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Barber: Seahawks were 49ers' real rivals all along

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SANTA CLARA — Joe Staley still recalls the first time he ever played football in Seattle. Sort of.

“I remember it being on ‘Monday Night Football,’” Staley said in the 49ers’ locker room Friday. “Might have been the first (NFL) road game I ever played.”

It was a Monday night contest on Nov. 12, 2007. It was not Staley’s first NFL road game. It was, in fact, his fifth. This was so long ago that the coaches were Mike Nolan and Mike Holmgren, the name of the stadium was Qwest Field rather than CenturyLink Field and Frank Gore was still carrying the ball in the NFL. Go figure.

“We didn’t go silent count or anything,” said Staley, whose college football days at Central Michigan did little to prepare him for the crowd noise in Seattle. “And I was like, ‘What?! I can’t hear a thing!’ I was looking at my team, like how the (bleep) do you block guys like this?”

Staley’s misremembrance is understandable for a man of his age, but it’s telling. The memories of the cheers drowning out the 49ers’ laments during a 24-0 drubbing by the Seahawks remain so vivid that he was sure they were part of his first NFL road trip.

The atmosphere in Seattle basically erased previous games in, for example, Pittsburgh and the Meadowlands from the offensive tackle’s mind. That’s how crazy the scene gets in Seattle. And it used to get that way in San Francisco, too.

For a couple years, when Jim Harbaugh was coaching the 49ers and his nemesis, Pete Carroll, was coaching the Seahawks (as he continues to do), and when Niners fans were still rocking Candlestick Park, this was the most electric rivalry in the NFL. And with the 8-0 49ers hosting the 7-2 Seahawks this Monday night at Levi’s Stadium, hope lives anew that the series can reach those heights again.

I know one thing. The local sports culture has been misplacing some of its hopes.

For years, a lot of us have been wishing for an SF-LA rivalry to match Giants-Dodgers, which is truly ruthless and occasionally violent. The Warriors and Lakers have never been good at the same time (spoiler alert: still aren’t!), so there has never been any logic behind mutual hatred there. Recently, therefore, we have turned our attention to 49ers-Rams.

That was a good one back in the late 1980s, when John Robinson’s Rams were trying to make a run at the Walsh/Seifert 49ers. But the Rams left for a long vacation in the Midwest, and when they returned the Niners were awful. As the 49ers broke to a great start this season, it looked like Rams-49ers would finally take flight.

That was the narrative, anyway, when the 49ers headed to Los Angeles for a showdown in Week 6. But the Rams didn’t put up much of a fight in that game. As it turns out, they have taken a big step back since playing in the Super Bowl last February. The Rams are just OK in 2019. And there were more fans wearing red than blue at the LA Coliseum that day. It felt nothing like a feud.

As it turns out, we were looking for a rival in the wrong place all the time. We should have turned our gaze toward the north, not the south.

For one thing, Seattle makes more sense as a rival to the Bay Area. San Francisco and Los Angeles are like step-siblings raised in the same household. They honestly don’t have that much common beyond electoral votes and great burritos.

Seattle and San Francisco, on the other hand, are more like twins separated at birth. (I know the 49ers no longer play in San Francisco, but San Franciscans still love the team.) As a city, it soars rather than sprawls. It has bridges and stunning views of islands and bay water.

The weather is drop-dead gorgeous for 50% of the year, atrocious for the other 50%. There are clams.

And when you think about it, a closer comp should mean a more heated rivalry. Some of the most vicious political and religious clashes in history have been attempts to split the finest hairs. Los Angeles and San Francisco can rule different fiefdoms. But there can be only one capital of cold seawater, big trees, lighthouses and ale.

There’s another reason the Seahawks are re-emerging as the 49ers’ one true rival. They are built to last longer than the Rams.

It would be unfair to call the Rams “gimmicky,” because they were truly sensational the past two years. But the strength of their offense is scheme. Jared Goff threw for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. Is he good? Like, top-tier good? I don’t get that impression. He was the product of Sean McVay’s system and a great running back, Todd Gurley, who might be in the process of breaking down.

The Seahawks, in contrast, are a team that never seems to go away. They played in back-to-back Super Bowls in 2013-14 on the strength of a legendary defense. That defense is almost entirely dismantled now. In fact, only four players remain from the Seattle team that ate turkey on the 50-yard line at Levi’s on Thanksgiving 2014 — quarterback Russell Wilson, linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, and tight end Luke Willson (who left and returned).

And yet here they are again, winning games and threatening the 49ers from below. It’s a testament to Carroll’s coaching style, and to Wilson’s development as a brilliant quarterback.

Harbaugh isn’t here anymore, so his enmity for Carroll (and vice versa) is no longer part of the equation.

“The reason it got so intense right there is because of the coaches,” Staley said. “I mean, I really do think that they hated each other. … It was more like the top down, and trickled down to us.”

But the 2019 version has an added element of malevolence. Cornerback Richard Sherman, whose game has always been fueled by perceived disrespect, has gone from Seattle’s Legion of Boom to San Francisco’s Niner Gang.

He played the Seahawks twice last year; he got that out of his system. But he hasn’t played them in a game that meant something until now.

“It’s another game, it’s a division game,” Sherman said, downplaying his personal feelings. “It’s definitely more meaningful in that respect, because division games, you gotta win if you want to make the playoffs and have a home game. … But to me that’s about it.”

Hmm, maybe. We’ll gauge Sherman’s reaction after he beats, or loses to, Seattle on Monday night.

The rest of us are free to admit this is the real stuff. According to TickPick, a secondary ticket market, Niners-Seahawks was the most expensive NFL ticket this weekend with an average purchase price of $192. That was announced Thursday. By Friday, the cheapest seats on the site were $206.

The football consumer knows the Seahawks, and not the Rams, are the threat to the 49ers’ dominance in the NFC West this season. As they should be.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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