This summer I’ve heard many questions asking who should be the Seattle Seahawks’ chief rival, now that the gold rush in San Francisco has all panned out. I say, why must there be only one?
The kind of rivalry I’m talking about doesn’t follow logic or geography or league alignment. It is more personal, more instinctive. We’re also in the spirit of storytelling. The number of rivals can be as unlimited as the depths of your memory and the reasons as local and varied as the surfaces of your heart.
For the past few weeks I’ve occasionally considered pairs of Seahawks rivals, using both competitive stakes and this personal, emotional territory to determine which of the two …for the moment… is a greater rivalry.
San Francisco 49ers
Even though the basis of this series rests on a theory that the 49ers aren’t Seattle’s rival anymore, I still want to test that theory. After all, the Santa Clara-based franchise’s rivalry remains the only Seahawks rivalry with its own Wikipedia page!
After Seattle seized dominance of the NFC West from the formerly-elite Rams shortly after joining the division, it seemed like the rest of the ’00s kept promising: Here come the 49ers! From one year to the next, under coach after coach, they continued getting touted as the next breakout team but never materialized as anything more than spoilers (a Thursday-night loss in December 2006 sealed a sweep by 7-9 San Francisco that nearly ended Seattle’s NFC-repeat bid before it began); but in general the West was so bad the newborn divisional “rivalries” never grew lasting teeth—until Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011. That turned out to be the perfect flavor to contrast with the Seahawks’ budding development under Pete Carroll, due to the way Harbaugh with Stanford had contested Carroll’s Pac-10 supremacy at USC for the previous half-decade.
Before long Seattle-SF emerged as the top billing in the whole NFL. The challenge undoubtedly fueled divisional hatred and common jealousy and spite, for fans. But it seemed like just as swiftly those bright lights burst. Harbaugh is long gone, the 49ers are a sizzling mess. Chip Kelly doesn’t light the same awe in 2016 that he did when at Oregon. Like many past relationships, you’re left wondering how real were those feelings that so recently filled the distance between the core and the perimeter of your desires.
Fortunately, I’m here to say that, as with Pittsburgh last week, the roots of true rivalry aren’t defined by regularity of the stakes or an even balance of power. Seahawks fans contain multitudes and contradictions. San Francisco is allowed to be both not a big deal to us and a furious source for our misanthropy when and however often they lose.
People go crazy when I suggest old AFC West rivalries mean anything anymore. I can understand that attitude if you’re under 25 years old or otherwise arrived lately to following the Seahawks. I see you guys, but you have to understand the archaeology of these emotions.
Seattle has played in the NFC for almost 15 years now, true, but as I mentioned above those divisional ties never really shook the proverbial Pioneer Square seismometer until the decade we are now living in. In the meantime, a quarter century of preexisting animus toward the AFC foes doesn’t just flip into conviviality—especially considering the Seahawks got excluded from reveling in the lowliness of the early-21st century Raiders alongside their ex- mates from the AFC West, and so had less opportunity to turn hard feelings into pity.
Oakland—or really Los Angeles, where Al Davis’s club most mattered for Seattle’s sake—was the first world class opponent the Seahawks really measured themselves against. Largent, Krieg and Warner swept the Silver & Black in the regular season in 1983, but with a championship on the line the Raiders crushed Seattle 30-14 in the AFC title rematch. When L.A. added to its Super Bowl glory that January, the outcome only fueled a feeling that the Seahawks were on a level with the world’s best—and indeed, a year later Seattle ended the defending champs’ season in the playoffs.
However, the Raiders continued to cramp the Seahawks’ style. Los Angeles showed no mercy in the early ’90s, beating Seattle eight straight times from 1990-93. Until Marshawn Lynch’s earthquake run or maybe Golden Tate’s simultaneous-possession touchdown, the most-replayed highlight involving our team was Bo Jackson blowing past the Boz and sprinting 91 yards into the Kingdome tunnel in 1987. The Raiders only went 5-10 that (strike-addled) year and lost seven in a row headed into that Monday Night Football affair, but that’s the kind of treatment that puts the “complex” in the complicated identity nurtured by Seattle sports fans over the years. When the Seahawks thrashed Oakland 44-10 in a Sunday primetime game in 1995 it was seen at the time as an announcement that Seattle could once again be ready to be a force in the league—in actuality it was just one result in 8-8 seasons during a lull period for both franchises, but it shows the Seahawks were still sizing themselves according to their “Win Baby” brothers down the coast.
For the moment: Much though I love tradition, the Seahawks have played 54 against Oakland/L.A. in their history but 50 of them came before 2002 and there hasn’t been a playoff encounter between the two sides since that 1984 win. There haven’t been any meaningful games in the series since 2002 because the Raiders haven’t played any meaningful games since 2002.
There’s still a part of me that feels like an outsider in the NFC West. I don’t possess a lot of malice toward the 49ers (or even their fans); I cheered for them to beat John Elway in the first Super Bowl I remember watching, and to beat the Cowboys and Packers all through the 1990s. I admire their uniforms. I even kind of like Jim Harbaugh as a coach and cartoon character. I loved him as a player and was used to wanting him to do well.
I know that puts me at the unpopular kids’ table around here, but even I don’t deny the real sparks that defined the high point of the 2011-2014 Seattle-San Francisco feud.