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Despite Clunker, Seahawks-Niners Rivalry Rules

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Seattle smashed San Francisco Sunday night, but their rivalry remains among the best in football. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.
Seattle smashed San Francisco Sunday night, but their rivalry remains among the best in football. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.

Before 2002, the 49ers and Seahawks had played just 6 times in NFL history. After division realignment placed them in the same division, neither team had performed well enough at the same time to justify an actual “rivalry.” All four NFC West teams were long mocked, as the division became the laughingstock of the league. However, on Sunday night, the last seven months culminates in a game that will finally anoint the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry as the best in the league. Although neither club was very good in 2009, the seeds of this bitter hatred were sown during the ’09 college season.

When Jim Harbaugh first showed up at Stanford in 2007, he immediately targeted Pete Carroll and Southern California as the program he wanted to challenge. But, 2009 was the season their rivalry started to heat up. It was Harbaugh’s third season at Stanford, but they were enjoying their first winning season with him in charge. Pete Carroll was in his final season at Southern California, and after rebuilding the Trojans into a national powerhouse, he clearly needed a change of scenery. Despite being bounced from two head coaching gigs in the NFL, the smart money was on Carroll returning to the pro ranks. With an offense led by current NFL players Andrew Luck, Toby Gerhart, Chris Owusu, Ryan Whalen, Coby Fleener, and others, Harbaugh’s team blew out Carroll’s Trojans, 55-21. The Cardinal attempted a two-point conversation in the closing moments of the game, which clearly rubbed USC’s coach the wrong way. Words were exchanged, and the rest, as they say, is history.

When Jim Harbaugh took the San Francisco job, the divide between the two men was highlighted, and has been so ever since. Yet, even down to their personalities and coaching styles, they are two very different men. Harbaugh is a hard-nosed, no-holds-barred type of guy, who always wears his emotions on his sleeve. You can tell there is some aversion to the guy around the league. He just rubs some people the wrong way. Carroll shows emotion as well, but it’s in a much more positive manner. He’s certainly more of a player’s coach, encouraging and coaching up his players. He has fun doing it too. One thing they do share is an incredible coaching acumen. In a parallel universe, they’d probably be the best of friends, but they still can’t resist taking shots at one another.

Earlier this year, after the Seahawks had their fifth player since 2011 suspended for a PED violation (sixth if you include Richard Sherman’s overturned appeal), the 49ers coach did not pull any punches. “Is it a concern? I’ve definitely noticed it,” Harbaugh said. He went on to say the NFL doesn’t release the specific drug, so you’re left wondering, as well as the line that stuck most with everyone: “if you cheat to win, then you’ve already lost.” Of course, Carroll came back and dismissed the comments, saying the league and the team had already dealt with it.

Just last week, Jim Harbaugh was putting pressure on the league and the refs, trying to discern what the rule on hitting the quarterback was in the read-option. He was trying to protect his quarterback, saying there was “a gray area” when it came to the rule. This week though, Pete Carroll took the exact opposite viewpoint, believing the rule to be very clear when it came to hitting the quarterback on certain plays. It’s almost as if the two coaches are trolling the media to escalate this rivalry. However, this is the reality of the Harbaugh-Carroll competition. As good as these teams have been built, this rivalry is erected primarily upon the backs of the coaches.

The players don’t engage in the war of words because, quite simply, that’s not their job. Periphery players like Anthony Dixon of the Niners and K.J. Wright of the Seahawks traded barbs within the last week, with the Niner special teamer and third-string running back calling the Seahawks the “She-hawks” on Twitter. The Seattle linebacker fired back, calling the 49ers the “Forty-Whiners” to complete the battle. Both players deleted their tweets several hours later, likely on the advice of their teams’ PR departments. Even Richard Sherman, normally vocal on whatever’s being discussed, has been mum.

However, there were other Seahawks that upped the ante in the offseason. After Harbaugh took his stance on PEDs earlier in the summer, Brandon Browner made some interesting comments about the ball coach. Browner, who served a suspension at the end of 2012, told Sports Radio KJR in Seattle, “he’s never gonna be out there lined up against me. I wish he would. I’d put my hands around his neck.” Although the 6-foot-4 Browner is known as one of the most physical corners in the league, taken for exactly what it is, it’s assault. Now, I’ll dismiss this as Browner misspeaking, wanting to say that he’d play Harbaugh physically.

Either way, it’s another shot fired across the bow in a matchup that's likely to be must-see TV for the next half decade.

Sunday night didn’t offer the quality of play that we’re used to seeing from these teams. Ill-timed penalties, poor play, and the Seattle crowd doomed the 49ers after the weather delay. The two teams fought to a draw for much of the first quarter, before Mother Nature played its part and delayed the game for an hour. When the two teams came back out, the rivalry was tossed aside and the word laugher came to mind. The 49ers couldn’t establish anything on the offensive side of the ball, turning the ball over five times. Additionally, they picked up 121 yards of penalties, including some huge personal fouls, which pushed Seattle from field goal or punt range to eventual touchdowns. It was a perfect storm. Marshawn Lynch wore down the Niners’ front seven by repeatedly ripping off ferocious runs. San Francisco lost nose tackle Ian Williams, on a questionable low block, to a broken ankle. Rookie safety Eric Reid was forced out in the first half with a concussion. Vernon Davis pulled up with a balky hamstring late in the game. And Ray McDonald was battling a slew of injuries throughout the entire affair.

While Williams’ injury, barring Reid’s concussion tests, looked to be the only major injury, it’s not time to sound the warning signals for the 49ers. They were embarrassed in this same game last season, and we know they went on to greater things in the playoffs. They’ll regroup and ultimately will learn from some of the errors they made. For the rivalry, this is sure to only stoke the flames. Harbaugh is never short of emotion on the sidelines, and you could tell he was fuming behind his play sheet. By the end of the game, he was staring across the field, watching his rival laughing and slapping hands boisterously with his players and coaches. Carroll even challenged a fumble on a kickoff late in the game, which he did not necessarily need to do, but did so anyway. He might as well have poured a can of gasoline onto the flames of this rivalry.

I seem to recall some of the Ravens-Steelers games from years past being absolute bloodbaths in favor of one team. That only made the next game better. If the 49ers had scored a touchdown or two late in the game, there would still be something they could take from the loss. But, until the final whistle, they were manhandled. When they meet again on Dec. 8, each team will have four games left. Although this was a tone-setting victory for the Seahawks, signaling their intent to take the division and conference from the defending NFC champs, it’s very likely their next meeting, from Candlestick, will mean a lot more for both teams.