Seahawks fans who watched the San Francisco 49ers pummel and mock the Carolina Panthers on Sunday were left with two emotions appropriate for a conference championship game that will send the winning team to the Super Bowl:
Fear and loathing.
Fearing the 49ers is understandable. They’re playing at a superior-in-all-phases peak at a time the Hawks are struggling to survive and advance, trusting the sheer noise at CenturyLink Field will compensate for Seattle’s newfangled “46 offense.” (Regardless of down and distance situations against the Saints, it stayed grounded: Offense the way it was in 1946.)
Loathing the 49ers is required, if for no other reason than quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s ritual of kissing his biceps whenever he scores a touchdown.
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And yet compared with the behavior of his coach, Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s end-zone celebrations are more measured than emergency briefings from the State Department. As Conniption Jim ran onto the field to challenge a call Sunday, resembling a toddler in desperate need of a nap, I thought of a slight variation of the lyrics from an old Kris Kristofferson song: Loathing him is easier than anything I’ll ever do again.
I’ll grant you Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is similarly disliked in his native San Francisco, a primary reason – but not the only one – why the Hawks and Niners have developed the league’s most intense rivalry.
And to think: It took some arm twisting before the 2001 spring owners meeting, outside Chicago, to make this delicious rivalry possible. The Houston Texans’ entrance into the NFL as an expansion team had forced the league to follow through on its first major realignment since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Seven reasonable proposals were on the table, all with a caveat.
Because Houston, an original AFL franchise, had been guaranteed AFC affiliation for the Texans, the ambition of two 16-team conferences could only be realized by transferring one AFC franchise into the NFC. A popular idea among owners was to put Seattle, which played its inaugural 1976 season in the NFC West, back in the NFC West.
Most Seahawks fans weren’t enthralled with that option – taking one for the league, what’s that about? – and neither was former coach Mike Holmgren.
But others in the front office at the time, such as president Bob Whitsitt and vice president of football operations Ted Thompson, were amenable to the change.
“We would miss playing against our old division rivals,” Thompson said on the eve of the 2001 owners meetings, “but on the other hand, we would have a pretty attractive division rival in San Francisco. It would be positive for our fans to create a Northwest rivalry.”
In any case, the owners’ vote was unanimous: Ready or not, Seattle would return to the NFC in 2002.
The rivalry Thompson presciently envisioned didn’t take foot overnight. When 10-6 San Francisco won the division in 2002, the 7-9 Seahawks finished out of the wild-card chase. Then Holmgren’s teams became postseason staples for most of the rest of the decade, while the 49ers ate up and spit out the pro coaching careers of Dennis Erickson (9-23), Mike Nolan (18-37) and Mike Singletary (18-22).
Finally, Harbaugh was hired off the farm at Stanford, a year after the Seahawks wooing of Carroll from USC in 2010. Two gifted coaches who never much cared for each other on Pac-10 sidelines suddenly found themselves overseeing talented NFC West teams that collide twice a season.
Born in 1976, reborn in 2002, the Seahawks-49ers rivalry didn’t mature into a legitimate hate-fest until 2012, the first season both teams finished with winning records as division cohabitants.
Since emerging as the principles of an NFC West power struggle, the Hawks are 0-2 in San Francisco, and the Niners are 0-2 in Seattle, but their 0-2 at CenturyLink Field deserves a parenthetical footnote.
(They’ve been outscored 71-16, which looks more like the typical outcome of my 1974 college intramural basketball team’s game against fraternity brothers on football scholarships than the point differential of a powerhouse competing in the NFC Championship Game for the third time in three seasons.)
The 49ers’ woes in Seattle add some mystery meat to a rivalry that took slower to burn than damp charcoal briquettes. When Sports Illustrated ranked the 10 top NFL rivalries of all time in 2008, the Seahawks didn’t make the cut, and the only mention of the 49ers was a twice-a-year series, pushing six decades, against the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams.
“The Rams will always be the 49ers biggest rival,” former San Francisco running back Roger Craig said a few years ago. “It doesn’t matter if they no longer play in Los Angeles. If the Rams played their home games on Mars, it would still be a rivalry.”
Maybe, but there’s a game looming on the playoff schedule, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, and while the Rams might as well be on Mars, the Seahawks will take the field in Seattle against the 49ers.
Fear them, for they’re on a late-season roll. Loathe them, because what’s more fun in sports than rooting against a despicable opponent whose quarterback kisses his muscles?
During your week of fear and loathing, don’t forget the NFL owners who got together and concluded the Seattle Seahawks were irrelevant enough to be transportable.
“You can’t look at this in the short term, or at the quality of teams right now,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said on May 22, 2001. “Rivalries tend to ebb and flow.”
The ebb lasted almost 10 years, but the ebb was worth it. The flow figures to be historic.