The 49ers and the Seahawks have the best rivalry in sports right now, and it isn’t even close.
Here are the top five reasons why:
1. They are two of the best teams in the NFL.
2. They are in the same division.
3. Their head coaches hate each other.
4. Their players hate the other team’s coach.
5. Their players hate the other team’s players.
That’s a five-tool rivalry.
It’s not yet an all-time-great rivalry like Lakers-Celtics, Yankees-Red Sox or Bears-Packers. Those rivalries have been great for generations. 49ers-Seahawks hasn’t been the sport’s top rivalry for more than seven months. It’s only getting started.
49ers-Seahawks isn’t even the quintessential rivalry in 49ers history. The Rams are the 49ers’ natural rival. The Rams used to play in Los Angeles, and during the 1980s they had terrific teams featuring Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson. The Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, and the two teams have maintained a respectable rivalry since then, respectable but not hot.
49ers-Seahawks is hot to the point of burning.
The Seahawks have been an NFC team for just 11 seasons. They moved from the AFC West to the NFC West in 2002, just when the 49ers were starting their eight-year run of failure.
49ers-Seahawks didn’t officially become a rivalry until Jan. 7, 2011, the day the 49ers hired head coach Jim Harbaugh from Stanford, almost a year after the Seahawks hired Pete Carroll from USC.
Carroll was the best college coach in the nation, winning the national championship in 2003, 2004 and 2005. He’d also been a defensive coordinator for the 49ers and a head coach in the NFL.
Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh in 2006, a year after the Cardinal football team had gone 1-11. As a coach, Harbaugh was a novice taking over a nothing program. He wished he was Carroll’s rival, because that would mean Stanford football was on USC’s level. But Harbaugh wasn’t even on Carroll’s radar yet.
That changed on Oct. 6, 2007, when Harbaugh’s Cardinal beat Carroll’s Trojans – a 41-point favorite – 24-23 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Two years later, Harbaugh beat Carroll in the L.A. Coliseum again, this time by a score of 55-21. Late in the game when Stanford already was up big, Harbaugh ordered his team to go for a two-point conversion after a touchdown just to rub it in. After the game, Carroll approached Harbaugh at midfield and asked the now-famous question, “What’s your deal?”
Carroll probably figured out Harbaugh’s deal a few days later. He was building his coaching reputation at Carroll’s expense.
Carroll left USC in 2010, just before the NCAA started sanctioning USC for all kinds of violations perpetrated under Carroll’s watch. Carroll signed with the Seahawks, a rebuilding team in the worst division in the NFL. He’d be back on top in no time, he thought.
And he was right. The Seahawks won the NFC West Carroll’s first season in town. The team wasn’t great – 7-9 in the regular season – but they beat the defending champion New Orleans Saints in the playoffs, and Carroll resurrected Marshawn Lynch’s career. Things were starting to go Carroll’s way again.
Then the 49ers hired Harbaugh. He did not inherit a rebuilding team like Carroll. Harbaugh inherited a talented, veteran roster that had been bungled by Mike Singletary, perhaps the worst head coach in NFL history.
In Harbaugh’s first season with the Niners, he beat Carroll twice, won the NFC West and the Coach of the Year award. Harbaugh completely stole Carroll’s thunder for the second time.
Cut to the present. The 49ers and Seahawks are the two favorites to win the NFC this season according to Las Vegas oddsmakers. Both teams have young franchise quarterbacks – Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Both teams made the playoffs last season, although the Seahawks wiped the floor with the Niners 42-13 the last time they played, while the 49ers won the NFC West and went to the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh is the undisputed king of the division, and Carroll is maniacally plotting a way to dethrone him. In 2007, just six years ago, it was the opposite.
These days, everything Carroll and the Seahawks do is specifically geared toward taking down the Niners. The Seahawks are building a team to beat the Niners.
Carroll wants to hit the 49ers where they’re vulnerable. He’s been gashing the 49ers’ defense with Baldwin, a slot receiver, for two seasons. Baldwin is just a guy, nothing special. This offseason, the Seahawks traded for the best slot receiver in the NFL – Percy Harvin. The message: “Harbaugh, you couldn’t even cover your former player, Baldwin, the receiver you passed up. Good luck stopping Harvin.”
Carroll also signed two pass rushers – Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett – and drafted another one, Bruce Irvin, in 2011 to attack the 49ers’ offensive tackles, Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, who are better run blockers than pass protectors.
Harbaugh did not respond to these moves. After all, Harbaugh is the king. Carroll responds to Harbaugh’s moves, not vice-versa.
Actually, Harbaugh responded in a way. Harvin is a small player – 5-11, 184 pounds, so Harbaugh drafted defensive behemoths like Tank Carradine (6-4, 276), Corey Lemonier (6-3, 255) and Quinton Dial (6-6, 318). The message: “Carroll, we’re not worried about Harvin because he’s a shrimp and he’s not making out of the game in one piece. We’re going to flatten him and we’re going to flatten Russell Wilson and then we’re going to flatten the entire Seattle team because we’re bigger, we’re stronger and we’re the bullies.”
In building the Seahawks, Carroll also got “grudge players.” He wants players who have a grudge against Harbaugh like Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin, two Seahawks who played for Harbaugh in college, butted heads with him at Stanford and were passed up by him in the NFL draft. You can imagine what Carroll asked those two players at the NFL Scouting Combine: “Do you hate Harbaugh? Good. Do you promise to hate him for the rest of your career? Good.”
He also has Brandon Browner, a cornerback, who recently bragged he’d like to put his hands around Harbaugh’s neck.
Carroll doesn’t want his team merely to hate the 49ers. He wants the Seahawks to be their opposite, their counterpoint, the un-49ers.
Harbaugh prefers “blue collar” players who say, “Yes, sir” to him, and don’t do a lot of talking. Carroll wants loud, brash, in-your-face players who want to bully the 49ers.
The 49ers and Seahawks play each other in Seattle on Sept. 15. Whoever wins that game will be the early-season favorite to win the Super Bowl.
They will play each other again Dec. 8 in San Francisco, and it’s possible they’ll play each other a third time in the playoffs. That’s how this rivalry could play out for the next 10 seasons. If it does, it could be on the level of Giants-Dodgers.
But to maintain the honor of having the best rivalry in sports, Harbaugh and Carroll must stick around. It’s the way they loathe each other that makes this rivalry extra special.
Grant Cohn writes two sports columns per week for the Press Democrat’s website. He also writes the “Inside the 49ers” blog. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.