Styles have changed for Seahawks and 49ers.
SAN FRANCISCO — The roots of Seattle’s success used to trace back to the Bay Area.
Mike Holmgren grew up there, after all, first as a quarterback then as a coach. San Francisco was the birthplace of the West Coast offense. Bill Walsh drew it up, Holmgren exported it first to Green Bay and then to Seattle.
While that history is nice and all, it really has very little to do with Sunday’s game for first place in the NFC West. Holmgren is gone after a decade on Seattle’s sideline, and the 49ers and Seahawks are each 1-0, coached by defensive-minded men who like their scores low and their defenses salty.
Will Sunday’s game be an ugly one?
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“I don’t think any football game is ugly,” Seattle coach Jim Mora said.
Spoken like a former defensive coordinator, which is exactly what Mora is. That’s the side of the ball San Francisco coach Mike Singletary knows, and last week he had his team playing with the same wild-eyed intensity he once showed as a Chicago Bears linebacker.
The 49ers might have gone back to an older uniform style, but the schemes bear very little resemblance to that era of 49ers football.
“Everything the 49ers have been about has been about Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Roger Craig, the West Coast offense, the whole nine yards,” Singletary said. “When you have something like that, it’s pretty tough to get away from.
“But I think the most important thing for us is not to try and change the perception of the 49ers, but to go out there and be who we are.”
That is a team that includes Patrick Willis, who is one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL, and Nate Clements, a top cornerback. They’ve got a tireless defensive end in Justin Smith, and last week they found themselves hip deep in a slugfest in Arizona against the Cardinals, the defending NFC champs.
The result was a game that only a defensive coordinator could love. Running the ball was like playing tennis against a brick wall. That’s how tough it was to make much of a dent. Frank Gore carried 22 times and gained 30 yards.
The Cardinals finished with 40 yards on the ground. The top receiver in Arizona’s high-powered passing attack was running back Tim Hightower, who caught 12 passes.
Mora was impressed.
“They ground it out,” Mora said of the 49ers’ effort against Arizona. “When they had to come up with a play to win it, they came up with a play to win it. It was good football.”
But it’s a long way from the style these teams used to play.
Mora knows that firsthand because while this isn’t a homecoming for him this weekend, he does have some history in the Bay Area. Mora coached in San Francisco, hired first as a secondary coach in 1997 and later as defensive coordinator. He had three job offers at the time he left for San Francisco, but only one place he really considered.
“When I thought about having the opportunity to go work for the 49ers I got goose bumps,” Mora said.
Walsh was still an executive with the team, and Mora would ask him to sit in on his meetings, not for X’s and O’s — he was coaching defense after all — but to critique his presentation.
Mora was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator when the Seahawks and 49ers still played games noted for style and flair. Terrell Owens was playing for the 49ers when he fished that Sharpie pen from his sock on Monday night to autograph a touchdown ball.
But that was another team, a different era. The signature of Sunday’s game will be a pair of hard-hitting defenses trying to leave dents in the opposing offense.
“I think it will be a tough, gut-grinder kind of game,” Mora said. “That is the type of team they are, and I think that is the type of team we are.”
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org