RENTON, Wash. -- From 2007 through 2009, Pete Carroll's USC Trojans and Jim Harbaugh's Stanford Cardinal faced off three times, and Harbaugh emerged with a 2-1 advantage. Carroll has never had the upper hand on Harbaugh since the two coaches moved to the NFC West -- Carroll in 2010 with the Seattle Seahawks, and Harbaugh in 2011 with the San Francisco 49ers. Harbaugh's rebuild has been more decisive, and reflected better early results. He's holding a 33-6-1 regular-season record to Carroll's 23-23 mark.
But when it comes to styles and schemes -- and styles make fights in football, just as they do in boxing -- the teams built by these two coaches are as similar as any you'll see in the NFL today. Both the 9-5 Seahawks and 10-3-1 49ers, who will tussle this Sunday night for control of the division, feature hallmarks that could be easily switched from franchise to franchise without too much trouble. Each team is currently sparked by a young quarterback making unexpected gains, each team is buttressed by a violent and consistent running game, and each team is truly defined by a defense that stops opposing offenses from front to back. The two teams are tied for the NFL lead in scoring defense, each allowing just 15.6 points per game.
“I think we are similar," Carroll said on Wednesday. "I can’t help but see that because they believe in playing big-time defense as well as us, they believe in the running game, which we do, and they have a very strong emphasis on special teams, which we do. I think that’s really the three pillars of what we’re trying to put together here, that’s what I know we’re dealing with. I don’t know how they speak it or how they talk about it, but it’s certainly what’s obvious about their team and what you have to line up against. This a real matchup for us with a like approach as well."
The wild card for the Seahawks in recent weeks has been the progress of quarterback Russell Wilson, whose deep passes and familiarity with the read-option game have transformed Carroll's usual offensive concepts -- run the ball and direct the quarterback to avoid screwing anything up -- into something far more expansive. When they beat the Buffalo Bills, 50-17, last Sunday, the Seahawks became the first NFL team since 1950 to score 50 or more points in two straight games. Wilson ran for three touchdowns and passed for another in that game; not bad for a rookie quarterback selected in the third round and devalued by every team -- including his own -- because he stands just 5-foot-10 5/8 inches tall.
“He was good against us in the first game," Harbaugh said of Wilson on Wednesday, remembering the 49ers' 13-6 win over Seattle on Oct. 18. "We went into the game seeing a very good quarterback, a very accurate quarterback, very mobile quarterback that can hurt you running the ball and throwing the ball. He has a real good command of the offense. I really felt like in the first game that we played him, he threw some beautiful passes -- fortunately for us, they were dropped, but his accuracy and his play [were] right on the money.”
For the 49ers, it's been the evolution of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the team's second-round pick in Harbaugh's first season with the team. Early in the 2012 season, Kaepernick was installed for specific read-option plays, while veteran Alex Smith enjoyed his best season to date in a relatively conservative game plan. But when Smith was concussed in the team's tie against the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 11, that was the start of a run by Kaepernick in which he has thrown seven touchdowns and two interceptions, and the 49ers have gone 4-1.
That Smith had completed 70 percent of his passes this season was a respected, but irrelevant, metric -- Kaepernick immediately gave San Francisco's offense the ability to make bigger plays downfield. The four touchdowns he accounted for against the New England Patriots last Sunday night made him the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week, an award that Wilson bagged in Week 13.
"They’re really coaching up their spot well, they know what they want, they’re fitting it together great, and he’s giving them the spark that they obviously really favor," Carroll said of Kaepernick. "They’re loaded at that spot. The thing that really jumps out is that Colin has such a strong arm. He really can fire the ball down the field on down-the-field stuff along with they’re play-action stuff, and then when he gets out and runs he can really go. So it’s a little more of a run threat with Alex, but other than that it’s just two good guys running the offense. They both have multiple problems that they present to us.”
Coming into Sunday night's game, each team faces question marks about the availability of its best defensive player.Forty Niners defensive tackle Justin Smith has not practiced this week as he recovers from an elbow injury suffered in the Patriots game, and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has a Friday appeal scheduled for his four-game Adderall suspension. If Sherman loses the appeal, the NFL may take until Monday or Tuesday to rule, but it's also possible that he could be out -- and very badly missed -- in this matchup.
As for Smith, Harbaugh said this week that "I expect we'll see the Cowboy. Knowing what I know of Justin Smith and the situation, yeah, I think the Cowboy's going to be saddled up. ... ropin' and ridin'!"
Well, all right then.
Perhaps no player on either team better understands the similarities and dynamics between the Seahawks and 49ers than Sherman, who has become one of the league's best cornerbacks in Carroll's NFL defense, and played receiver and cornerback for Harbaugh at Stanford.
"It helps that I've seen it all before, except for that Wishbone/Pistol stuff they now run [with Kaepernick]," Sherman said. "The coaches have a great game plan, and they know how to prepare for it. I recognize a lot of the stuff, but recognizing it and stopping it are two different things. It's not too hard to recognize what they do, regardless of what formations they're in. You know what's coming, but can you stop it?
One extra and interesting dynamic -- Harbaugh and Carroll really don't seem to like each other. It's an enmity that probably goes back to Stanford's 55-21 win over USC in 2009. Carroll didn't appreciate that Harbaugh was running up the score (something Carroll himself has been accused of in recent weeks), and famously asked him, "What's your deal?" at midfield after the game.
"He said, 'What's your deal?' I said, 'What's your deal?' And then from there, it's about as well-documented a six-word sentence as there could be," Harbaugh remembered last September.
The two coaches also traded barbs on Wednesday. Asked by the Bay Area media whether there was a particular "hallmark" of a Carroll-coached team, Harbaugh quipped, “I don’t remember getting any cards from him at the holidays."
Harbaugh's birthday -- his 49th birthday, to be exact -- is on Sunday.
Told of this an hour later at his midweek presser, Carroll had this to say: “I heard that he didn’t get [a card] from us yet. I want to go back and check my list and see how that happened. Maybe there will be something coming along here before long. If Jim’s not sending a card, that’s OK. I understand. I’ll try to get one in the mail soon.”
More seriously, Carroll talked about the fraternity of coaches, and how men who "give their lives" to the profession do have a sense of mutual respect ... even if it isn't too touchy-feely at times.
"I don’t think it’s personal. It can get there sometimes if individuals don’t get along or something like that, but basically you’re battling and you’re competing, and we’re all kind of in this together. When we see each other, everybody is looking like this is hard, and everybody feels kind of the same way. You know that you’re in it for the big, tough challenge.”
He'll certainly have one on Sunday night.