The departure of Jim Harbaugh and the slide of the 49ers has taken the fizz out of the NFC rivalry with the Seahawks. Enter the Green Bay Packers, eager for redemption.
A sentence never before expressed in American culture: Green Bay is the new San Francisco.
Presuming, of course, you prefer your cheddar cheese as a hat as opposed to brie as an entree.
Perhaps the sentence requires more precision: The Packers are the new 49ers. Yes, that’s better. I don’t want people to think tractors have usurped cable cars in American cultural iconography.
In the Seattle football world, the Packers are the new 49ers. In 2015, the Packers are the NFL team to be respected/feared/condemned/mocked, whatever the mood your Twitter account has on a particular day.
The splendid rivalry with the 49ers grows smaller in the rear view mirror. Sad.
As far as the forensic evidence indicates, they remain members of the NFC West. But so much has changed that they remain identifiable only at the molecular level.
Gone, of course, is coach Jim Harbaugh, the best cartoon villain since Yosemite Sam. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was his Bugs Bunny, right down to the chewing gum as carrot.
During one of his agonizing teleconferences with Seattle media, I wanted to summon the courage to ask: “Jim, would you do us a favor and say, ‘Tarnation, rabbit!’ just once?”
My bad. Pity.
The 49ers were 8-8 last year, riven by injury, management neurosis and rampant criminality. It was so bad that the 49ers for the season opener Monday came out in disguise, changing uniform color from jail-coveralls orange to black.
The 49ers also lost numerous players to free agency, injuries and retirements. And the year before that, they gave up their fabulous ghetto of a stadium, Candlestick Park, and moved 40 miles south to the soulless suburb of Santa Clara and its sterile Levi’s Stadium, where the grass field works as poorly as the the traffic.
Can you imagine the Packers giving up on Green Bay to move 40 miles south? Think about that: The Menomonee Packers? Or the Manitowoc Packers? Although I do like sound of the Fond Du Lac Pac.
But the Santa Clara 49ers are now with us, and the sporting soul is a smidgen worse. The decay of the rivalry was probably unavoidable. The Seahawks won six of the past seven, including the 23-17 victory in 2014 in the NFC Championship that was pinnacle game experience in Seattle sports history. Just as Rick and Ilse will always have Paris, the 12s will always have the memory of the Niners and that game.
The burgeoning relationship with the Packers also is trending lopsided, the Seahawks having won the past three, all in Seattle, all marquee events.
On a Monday night in 2012, the Seahawks won the “Fail Mary” game 14-12 on Golden Tate’s touchdown catch that was so controversial it brought an end to the fry cooks who replaced striking referees (another dubious moment in the Roger Goodell dictatorship). A year ago, the NFL regular season’s Thursday night opener at the Clink was won by Seattle 36-16.
Then came the NFC Championship in January, won by Seattle 28-22 in overtime after being down 16-0, then 19-7 with less than five minutes left. The greatest comeback in conference championship history has left the Packers’ fan base furious and the Packers nearly speechless.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, normally a fairly conversational gent, responded tersely Wednesday to a conference-call question about the motivation of 0-3.
“There’s not a lot of motivation there,” he said. Replaying the recording, there may have been the faint cracking of a molar after he said it.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who after the loss turned over playcalling this season to an assistant and fired his special teams coach, was similarly tight-jawed about the Seattle streak.
“We’re focusing on going 2-0, winning our first home game,” he said. “Everything we’re doing, we’re focusing on winning this football game.”
It must be a rivalry, because the first sign is always denial of same by participants.
At least Pete Carroll was willing to acknowledge the magnitude of the Seahawks’ endeavor. The Seahawks have won only once in seven tries at Lambeau Field, in 1999 upon Mike Holmgren’s return as coach after being poached by the Seahawks (two other road wins were in Milwaukee).
“If we’re able to get this game it will be a great accomplishment for us,” Carroll said. “They were 9-0 at home last year. They know what they’re doing. They know how to play there, and they play to their fans and their crowd, which is historically an extraordinary place to play.”
The franchises have met only 18 times, including three playoffs. So the rivalry is not dripping with long history. Then again, neither were the Seahawks and 49ers, until Carroll and Harbaugh brought their dislike for each other from college jobs to the NFC West.
Unfortunately for fans of soap opera, Carroll and McCarthy have little personal history, offering up the standard professional respect for one another.
Too bad. But this will be the teams’ third meeting in 12 months. That certainly suggests enough familiarity to breed some genuine contempt.
It won’t be like twice-a-year with the Harbaugh gang, but it is still the pinnacle, and the football world will gather Sunday night to watch. Green Bay is the new San Francisco, while Seattle seeks to be the old Seahawks.
Regardless of outcome Sunday, a good rivalry demands a game five in January. Whether it’s where the snow is deep or the rain is sideways, the NFL and its fans could use the juice of pure, high-end football, free of judges and lawyers.