On Sunday the Seahawks will find out if the 3-1 Rams — led by new coach Sean McVay, improving quarterback Jared Goff and revitalized running back Todd Gurley — are qualified to be their foil for the near future, or if they are overselling their credentials just like last year.
The position of “Seahawks’ main rival” is currently vacant.
It has become a fairly prestigious title, but for some reason no one can hold the job. In the early Kingdome days, when the Seahawks toiled in the AFC, the Broncos and the Raiders jockeyed for the distinction, with some relatively explosive battles along the way. But Seattle was rarely good enough for anyone to care much.
Then in 2002, the Seahawks moved to the NFC, got really good, and it seemed as if they had the perfect candidate in the San Francisco 49ers. For a while, it was the top rivalry in football, with all the necessary elements perfectly aligned — bad blood, mutual success, and compelling (and contrasting) young quarterbacks. But then Jim Harbaugh left, Colin Kaepernick regressed, the 49ers stopped winning and the rivalry fizzled.
You could say the Seahawks have since fostered rivalries with the Packers, Panthers and even the Patriots, but it’s not quite the same when you’re not even assured of playing each season. The Cardinals gave it a shot, but it never really took.
But now there’s a new applicant for the job, one that’s flaunting an impressive resume — the Los Angeles Rams. If you want to check their references, call the Dallas Cowboys, the preseason darlings who lost at home to the Rams last weekend.
On Sunday in Los Angeles, the Seahawks will find out whether the Rams are truly qualified to be their foil for the near future, or if they are overselling their credentials just like last year. That’s when an identical 3-1 start turned into a 1-11 finish that cost longtime coach Jeff Fisher his job in mid-December.
This just somehow feels different, however. Under new coach Sean McVay, the 31-year-old wunderkind, the Rams have been a revelation. After having the NFL’s worst offense last year, scoring a mere 14 points per game, they reach the quarter mark of the season as the NFL’s top scoring team at 35.5 points per game.
It’s a startling worst-to-first transformation, built upon a revamped offensive line, a rejuvenated Todd Gurley at running back and a quarterback in Jared Goff that would be barely recognizable to those who saw, and dismissed, him last year in the midst of a shaky rookie season.
Skeptics will point out that the Rams have feasted on the same two also-rans who have provided the Seahawks their only two wins, the 49ers and Colts. And furthermore, that the Rams’ defense, which ranks near the bottom of the league, makes them highly vulnerable for another fadeout.
However, it’s hard to question the legitimacy of the victory over the Cowboys on the road, a game in which the Rams came from behind and remained poised down the stretch. And it’s hard to quantify the attitude adjustment that has permeated the organization under the new regime, which includes veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips as well as a number of new players. Some would say left tackle Andrew Whitworth has been the most impactful free-agent signing of 2017.
“As far as I can tell, the energy has shifted,’’ said defensive end Quinton Jefferson, who joined the Rams after being cut by the Seahawks at the end of training camp, and now has rejoined Seattle. “They definitely believe in themselves.”
“They always had the talent,’’ added Seahawks offensive tackle Isaiah Battle, who played on the Rams’ practice squad the past two seasons. “They just had to get a good group in, a good organization, to uplift them and get them going.”
I think it would be a good thing for the Seahawks to have a consistently formidable opponent in their division. Remember how deliciously charged those 49ers games were in the sweet spot of the rivalry, peaking with Richard Sherman’s tirade against Michael Crabtree after his decisive tip in the NFC title game?
“When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get! Don’t you EVER talk about me.”
Give me some more of that. The Rams might indeed turn out to be a mirage, but they might also be a powerful, young team on the rise. If so, the duration and strength of this potential rivalry might actually hinge more on the Seahawks’ ability to stay relevant. With an aging team in a league that aggressively legislates against sustained success, that’s a bigger question than it has been in years.
For now, though, let’s just enjoy this game for what it is: A chance to see if the ground really is shifting in the NFC West.