Legends of DVOA: Dave Krieg
Cross Ryan Fitzpatrick with Tony Romo and you might just end up with Dave Krieg.
Like Romo, Krieg rose from the bottom of the bench to have some fabulous seasons, as well as some not-so-fabulous ones. Like Fitzpatrick, Krieg played for so long that his origin story became a broadcast trope, and he often played just well enough to get his next job rather than keep his current one. Krieg finished in the top 10 in DVOA five times during his neverending career, yet he always seemed to be just one slump away from a seat on the bench.
Join us for a final installment of the Legends of DVOA which spans nearly a generation and features labor strikes, cantankerous coaches, and over a decade's worth of quarterback controversies.
The Kid from Milton
Krieg ran a power-I offense as a prep quarterback at D.C. Everest High School in Schofield, Wisconsin. He didn't get many opportunities to impress recruiters, so he ended up at Milton College, a tiny NAIA program located southeast of Madison. The college's enrollment had been dwindling for years, but coach Rudy Gaddini had recently built a local powerhouse. Krieg started his career as a seventh-string quarterback at a level of competition one step up from intramurals. "How bad can it get if there are only 50 guys on the team and you're the seventh-best quarterback?" he joked to Beckys-Place.com, a Seahawks fan site, in 2005.
Krieg worked his way up the depth chart and became the Wildcats' starter. But this was long before the era when NFL scouts effectively beat the deep bushes, or when film of NAIA quarterbacks was readily available on YouTube or Hudl for any deep-diving draftnik. Krieg would have disappeared if Gaddini didn't have a connection in the Seahawks personnel department. Gaddini sent the Seahawks "a couple of canisters of film," in Krieg's words, and Krieg boarded an airplane for the first time in his life to travel to Seattle for a tryout. Head coach Jack Patera and offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome liked Krieg, and he latched on in training camp in 1980—once again as a seventh-string quarterback, at least according to Krieg's recollections.
The Seahawks had joined the NFL just four years earlier in 1976. Patera was the only head coach in team history, and he led them to 9-7 records in 1978 and 1979. Jim Zorn had been the Seahawks quarterback since the team's inception, a lefty gunslinger and beloved local hero who triggered a pass-happy offense for the era. Wide receiver Steve Largent had just emerged as the team's first true star. Krieg backed up Zorn and Sam Adkins as an undrafted rookie. But when Zorn suffered a broken ankle in 1981, Patera surprised everyone—including Krieg—by naming Krieg the starter.
"We played against the New York Jets and they had the Sack Exchange defense," Krieg told Beckys-Place.com. "We went out for pre-game warm-ups and I didn't know if it would be Sam Adkins or myself. Come to find out Jack Patera didn't tell me all week because he thought I'd get too dang nervous. We went out for pre-game warm-ups, then came back in and Jerry Rhome said, 'Hey, you know you're starting, don't you?', and I said, 'I guess I do now.'"
Krieg threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns, including a 57-yard game-winner to Largent, in a win over a strong Jets team. He threw three touchdowns, two of them to Largent, in a blowout victory over the Browns in the season finale.
And so a quarterback controversy was born.
Hardly the Hero Type
Rhome did not mince words when talking about his two quarterbacks in an AP story which ran on August 3, 1982. "Dave Krieg is making a big move at Jim Zorn. And Krieg is better than Zorn has ever been in the past."
Damn. That quote would have kept the midday sport talk industry busy for a month if the industry existed back then.
Rhome told the press that Krieg "had nothing but a rifle for an arm" when the Seahawks decided to keep him, but he had since learned the position. He was impressing coaches and teammates with his ability to fire tight spirals into the wind. Zorn, meanwhile, was getting into hot water with Patera, possibly for criticizing the offensive line, possibly for visibly supporting the NFL Players Association in the weeks leading up to a work stoppage.
Patera was the oldest of the old school: a 1950s linebacker who managed the Purple People Eaters as the Vikings' defensive line coach. Krieg said Patera wouldn't allow players to drink water during 90-degree training camp two-a-days, which wasn't that unusual back then. Patera's attitude toward unions was predictable. Players shook hands with opponents as a sign of union solidarity before preseason games in 1982, and the usual suspects reacted as if they were burning puppies cradling bibles wrapped in flags. Patera tried to fine players half of their game checks for the gesture, which would have cost Zorn $9,000. NFL's management counsel consulted with the National Labor Relations Board and ordered the fines rescinded. But Patera did release Sam McCullum, a productive veteran receiver who also happened to be the Seahawks' union rep. Legal actions ensued.
