While coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch work to rebuild the 49ers back into a playoff contender, they can look to Sunday’s opponent for a template in how to get there – and stay there.
San Francisco and Seattle, in many ways, have been polar opposites in recent years. The 49ers haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, while the Seahawks in 2017 missed the postseason for the just first time since 2011 and currently find themselves back in the mix to play in January.
The 49ers have hired four coaches (and fired three) during that span, while head coach Pete Carroll steadied the ship and has the Seahawks (6-5) in position for another postseason run despite turning over a significant portion of the roster over the last year.
That includes a number of key players from arguably the best defense of a generation, such as cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor and defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. That foursome combined for 12 Pro Bowl nods.
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Not included in the group of notable departures: All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, who was lost during the fourth game this season because of a lower-leg fracture, though he might have played his last game with Seattle with free agency looming in the spring.
The key for the Seahawks’ sustained success has been continuity, which the 49ers have lacked through their series of coaching and regime changes. Progression through stability was a lesson Carroll learned, in part, from legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh.
“Coach Walsh used to say this: ‘It takes you five years before you really can get your team together where they really have the reservoir of experiences where they can really find their best,’” said Carroll, a Bay Area native who was the 49ers defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996.
“That’s a long haul, to get to that.”
San Francisco under Shanahan is in Year 2 of his tenure and still trying to lay the foundation for prolonged success. But there have been plenty of road blocks along the way. Particularly unexpected ones, like losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the season with a knee injury three weeks in. Or releasing linebacker Reuben Foster on Sunday following his second arrest on suspension of domestic violence less than two years since being drafted in the first round.
“You try not to freak out, but it is tough,” Shanahan said. “You get sick of losing, you want to fix things and that’s why we go at it hard and just try to make the right decision and not just the one over emotion.”
Shanahan and Lynch have turned over nearly the entire roster since getting hired in 2017. Carroll has dealt with similar roster upheaval, especially on his top-flight defense.
The difference: The Seahawks have remained competitive while the 49ers have foundered.
“Really, it’s just a process that (young players) got to get out there, they got to play, they got to earn their way,” Carroll said on his conference call with Bay Area reporters. “You can only gain experience by being out there and working it. So there’s always pains in growing. And you can see a guy making realizations for the first time, time after time. So it just takes a while.”
The Seahawks (6-5) have won two consecutive games against NFC Wild Card hopefuls in the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, and seem poised to make the playoffs even though they sit behind the Washington Redskins, who just lost starting quarterback Alex Smith for the season with a gruesome leg injury.
Seattle hasn’t taken the same form of their old squads, like the one that beat the 49ers in the NFC title game of the 2013 season at the height of the arguably the best rivalry in the NFL. Their defense this year ranks 16th in scoring and eighth in points after ranking in the top five in both categories from 2012-16.
The constant for Seattle during its prolonged run has been quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s having one of his best seasons. Wilson’s 112.0 passer rating would be the best of his career, which has helped balance out a slight dip from the team’s defense.
“I think it’s been tougher (this year),” Shanahan said of the Seahawks having lost so many stars. “All the games have come down to the wire when you lose some of those talented guys. But, it’s a very fine line between having a very good record and a bad record. Everyone’s very close. When you have a quarterback like that and the team they have that’s kept them close, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s won more than half of them.”
To Shanahan’s point, eight of Seattle’s 11 games have been decided by one score or less, with Wilson being the key factor in a number of their late wins. Wilson has never missed a start since entering the league in 2012, while Nick Mullens is the fourth quarterback to start a game for the 49ers over the last two campaigns.
Perhaps the 49ers will find themselves in the annual playoff hunt if they could ever maintain the same type of continuity as the Seahawks, starting with the quarterback. That’s the goal, but it hasn’t come close to happening yet.