The difference between the Seahawks and 49ers to this point of the season is that one quarterback has flourished without his top receiver while the other has wavered without his.
At the close of the 2012 season, the Seahawks decided an impact pass catcher was the team’s missing element and traded for Vikings wideout Percy Harvin. The speedy Harvin has appeared in one game this year, and his offensive stat total amounts to one catch for 17 yards.
He hasn’t practiced this week and is iffy for Sunday’s game at Candlestick Park
Instead, Wilson’s main targets have been receivers Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearseand tight ends Zach Miller and Luke Willson.
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These are all nice, hard-working players. However, no one would classify them as stars or game changers or must-have weapons. At best, you would call them solid, complementary players. Which is why the Seahawks gave up three draft picks – including this year’s first-rounder – to get Harvin.
If those receivers had been with the 49ers, most probably they would have been cut by now. In fact, one of Wilson’s targets this year, Ricardo Lockette, was cut by the 49ers after spending last season on San Francisco’s practice squad and the most recent offseason challenging for a role at wide receiver. He was Colin Kaepenick’s housemate until the 49ers cut him Aug. 22.
Lockette spent time with Seattle in 2011. They reacquired him last month, and he has three catches for 65 yards, including a 33-yarder in Monday’s win against the Saints.
“We were thrilled to get him back,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week. “He’s helping us, you know? He caught a big ball last week, has done some great stuff for us. He’s starting to figure in as one of the complementary guys, and hopefully he’ll expand the role for us. But we really like the kid.”
The point is that Wilson has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate despite not having any stars to target. And that’s perhaps the best argument for why he should win the award.
While Denver’s Peyton Manning can throw to wide receivers Wes Welker (five Pro Bowls) and Demaryius Thomas (one Pro Bowl), Wilson’s leading wide receiver, Baldwin, wasn’t even drafted.
Kaepernick, on the other hand, never was able to turn any of his lesser receivers into even serviceable players after Michael Crabtree went down with an Achilles’ tear. Kaepernick has been very good when throwing to Anquan Boldin (three Pro Bowls) and Vernon Davis (one Pro Bowl). Throwing to everyone else? He’s been terrible.
That’s not to say Wilson will dominate Kaepernick for years to come.
Wilson is the more polished, more composed, more clever quarterback now. But Kaepernick has a decided edge in physical gifts – he’s taller, has a more powerful arm, is the more explosive runner. The challenge for the 49ers is to increase Kaepernick’s quarterback acumen so it matches his athletic ability.
It’s also not to say Wilson and the Seahawks will win Sunday.
Kaepernick may only be comfortable throwing to Pro Bowl-caliber targets. But the critique becomes moot now that Crabtree is back in the lineup.
The Seahawks were able to throttle Boldin and Davis in their Week 2 matchup. Davis caught three passes for 20 yards before leaving the game with a hamstring injury. Boldin, who had 208 yards a week earlier against the Packers, was held to one catch for 7 yards, causing Carroll to chirp after the game: “They got nothing done. What were their numbers? What did Anquan do tonight?”
But stopping two good pass catchers is easier than stopping three, which is the 49ers’ best hope against Seattle’s suffocating defense.
It’s also something that must be infuriating to the 49ers’ front office.
San Francisco has lost control of the NFC West despite still being the more talented team. The 49ers have the better offensive line and more experienced and talented pass catchers. And they have a defense that, while not as ferocious and notorious as Seattle’s, isn’t that far behind.
Seattle gives up 15.5 points a game; the 49ers allow 16.4.
The great equalizer, however, is having a talented and creative quarterback.
And in that area, the Seahawks have the edge. For now.