For some combination of reasons, Krieg won the starting job from Zorn to start the 1982 season and endured 14 sacks in a pair of losses, breaking his thumb in the second game. Then a strike erased two months. Patera was fired near the start of the strike. General manager Mike McCormack took over as head coach and reinstated Zorn when play resumed in November. The Seahawks went 4-3 down the stretch, though Zorn had less to do with their success than a strong defense led by Kenny Easley and Jacob Green, and perhaps the fact that the players no longer despised their coach and vice-versa.
McCormack returned to the front office in 1983, hiring Chuck Knox as head coach. Knox had led the Rams and Bills to the playoffs in his last two stops. He also earned the "Ground Chuck" nickname: his Rams finished first or second in the NFL in rushing attempts four times, and his Bills finished second in 1980 and fourth in 1982. The Seahawks selected Penn State running back Curt Warner with the third overall pick in the quarterback-laden 1983 draft, so it wasn't hard to guess what Knox was planning.
But who would hand off to Warner? Zorn and Krieg battled through the 1983 offseason, but Knox refused to acknowledge the controversy that the press was breathlessly reporting about. "Jim Zorn's the No. 1 quarterback," Knox insisted in early September, adding that "Zorn has a better grasp of what we're trying to do offensively."
Zorn played adequately to start the season, then slowly fell off a cliff. He went 1-of-8 for 2 yards, three sacks, and one interception in the first half of a Week 8 against the Steelers, who were without Jack Lambert on defense and Terry Bradshaw on offense. It was Zorn's second straight terrible game at home, and Kingdome fans booed their former hero.
Krieg took over in the second half. "With a three-day growth of beard and hair that hung almost to his collar, [Krieg] hardly looked like the hero type," wrote columnist Bob Smizik, bringing some heavy get-off-my-lawn energy to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But Krieg produced 21 points in 11 minutes, nearly leading a comeback in a 27-21 loss.
Knox announced a quarterback change a few days later. "[Krieg] got 21 points on the board for us," he said. "He had some big plays and rallied us. In light of that, as well as everything else, we made the change."
Krieg led the Seahawks to a 34-21 win over the Raiders that week. The Seahawks would go 4-3 down the stretch and beat John Elway's Broncos and Dan Marino's Dolphins in the playoffs before losing to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Krieg threw 18 touchdown passes in the regular season and four more in the two playoff wins before getting intercepted three times by the eventual Super Bowl champions. He finished fifth in passing DVOA behind Dan Fouts, Marino, Joe Montana, and Joe Theismann.
"Dave has a lot of vision on the field," Largent said in a Miami Herald feature during the 1983 playoffs. "He picks out secondary and tertiary receivers. He's pretty unflappable. He always seems to have a big play ready. And if he's down, he bounces right back."
Krieg himself made a remark which would prove ironic in the seasons to come. "When you get a good horse, you just grab the reins and hang on."
"Ground Chuck" took flight under Dave Krieg.
I loaded up a video of the 1984 Seahawks' Week 13 victory over the Broncos to watch as part of my prep for this article. Krieg took a seven-step drop on the very first play from scrimmage and launched a bomb to rookie receiver Daryl "Deep Heat" Turner for an 80-yard touchdown. Wheeeee!!!!!!
OK, the surprise game-opening bomb was a pretty standard tactic for run-oriented playcallers. Still, I was surprised to see trips formations, multiple personnel groupings, and lots of early-down passing from Krieg and Knox.
The absence of Warner, who tore an ACL in the 1984 season opener, had a lot to do with the change. Warner's backups were burly all-purpose backs Dan Doornink and David Hughes, plus kick returner Eric Lane and, incongruously, a well-beyond-the-hill Franco Harris. So Knox built an offense out of deep strikes to Largent and Turner, touch passes to Largent, and lots of swing passes to fullback types.
The newly-christened "Air Knox" flew better than your average wild turkey. Krieg threw 32 touchdown passes, earned a Pro Bowl berth behind Marino, and finished seventh in DVOA and eighth in DYAR despite a league-high 24 interceptions. The Seahawks went 12-4 and avenged themselves against the Raiders in the playoffs but got hammered by Marino's Dolphins in the divisional round.
Krieg was becoming a bit of a star; he was, after all, only the 10th quarterback to throw for 32 or more touchdowns at that point. But the tales of that rifle arm and tight spirals into the wind we read in the last section didn't survive into the era of MTV and personal computers.
