Once upon a time, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks were the fiercest of NFC West rivals. Then Richard Sherman tipped a ball to Malcolm Smith.
Seattle brings a nine-game winning streak against San Francisco into Sunday’s matchup at CenturyLink Field. It all started with that game-clinching play in the 2013 NFC Championship.
Sherman returns Sunday to CenturyLink Field and for the first time in his career will line up as a member of the visiting team. The game kicks off at 1 p.m. and will be broadcast on Q13 Fox.
Could Sherman’s return reignite a seemingly sleepy rivalry between Seattle (6-5) and San Francisco (2-9)? Could it distract his former teammates in a game they are predicted to win?
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he didn’t expect that, but he acknowledged the possibility.
“I really don’t think so,” he said. “We have tremendous respect for (Sherman), but I don’t think so. I’m watching for that, maybe.”
Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson both cited Sherman’s iconic play against the Niners as their favorite memory of the All Pro corner’s tenure in Seattle.
“That was always the best one just because we were able to go to the Super Bowl,” Wilson said. “He made a great play on that play. Not too many guys in the world can make that play and he was able to do that – and so many other things.”
They both spoke glowingly of the four-time Pro Bowler.
“He did a lot of great stuff here,” Carroll said. “He just kept doing it year after year after year.”
Sherman was not as complimentary. When asked this week about Wilson’s play-making ability he pointed out a few shortcomings.
“Yeah, I’ve also seen him throw five picks in the game, so you see what he’s capable of on both sides of it,” Sherman told reporters. “You understand that he can be defended, so you go out there and give it your best shot.”
He also suggested the two may not have spoken lately.
“I don’t really have a relationship with Russell,” he said. “We were teammates. We played through a very special time for the franchise.”
Sherman’s return — and his comments — have added some spice to a game the Seahawks are favored to win by 10 points. But a lot has changed since the Niners and Seahawks battled yearly for NFC West supremacy.
In the five years since Seattle bested San Francisco en route to the team’s first title, the Seahawks have racked up a 47-27 record and been a perennial playoff contender. The Niners are 23-52.
Coach Jim Harbaugh was forced out in San Francisco. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick left. Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, NaVorro Bowman are all gone.
This year was supposed to be different. After surging to five straight wins to finish last season with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Niners were a popular pick to compete for the NFC West. They signed Sherman in the offseason to help bolster their young defense.
It hasn’t worked out.
Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the season, and San Francisco never recovered.
Carroll offered a reason for the Seahawks’ recent dominance.
“Maybe because I was born in San Francisco,” he said with a chuckle.
Then he admitted that may not be the case, “I don’t know,” he said. “I have no idea.”
Carroll also argued that he never felt there was a rivalry.
“You said there was (a rivalry),” he said when asked about the famous matchups with Harbaugh. “You’ve never, ever heard me say that.”
Then he added some context.
“We had some great battles over the years and all that, if that’s what you guys want to call a rivalry,” he said. “I’m not trying to minimize that part, it’s just that isn’t the way I talk and act and think about it.”
If San Francisco’s struggles have taken some shine off this week’s matchup, the return of Sherman has brought a little back.
Fans will surely offer the former Seahawks great some type of reception, whether it’s cheers or boos remains to be seen.
Former teammate Bobby Wagner suggested the reaction should be obvious.
“He should be received with the loudest cheers that they can possibly cheer,” he said, “and the warmest of welcomes.”
Just don’t expect Sherman’s presence alone to renew the rivalry. At least not until the Niners win again.