Let’s start with the ashes because from those came the burning rivalry now viewed as the NFL’s best.
The date: Dec. 24, 2011. The setting: Sold-out CenturyLink Field. The implications: Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco 49ers had already wrapped up the NFC West title, but Pete Carroll and the Seahawks were still clinging to fading playoff hopes.
Yet the thing is, hardly anyone across the country noticed. (Seattle, by the way, lost 19-17.).
“We always have the map of where the games go and what percentage of the United States got the game,” said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, who called the game on FOX. “And I bet it was a pretty small percentage who got that one.”
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Less than two years later, that same matchup is the NFL’s most hyped game, one that brings Al Michaels and his “Sunday Night Football” crew to town and will be watched with heavy interest across the country.
Here are the ingredients that made the rivalry, however young, go from zero to 60:
SARAH HARBAUGH sat at a desk in the corner of Candlestick Park last January. The 49ers had just beaten Green Bay in the playoffs earlier that night, and Sarah, Jim’s wife, joined CSN Bay Area’s postgame show.
The win meant the 49ers would play the winner of the next day’s Atlanta-Seattle game, so naturally Sarah was asked which team she would root for.
“That’s really a tough question,” she said, “because I really don’t like Seattle at all. But I’d like to stay at home, so yes, I’m rooting for Seattle.”
She scrunched up her face. “I thought I’d never say that.”
The roots of the San Francisco-Seattle rivalry can be traced to Harbaugh-Carroll, a feud going on six years.
It started in 2007 when Harbaugh first got to doormat Stanford and Carroll reigned over the Pac-10 at USC. Harbaugh told CBSSportsLine.com he heard Carroll was leaving after the following season, a comment that ticked off Carroll.
When asked about his comments the following week, Harbaugh poured a little fuel on the fire.
“It’s been widely publicized that he has interviewed for other jobs, and that is what I’ve heard,” Harbaugh said. “I definitely said that. But we bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University.”
It continued in 2009 when Stanford shocked USC, 55-21, at the Coliseum. Harbaugh went for two points late in the game, and that’s when the most famous moment of the feud happened at midfield during the postgame handshake.
Carroll: “What’s your deal? You all right?”
Harbaugh: “Yeah, I’m great. What’s your deal?”
Carroll: “Nice game.”
The next year, after Carroll jumped to the Seahawks and Harbaugh remained at Stanford, the Cardinal crushed Washington 41-0. After the game, when talking to his team, Harbaugh referenced Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Carroll before saying, “What are you guys, 5-1, 6-1 against that group? That’s the highest-paid coaching staff around!”
And it hasn’t slowed since both coaches jumped to the NFL.
The Seahawks claim Harbaugh honked at their team bus following last year’s loss in San Francisco, and whether that’s true is almost beside the point by now. This year, Harbaugh ruffled more feathers when asked in June if the number of suspensions in Seattle for performance-enhancing drugs was a concern. “If you cheat to win,” he said, among other things, “then you’ve already lost.”
The two appear so different in approach, and in many ways they are. Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman, who played for both, said Carroll is more positive and upbeat; Harbaugh is an old-school disciplinarian. But they also aren’t complete opposites.
“If you sat them down at the table and had a beer summit,” Davis said, “they’d probably be fine through the first beer. And then the longer it went they’d probably want to challenge each other because they’re both so hypercompetitive. And that’s reflected in both their teams’ play. The pugnaciousness of both teams is something to be admired.”
Early on, the juicy narrative of Carroll vs. Harbaugh served as the most appetizing part of the matchup. Now the teams have caught up.
WATCHING THE SEAHAWKS and 49ers play, the way they’re constructed, can sometimes feel like looking in a mirror. It’s part of the reason the rivalry has taken off so quickly. They want to win by the same methods.
“I’m not going to be naïve and say we aren’t,” safety Earl Thomas said. “We’re the same, basically.”
Seattle finished third in the league in rushing last year; San Francisco fifth. Seattle ranked ninth in scoring last year; San Francisco 11th. Seattle ranked 27th in passing; San Francisco 23rd. And so on.
It’s an oversimplification in some ways, but both teams pride themselves on being more physical than their opponents. They want to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and impose their will as the game goes on.
For years, running back Frank Gore has been the heart of the 49ers. The same is said of Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. And both teams are led by young, mobile quarterbacks the franchises are counting on for years to come.
“They both don’t want to just win the game,” Davis said. “They want to beat you up along the way. They want you to remember they were there. It’s like the old ‘Slapshot’ movie: ‘Put a stick in his side, let him know you’re there!’ They want you with ice bags on when you leave.”
Or, as Davis later put it, “Let’s find out whose team is baddest.”
BUT THEY’RE also different.
Defensively, San Francisco’s strength lies more in the play of its front than in the secondary. The strength of the Seahawks, of course, is in the back end. When Carroll talked about Seattle’s ability to limit big plays, for instance, he pointed to Thomas and the secondary as a big reason because they eliminate deep pass plays and are stout against the run.
Baldwin said both teams look the same schematically.
“They’re a very aggressive, physical team, but they don’t have the same ability that we have to be a finesse team as well,” Baldwin said. “When you look at Russell Wilson, Russell can be more of a finesse player as well, where Colin Kaepernick is more of an aggressive quarterback. There’s nothing wrong with that. He’s obviously doing well with it, but I believe Russell has the ability to be more of a finesse quarterback.”
Linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. draws one more difference, perhaps the biggest of all, the one that Seattle is trying to change this season and San Francisco is trying to protect.
“I can see the similarities,” Norton said. “But at the same time, they’ve done it. We haven’t quite done it yet. Everybody expects us to do it. They’ve won a division, we haven’t. There may be similarities as far as the makeup and build of the team, but what’s been accomplished is not quite even yet.”
|Carroll-Harbaugh, through the years|
|Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh met three times when they coached at USC and Stanford, respectively. They now play twice a year as NFC West rivals.|
|2007||Stanford 24, USC 23|
|2008||USC 45, Stanford 23|
|2009||Stanford 55, USC 21|
|2011||49ers 33, Seahawks 17|
|2011||49ers 19, Seahawks 17|
|2012||49ers 13, Seahawks 6|
|2012||Seahawks 42, 49ers 13|
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org