"People talk about the arm strength of quarterbacks," said Seahawks quarterback coach Ken Meyer in a Krieg profile during the 1984 playoffs. "John Elway is a fellow who can really drill the ball … Dave's arm probably isn't as strong but he gets the ball there and he's right on target, and that's the most important thing, isn't it?"
"I wish I had an arm like John Elway but I don't," Krieg said in the same article.
By the end of his first full season as a starter, Krieg's story was already becoming a trope. Broadcasters and columnists alike loved to tell the story of the seventh-stringer from tiny Milton College. It became a Ryan Fitzpatrick/Harvard type deal, and it framed a perception of Krieg as the ultimate underdog. "Rodney Dangerfield Gets More Respect Than Seattle's Krieg" was the headline of the profile I just cited. In fact, the media gushed over Krieg, and he was well-regarded (as I recall) among national fans.
His own coaches, however, were another matter.
Krieg and the Seahawks had a down year in 1985. Krieg left a Week 3 loss to the Rams after enduring seven sacks. He was benched after throwing four interceptions against the Chiefs the following week; rookie backup Gale Gilbert came on and threw a fifth. (Chiefs safety Deron Cherry intercepted four of the passes). Krieg would suffer a shoulder injury late in what became an up-and-down season, and the Seahawks finished 8-8.
Krieg bounced back a bit in 1986, and the Seahawks started the season 5-2. But after Krieg went 6-of-16 for 26 yards and five sacks in a Week 8 loss to the Broncos, Knox turned the starting job over to Gilbert, who had gone undrafted out of Cal in 1985. "We just decided to make a change to hopefully get some spark in there and be able to make some plays we haven't been making," Knox said.
Knox added that Gilbert would remain the starter for the rest of the season. "We don't want him looking over his shoulder to see if every time he makes a mistake we're warming up Dave Krieg," Knox said.
Gilbert should have kept looking. He threw two interceptions in a 38-7 loss to the Jets, then got benched at halftime of a 27-7 loss to the Chiefs. Then Krieg got benched in favor of Gilbert in the fourth quarter of the same game. Things weren't going well.
Krieg returned to the lineup the following week. "You really don't like to play musical chairs with your quarterbacks at this point in the season but it's something we feel we have to do," Knox said. Krieg would have another weak game, throwing an interception and fumbling in his own end zone in a 34-7 loss to the Bengals.
Somehow, Knox resisted the urge to insert the towel boy at quarterback, and the Seahawks pulled out of a team-wide meltdown to win five straight games and nearly reach the playoffs. Krieg would throw 11 touchdowns and just one interception during that winning streak. He finished the season fourth in DVOA (behind Tommy Kramer, Marino, and Boomer Esiason) and eighth in DYAR.
"When I got another chance that made me realize how fortunate I was to play in the National Football League," Krieg said during that December hot streak. "I figured I had gone too far now, so I just kept going."
That late surge only brought a small measure of job security, however. "He's the man we're going with," Turner said of Krieg at the time. "David is the man. And he's going to be the man … 'till something else happens."
Something Else Happens
We have come to the 1987 players strike. The Seahawks went 2-1 in replacement games, in part because Largent and a few others crossed the picket lines. Krieg led the team to a 7-5 record against real players, just good enough to reach the playoffs and lose an overtime heartbreaker to Warren Moon and the Oilers. Krieg hit Largent for a touchdown in the final seconds of that game to force overtime, but he spent much of the afternoon firing incomplete bombs downfield; the Seahawks were without Warner again, and Knox was without much more of a Plan B than "heave it to Steve."
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, former Colorado State quarterback Kelly Stouffer held out for a full year after the Cardinals selected him sixth overall in the 1987 draft. The time before the 1987 strike was, not coincidentally, an era of epic holdouts. The USFL created a bidding war for top players, and once it folded, NFL owners tried to roll back salaries. The union demanded free agency, rookies held out, and the league nearly cannibalized itself. Someone even wrote a book about it that was the partial basis for an ESPN 30 for 30 of the same name.
Anyway, the Seahawks traded three draft picks, including a 1989 first-rounder, for the rights to Stouffer. That's not the sort of thing a team does when it is completely satisfied with its starting quarterback.
Krieg led the Seahawks to a pair of easy early-season wins, then suffered one of his midseason mini-apocalypses against the Chargers, throwing three interceptions before a separated shoulder sidelined him for weeks. Veteran Jeff Kemp, who looked great when throwing to Largent against insurance salesmen in 1987, flopped in a one-game trial as the backup. Stouffer stepped in and led the Seahawks to a pair of wins, mostly by handing off to Warner and John L. Williams.
