John McGrath

Seahawks’ opponent ain’t what they used to be – and neither is the rivalry

The Seahawks have beaten the 49ers six times in a row. And they’re heavy favorites to make it seven in a row on Sunday against first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad.
The Seahawks have beaten the 49ers six times in a row. And they’re heavy favorites to make it seven in a row on Sunday against first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad. AP

The second of Pete Carroll’s two weekly press conferences usually find him taking questions about the Seahawks next opponent. Not Wednesday, when the focus remained on all that went wrong against the Packers instead of all that should go right against the 49ers.

San Francisco is closer to Seattle than any other NFC city, and there’s a history between the teams that’s newer than most of my clothes. But what was once a brief rivalry as fierce as any in pro football – the West Coast equivalent of Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore – now looms as just another date on the 16-game schedule.

The images are indelible, from Richard Sherman’s tipped, almost-touchdown pass for Michael Crabtree in the 2013 NFC Championship game to the 2014 Thanksgiving night turkey-leg snack Sherman and Russell Wilson enjoyed on a table set up atop the 49ers midfield logo.

How did an NFC West series contain the bad blood of an Al Pacino movie in 2013, then devolve into an afterthought four years later? What happened?

The 49ers got bad, is what happened. The perimeter plot lines that made Hawks vs. Niners so compelling are gone, too, but when one NFL team doesn’t need any particular inspiration to beat another NFL team – when the talent disparity is glaring – it tends to harsh the buzz.

The Seahawks have beaten San Francisco six consecutive times since 2014, generally by a margin that induces yawning. Last year’s regular-season finale looks like an exception –Seattle rallied from an 11-point deficit to win, 25-23 – but the result was of no consequence for the playoff-bound Hawks once it was obvious they’d be on the road to take on the Falcons.

More than a competitive balance is absent. During the rivalry’s prime years between 2011 and 2013, Carroll and former Niners coach Jim Harbaugh participated in what amounted to a rivalry of their own, dating back to when Carroll was at USC and Harbaugh at Stanford.

“What’s your deal?” Carroll famously asked Harbaugh during the handshake that followed a rolling-up-the-score Stanford victory.

Quarterbacks Wilson and Colin Kaepernick had no apparent animosity, but they were vital to the rivalry, too; multidimensional playmakers as different off the field as they were similar on it.

For reasons that don’t have to do with football, Kaepernick is not playing football these days, and possibly has thrown his last NFL pass. He’s been replaced by Brian “Suitcase” Hoyer, occupying a roster spot for his seventh team in eight years.

“He does a great job at controlling the game,” Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said Wednesday, offering a compliment that doesn’t exactly doom a defensive coordinator to a week’s worth of sleepless nights.

“He can throw the ball, that’s for sure,” Avril said. “He’s got an arm on him. He’s great at making the adjustments he needs to make, great at throwing the deep ball and making the right checks.

“But I know one thing for sure: 32 (NFL) quarterbacks hate getting hit.”

Another thing is for sure, too. Whatever tension were was between Carroll and Harbaugh does not exist between Carroll and first-year 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who replaced the overwhelmed, not-ready-for-prime-time Chip Kelly.

That Shanahan, a longtime offensive coordinator, scored a head-coaching gig surprised nobody. But the hiring of 49ers general manager John Lynch, a future Hall-of-Fame safety who’d retired to broadcast booth as a color analyst, struck many (to borrow from baseball parlance) as something out of left field.

Not Carroll, who described the guy assigned to rebuild the 49ers as “awesome,” adding: “There’s no question he’ll do a fantastic job, just because of his makeup, his competitiveness, his intellect and all of that.”

Carroll has been such a fan of Lynch, the coach often shared playbook details with him before broadcasts.

“I wouldn’t have talked to him so much if I’d known he was about to become a GM,” said Carroll, smiling and yet, well, serious.

Regarded for their smarts, Lynch and Shanahan got straight A’s on report cards evaluating the 2017 draft class. But rekindling a classic rivalry will be a gradual process that figures to take a few years.

In the meantime, Seahawks fans, you’ll always have Green Bay.