From 1976, Seattle’s first season in the NFL, through 2001, the teams met just six times, with San Francisco winning four of those games.
The 49ers played in the NFC West while the Seahawks settled into the AFC West after their initial two seasons post-expansion. They saw each other every three years, for the most part, except for a couple of six-year gaps created by Seattle not finishing in the top four in their five-team division.
No, it wasn’t until 2002, when the NFL realigned to accommodate the addition of the Houston Texans, that this whole 49er-Seahawk thing began to fester.
Seattle was moved from the AFC West to the NFC West, meaning the 49ers and Seahawks would meet twice annually.
But that still didn’t set the real rivalry wheels in motion.
No, that happened just a few short years ago.
Pete Carroll left USC to take over the Seahawks’ head coaching gig following the 2009 season. The next year, Jim Harbaugh moved from Stanford to the 49ers in the same capacity.
The two had coached against each other three times as collegiate coaches, with Harbaugh’s Cardinal beating Carroll’s Trojans twice in Los Angeles.
In 2007, Stanford shocked the No. 2 Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Mausoleum Coliseum. USC avenged the defeat at The Farm 45-23 in 2008.
Then came the 2009 meeting, when Stanford hung double-nickels, 55 points, on the Trojans, including a decision by Harbaugh to add a two-point conversion that prompted Carroll to ask in a terse post-game handshake, “What’s your deal?”
As the 49ers were losing 42-13 last December in Seattle, Carroll told NFL.com that players were asking about the possibility of going for 50.
“Guys were kidding about it,” Carroll said. “We were just going to finish the game, it had nothing to do with (the 2009 game at USC). But some guys were asking the question whether or not we would go for two if we scored again.”
Harbaugh threw some fuel on the fire in the spring of 2013 after Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin drew a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.
“I’ve definitely noticed it,” Harbaugh said. “You don’t know what it is. Even when people say what it is, you don’t know that that’s what it is. For this, throw it out, or it’s that. But that’s usually the agents of the players themselves saying it’s, for example, Adderall.
“But the NFL doesn’t release what it actually is. So you have no idea. You’re taking somebody at their word, that I don’t know that you can take them at their word, understanding the circumstances.”
Then Harbaugh twisted the blade a bit.
“Play by the rules,” Harbaugh said. “And you always want to be above reproach. Especially when you’re good, because you don’t want people to come back and say they’re winning because they’re cheating. … So we want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules. Because if you cheat to win, then you’ve already lost, according to Bo Schembechler. And Bo Schembechler is about next to the word of God as you can get in my mind. It’s not the word of God, but it’s close.”
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman says the rivalry escalated when both teams became successful right around the same time. Sherman is in a unique position, having played for Harbaugh at Stanford and having spent his entire NFL career in Seattle.
“I think if both teams were 4-12, it wouldn’t be such an intense rivalry,” Sherman said during a media availability on Wednesday. “But both teams are winning. They ended teh season 12-4, we ended the season 13-3. Last year, they ended the season with a great record, we ended the season with a good record. That’s where you get rivalries when both teams are firing on all cylinders, both teams are winning big ballgames and you start to build those kind of rivals.”
Wherever it came from, the rivalry is fun. And the fun escalates this Sunday when the 49ers and the Seahawks meet in the playoffs for the very first time.