"Stouffer has been impressive, very impressive," Knox said, even though Stouffer completed just 20 total passes and threw zero touchdowns in his two starts. "He's got a big-league arm. That makes a difference," said Meyer, who had suggested years earlier that a big-league arm doesn't make much difference.
To their credit, Knox and Meyer turned back to Krieg as soon as he was healthy. Krieg produced his copyrighted late-season hot streak on cue: a 4-2 record down the stretch to get the Seahawks into the playoffs, with five-touchdown and four-touchdown games. Krieg finished fifth in DVOA behind Boomer Esiason, Warren Moon, Marino, and Jim Everett. The Seahawks then lost to Esiason's Bengals in the playoffs.
And so it goes.
Krieg and the Seahawks suffered another midseason swoon in 1989. Stouffer replaced Krieg after a three-interception meltdown, just as the Seahawks were about to face the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick-Lawrence Taylor Giants.
"There isn't anything particularly outstanding I can tell you about Kelly Stouffer other than he has a good arm, he's tall, and he can move around pretty good," Knox said of the quarterback his team traded a first-round pick for. The Seahawks lost 15-3 to the Giants (Stouffer fumbled out of the back of the end zone) and 41-14 to the Broncos. Krieg returned and led the Seahawks to a 3-1 record down the stretch.
Largent broke a bone in his elbow early in the 1989 season and announced his retirement late in the year. Krieg would feel his absence, throwing more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (15) in 1990. The Seahawks went 9-7 but missed the playoffs.
Krieg suffered a thumb injury in the 1991 season opener, leading to even more Kemp and Stouffer. The Seahawks finished 7-9 in 1991, and everyone, including new owner Ken Behring, finally grew tired of having the same mediocre season with the same old-school coach and three quarterbacks over and over again. Knox resigned. Raiders legend Tom Flores stepped down from the front office to replace him. And Krieg, the team's starter for a decade, was exposed to Plan B free agency, the rough 1980s equivalent of being a June 1 cap casualty. Krieg signed with the Chiefs in March of 1992.
Streak Passer for Hire
The Chiefs of that era were coached by the great Marty Schottenheimer, managed by the great Carl Petersen, and addicted to creaky quarterbacks. Steve DeBerg, a career journeyman mentor who arrived in Kansas City at age 33, had been the Chiefs starter for four seasons, leading the team to the playoffs twice. DeBerg moved on, and Krieg found himself handing off to Christian Okoye and Barry Word in a conservative offense for a team run by an old-school head coach that got hammered in the first round of the playoffs. Neither Krieg nor the Chiefs must have noticed that anything much had changed.
The Chiefs signed Joe Montana to really feed their habit in 1993. Krieg made a handful of spot starts, then was forced into the lineup when Montana was injured against the Bills in the AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs lost 30-13.
Krieg signed with the Lions in April of 1994. He was slated to back up Scott Mitchell, the lefty who signed a three-year, $11.1-million contract (that figure's supposed to sound huge, folks) after looking great in relief of Marino for the Dolphins in 1993. But Krieg was Kryptonite for southpaw quarterbacks, and he had one last quarterback controversy left in him.
Mitchell was terrible, completing just 48.4% of his passes. He suffered a hand injury in Week 10 against the Packers, and Krieg led a rally from a 24-0 deficit. The Packers narrowly held off the Lions for a 38-30 win. It was a callback to when Krieg replaced Zorn against the Steelers a decade earlier.
Packers defender Sean Jones said after the game that he was wary of Krieg coming off the bench. "I said earlier in the week that we don't want to get this guy into the game and let him get into a rhythm," Jones said. "He's a streak passer, and when he's on a hot streak, it's hard to get him out of that rhythm."
Many years later, Lions tackle Lomas Brown admitted that he got "gator arms" on the guy he was blocking because he was wanted Mitchell out of the game. Jones was, in fact, the player who injured Mitchell. Maybe they should have just switched sides for the afternoon.
True to form, Krieg enjoyed a late-season hot streak: 14 touchdowns, just three interceptions, and a second-place finish in DVOA behind Steve Young. Krieg finished eighth in DYAR despite only playing half a season. Mitchell finished 25th in DVOA and 26th in DYAR. The Lions went 5-2 down the stretch.
Ray Didinger called Krieg the "surprise of the year" in a syndicated awards column. "The veteran quarterback took over for Scott Mitchell, saved the Lions season, and probably saved Wayne Fontes' job," Didinger wrote.
