Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner once said he’d like to put his hands around 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh’s neck and squeeze.
The Seahawks insist Harbaugh – he vehemently denies it – drove up to the Seahawks’ bus after a 49ers win, honked and mock-saluted the players onboard. The two sides spent the offseason lobbing verbal grenades back and forth, signing the other team’s discarded players and otherwise acting like a couple of bickering boxers setting the stage for a main event that was many months away.
Now it’s here.
The 49ers and Seahawks meet today in a rubber-match showdown that the NFL world has been anticipating since last year’s postseason ended. The rivalry has surpassed the Ravens-Steelers as the league’s most intense, and given the age of the respective teams – especially their young, talented quarterbacks – it’s one that promises to rage for years.
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But what makes it so powerful is not that the teams are polar opposites but that they are so alike. In fact, 49ers-Seahawks has the feel of a sibling rivalry. Perhaps 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers put it best when he said, “It’s like we’re brothers.”
“Hated brothers,” he quickly clarified. “But we play the same way. We run the ball, have two good quarterbacks that are athletic and run the ball and play behind their defenses. Both defenses stand out.”
The two teams certainly share a lot of the same DNA.
Players have been moving between Santa Clara and Renton, Wash., since March.
The Seahawks have six former Stanford or 49ers players on their 53-man roster or practice squad, including quarterback B.J. Daniels, a seventh-round pick by the 49ers in April.
The 49ers have three former Seahawks, including guard Ryan Seymour, a seventh-round pick by Seattle in April. The 49ers plucked Seymour off the Seahawks’ practice squad, one of two practice-squad players they signed away from their division rivals this season.
Observers chuckled at the back and forth, assuming the acquisitions were done to irritate the other team and that the incoming players were pumped for information about the inner workings of the enemy.
Not so, said cornerback Perrish Cox, who began the season with the 49ers, then was signed by the Seahawks and now is back with San Francisco.
Cox said there was no debriefing on either end and that he was struck by how similar the environments are.
“Right down from the coaches – they’re very active coaches, they’re players’ coaches,” he said of Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. “It’s the same thing with the players. They’re all close. They don’t hate each other. The offense, the defense, the wide receivers, the DBs – everyone’s real tight on both sides of the ball.”
That’s because the teams have been built in the same way.
Former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan, who brought in veterans Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, set the blue-collar tone that Harbaugh has seized upon. McCloughan is now the right-hand man of Seahawks general manager John Schneider.
The 49ers’ general manager, Trent Baalke, and Schneider also have similar origins. Each had mentors who preferred big-body players and espoused a might-is-right style of play.
As a result, both the 49ers and Seahawks are led by fast and physical defenses. Both offenses prefer to run the ball. And strong-armed – and quick-footed – quarterbacks run the offenses.
The 49ers finished the regular season third in rushing offense; the Seahawks were fourth. Seattle led the league in scoring defense; the 49ers finished third. Seattle had the league’s best turnover differential; the 49ers finished tied for second.
Which is why there’s a burning hatred between the teams – but also a begrudging respect.
“He runs the football, plays good defense, plays special teams, gets it,” Carroll said of Harbaugh. “That’s been the way to play championship football for a long time. Not everybody is in tune with that to the same extent. I think he’s really got it nailed, and he’s demonstrated that.”
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is a newcomer to the 49ers, but it didn’t take long for him to recognize the bitter rivalry.
“It’ll always been that way when you have two good teams in the same division,” he said. “You play each other a couple times a year, and if you’re good enough, possibly three times a year. It was the same way when I was in Baltimore playing against Pittsburgh. You respect each other as foes, but there is really a dislike.”