Sports

Seahawks-49ers rivalry is back? Veterans of Seattle’s epic SF games say nope, not yet

The Seahawks-49ers rivalry is back?

The Seahawk who has played in more of these games than any other knows better.

“Nine years later, I don’t see this as a rivalry,” ninth-year linebacker K.J. Wright said Thursday.

Wright played when Seattle-San Francisco truly was a rivalry, the highest-stakes one in the NFL. That was in the middle of this decade.

In Wright’s rookie season of 2011, the 49ers won the NFC West in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first year with San Francisco. Wright’s second season, the Seahawks lost by seven at San Francisco, beat the 49ers by 29 at home—but watched the Niners win the division by a half-game. Colin Kaepernick then led San Francisco to the Super Bowl at the end of that season.

The following year, Wright and the Seahawks again split the season series with the 49ers. Seattle won the division by one game over San Francisco. The Seahawks beat the Niners in an epic NFC title game in January 2014. Richard Sherman tipped away Kaepernick’s throw to Michael Crabtree in the end zone in the final seconds, sending Seattle on to win Super Bowl 48.

Now that was a rivalry.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was reminiscing about it Thursday. He said he actually misses having Harbaugh in the NFL.

Carroll’s former adversary of “What’s your deal?” fame dating back to their USC-versus-Stanford days is now leading his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Yes, Carroll said he misses having Harbaugh coaching against him in the division.

“Yeah,” Carroll said. “I like Jim. I like Jim a lot. I think he’s a great ball coach.

“He won’t like me saying this, but I love beating him.”

Now that was a rivalry.

Yet the Jimmy (Garoppolo) Come Latelys have you believing the Seahawks-49ers dog fights are back. The 49ers, Sherman’s team now, are 8-0. They are the league’s only unbeaten team. The Seahawks are 7-2, trying to go 5-0 on the road for the first time in franchise history Monday night when they meet in Santa Clara, California.

It’s undoubtedly the biggest game yet this season for both teams.

A Seahawks win and the division race is on for the final seven weeks of the regular season. Seattle would be a half-game back with a tiebreaker edge over San Francisco and the return match still to play on the final Sunday of the season Dec. 29.

A 49ers win would give them a close-to-insurmountable three-game lead in the loss column over the Seahawks and Rams in the division with a month and a half left until the playoffs.

Monday’s showdown comes after Seattle won 10 consecutive games in the series, and 12 out of 13, from that NFC title game win at CenturyLink Field in January 2014 until December 2018. The 49ers were finishing a 4-12 season last year but upset the playoff-bound Seahawks in Santa Clara in overtime in week 15.

Before that, the 49ers went 6-10 in coach Kyle Shanahan’s first year. In 2016, while the Seahawks went to the playoffs again, the 49ers went 2-14 and got coach Chip Kelly fired. Jim Tomsula went 5-11 in his only year as San Francisco’s coach in 2015.

It just hasn’t been the same since Harbaugh left the 49ers following the 2014 season.

But to Seattle’s veterans, the importance of Monday’s game and the combined records of these two teams being 15-2 doesn’t mean the rivalry is back.

“It’s too early to say,” Wright said. “This is their first time in this era of, really, winning. And so you’ve got to keep stacking up winning seasons to get that honor, you know what I mean? You got to keep winning, more than one winning season.

“I’m telling you, this is nowhere (near what it used to be). It’s not even close.

“Not even close.”

Seahawks All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner agrees these teams, both his and his pal Sherman’s 49ers, haven’t done enough to call this a rivalry renewed.

“It’s not necessarily a rivalry yet, because we’ve got a lot of stuff to do,” Wagner said. “It becomes more of a rivalry when we meet in the playoffs and we hash it out down there.”

To take it further than that, Carroll debunks any notion the Seahawks have or have had a rivalry with anybody, anytime.

“I understand the word,” he said. “It’s not part of the mentality, at all.”

Is it at least possible to treat every game like a championship game, while also having fun with a rivalry?

“No,” Carroll said, flatly.

“It isn’t in my mind. Every game to us is a championship, regardless of who we’re playing, where we’re playing, what the situation is, what the schedule says, what the match-ups are, and what’s happened before.

“In that case, there is no one game that’s different than another. We don’t want it to be. We want to play every game like it’s the only game we’ve got. That’s how we approach it.

“So, no.”

The Seahawks leaders who remain after the team let Sherman, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett and others leave also don’t believe in rivalry games. Wagner and Russell Wilson parrot what Carroll says.

Every game has equal meaning. No one game is bigger than the next. The biggest game of the season is always this week’s, no matter the opponent or circumstance.

“You don’t want to make the game too high, especially when you play on Monday night and things of that nature. It’s just a regular game,” Wagner said. “It’s the game that you’ve played before.”

That could help explain Seattle’s 24-10 record on Monday nights, the best in NFL history. Or the Seahawks being 27-5-1 in prime-time games under Carroll. That’s the league’s best winning percentage in those showcase games since 2010.

In the Bay Area they are calling Monday night San Francisco’s biggest home game since Thanksgiving night 2014. That was when the defending NFC-champion Seahawks beat the home team on their way back to the Super Bowl. Sherman and Wilson gobbled turkey on the 49ers’ logo painted at midfield.

Meanwhile, Carroll’s Seahawks insist they approach every game, any day of the week, national or regional audience, the same way.

“When you put so much into a game, you feel like you have to do something crazy because there’s more people watching,” said Wagner, who joined the Seahawks in 2012, the year after Seattle drafted Wright. “Your family is watching. More people’s eyes are on you. So you can sometimes do something that you wouldn’t normally do or try hard because you want to be seen. That could mess up your game that day, and that could mess up the team, and that could come back to hurt you.

“Then, you think about how you put so much energy into that one game, and then the next game, it’s not prime time and maybe with not as many people watching you don’t put in that same energy into the game. So, you could create an inconsistent performance, because you’ll be up for the games you think everybody’s playing or big games, and you’ll be down for the games you think that people are watching or aren’t as significant. And you’ll have a roller coaster of a season.

“If you treat every game the same, I feel like you’ll have more of a consistent performance.”

Wagner said only one thing about Monday’s makes this a rivalry again: Sherman being a 49er.

“I’m pretty sure he wants to beat us,” Wagner said of his good friend, whom he hangs with in the offseason.

“I beat him in basketball at his house,” Wagner said.

“He’ll deny it. But I’m pretty sure a guy like that has cameras at his house and we can find some footage.”

Now that, too, is a rivalry.

Does Wagner think Sherman is still mad about the Seahawks waiving him injured after his torn Achilles late in the 2017 season, to save his $11 million salary-cap charge for 2018?

“I don’t know if it still bothers him or not,” Wagner said. “But he’ll make it bother him before the game.

“He’ll find a way.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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