re not winning, I’m probably not playing well - and that’s a problem. I want to play all 16 games, so it’s important to get out to a good start and maintain it.”
Only once in his NFL career has Friesz started all 16 games in a season - his sophomore year at San Diego in 1991. Then he missed the entire 1992 season with a knee injury, and since then he’s made 19 starts over the course of four seasons while locked in sometimes bizarre tangoe with the likes of Stan Humphries, Gus Frerotte and Rick Mirer.
Somehow, he was never considered good enough to be a clear-cut No. 1 over them - but now he’s No. 1 over Warren Moon.
With an asterisk, Friesz acknowledged.
“I think competition is good regardless of position,” he said. “My attitude has always been to go out and perform as well as I can in practice and preseason and let the chips fall. I’ve never been able to say this in the past - when you go in as the backup, you can’t say it - but I believe that the best man should play at every position.
“That’s not always the case. There are political reasons why guys play. But in this case, Warren wants to be that guy and I want to be that guy and that’s going to make us both better.”
Friesz was such a good sport as the Seahawks wallowed in the Mirer that people wondered just how well he would take to being The Guy.
“You have to do some things different, but you don’t have to change as a person,” Friesz insisted. “I’m allowed to speak a little more freely now and voice opinions a little stronger. I get on guys when I need to, but for the most part, I don’t want to be treated that way so I don’t treat others that way. I don’t respond to criticism the way an inside linebacker can - I get yelled at, I get mad and tense. I don’t think you want your quarterback mad and tense. So it’s not easy for me to jump down someone’s throat.”
Unless the Seahawks have another horrible September, it won’t matter who starts at quarterback. Erickson thinks of Friesz and Moon as No. 1 and 1-A, anyway. And if Friesz should happen to get his wish and start 16 games, Moon will make contributions elsewhere.
“We talked about that before I even signed,” Moon said. “(Erickson) gave me the respect of asking me if I’d give some input into things I’ve done in the past that have been successful and might fit into this offense. Some things I’ve suggested he’s put in, other things he’s waiting to see. He’s open to anything I have to say to him as long as it makes sense and doesn’t take us away from what we’re doing.”
Noted Friesz, “Some of the adjustments he’s made have made him invaluable already.”
And what about competitive tension?
“There really isn’t any,” Moon said. “John and I were friends before I got here. He played in a few of my golf tournaments and we’ve known each other for some time. And the one thing I told Coach Erickson when I signed was that I did not want to be a negative distraction on this team.”
Erickson, having endured the Mirer mess, is convinced Moon won’t be. “John has no reason to look over his shoulder,” Erickson said. “And he won’t. He’s got confidence in his ability.
“But he’s also realistic about how he plays. Some quarterbacks aren’t. If he doesn’t feel or if he sees he’s not doing the job, then he understands if a change is made. He’s going to play unless he really falters, which I don’t expect, or if there’s an injury.”
In which case, quarterbacks coach Rich Olson noted, “We’ve got a guy now who can go in and win a game - not like a reliever who just goes in to save it.”
Do it often enough and there’ll be enough light to keep everyone out of the shadows.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review
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