Krieg could not, however, lead the Lions past the Packers in the playoffs. And he wasn't a 26-year-old with a big contract. Krieg signed as a free agent—a real free agent this time—with Buddy Ryan's Arizona Cardinals, another team with a quartergeezer habit. Krieg replaced the trio of Steve Beuerlein, Jay Schroeder, and Jim McMahon as Ryan sought the ultimate plucky, seasoned handoff machine.
Krieg was completely immobile at this point. He endured 53 sacks and fumbled 16 times in a typically dreary afterthought of a Ryan offense. By this point, "small hands" had been added to "played for a college that no longer exists" in Krieg's short-form resume, and he's still third (behind Brett Favre and Warren Moon) on the all-time fumble list. But Krieg was now an in-demand veteran backup. He signed with the Bears to back up Erik Kramer. Kramer suffered a back injury, and Krieg went on to start 12 games. He kept his turnovers, sacks, and fumbles down, finishing 11th in DVOA and 12th in DYAR, stunning figures for a 38-year-old whose weapons were Curtis Conway (not bad), early-career Bobby Engram (OK), Michael Timpson, fullbacks Tony Carter and Raymont Harris, and tight end Ryan Wetnight (yikes).
Krieg's Bears success earned him a two-year stint behind Steve McNair for Jeff Fisher's Oilers/Titans. After hovering around .500 forever for Knox and playing for Schottenheimer and Ryan, Krieg was destined to end up with Fisher. But he barely played in Tennessee and retired after the 1998 season.
Largent, who retired as the NFL's all-time leading receiver, represented his native Oklahoma in Congress for eight years. Zorn's playing career fizzled out soon after Krieg took his job. He was the Seahawks quarterback coach for many years, had an ill-fated stint as head coach in Washington, and was last seen coaching the Seattle Dragons of the XFL.
Curt Warner purchased an auto dealership in Vancouver. He's now a high school coach and autism activist. Kelly Stouffer is a college football television analyst. Garrett Gilbert, Gale's son, made an emergency start for the Cowboys last year.
Knox returned to coach the Rams for three awful years before retiring. He passed away in 2018. Patera, who happened to be the brother of Olympic weightlifter and pro wrestling legend Ken Patera, never coached again after the Seahawks fired him. He also died in 2018.
The nine-year Ken Behring era in Seattle after Krieg and Knox's departure was mostly terrible. The Seahawks would not reach the playoffs again after Krieg's departure until Paul Allen bought the team and Mike Holmgren took over as head coach in 1999.
Milton College closed in 1982, while Krieg was still dueling with Zorn. Its buildings are now libraries, churches, and apartments in a small-town historic district.
Krieg is now a motivational speaker and businessman who sometimes returns to Seattle for "legends of yesteryear"-type events.
Looking back across an almost endless career that spanned two strikes, two decades, and parts of several distinct NFL eras, I'm left struggling with the question of just how good Krieg really was.
He played most of his career with coaches who practically hated their quarterbacks, or at least the modern passing offenses those quarterbacks represented. The annual offensive comas his teams lapsed into may well have been the result of outdated offenses, weak pass protection, and coaches who thought shuffling quarterbacks might provide a "spark" and that publicly negging their players would motivate them. On the other hand, ultra-conservative coaches love gutsy field general-types like Krieg. Heck, Krieg owes most of the last seven years of his career to defense-oriented coaches and their obsession with veteran caretakers.
Krieg's streaks, slumps, hoary feel-good story and late-career travels prompt comparisons to Fitzpatrick. But Fitzpatrick only finished in the top 10 in DVOA once, in 2018. Fitzpatrick has never led a team to the playoffs; Krieg did it six times. Krieg is the quarterback Fitzpatrick wishes he could be.
Romo, on the other hand, was flashier and more gifted than Krieg. How much better he was is a matter of debate: five finishes among the top 5 in DVOA for Romo suggest that they are close. Romo, like Krieg, ran torrid-and-tepid, endured playoff pratfalls, led the league in interceptions once but produced lots of memorable highlights, threw to some all-time greats but played for some coaches with complicated legacies, and spent an awful lot of his career mired around .500 despite some impressive stats.
Searching for contemporary comparisons for Krieg may be missing the point, however. He played through an era of rapid strategic, financial, and administrative transition across the NFL. Parts of his story—"seventh-string" quarterbacks, canisters of film, Plan B free agency, general managers stepping in as coaches, quarterback controversies that last multiple seasons and don't end with epic trades—barely make sense anymore.
Krieg wouldn't have survived it all if he wasn't very, very good. And his DVOA record only backs that up.