Saturday is going to be celebration of what has been a remarkably transformative season for the Seattle Seahawks. The team that played the 49ers in Week 1 no longer exists. It has been replaced by a steam-snorting, hard-charging, play-making collection of players that takes a backseat to no team. Bill Parcells famously said, “You are what your record says you are,” and the Seahawks enter this game at 7-7 while the 49ers are 11-3. Ask the average fan which franchise has a brighter future, and 99% will pick the 49ers. After all, they have a legitimate NFL Defensive Player of The Year candidate in Patrick Willis, and multiple Pro Bowl players surrounding him on defense. Their new coach, Jim Harbaugh, will get some Coach of the Year votes. Seattle could easily go without a Pro Bowl player this year. Take a closer look, though, and it becomes clear choosing which franchise has the brighter future is not so clear cut.
No position better captures how misleading 2011 can be than this one. Alex Smith has been a bust most of his career with a passer rating around 75.0. He was signed to a one year contract, and has rewarded the team with his best season and a 91.1 passer rating. Tarvaris Jackson had a slightly higher career rating, but was largely the same level of quarterback coming into this season as Smith. He has fought through a torn pectoral muscle on his way to a 79.2 rating. Jackson is signed through next season at $4M/year. The 49ers will likely look to re-sign Smith, and that could be their undoing. Smith will require a multi-year contract for starter’s money. He won’t be able to command top dollar since there may not be a huge market for his services, but it will definitely be more than the Seahawks commitment of one more year at $4M to Jackson. This is all about ceiling, and it is hard to imagine Smith has a Super Bowl ceiling. Jackson probably does not have that potential either, but the franchise is set to supplant him with someone who does.
Charlie Whitehurst is done. The Seahawks overall roster shuffle has slowed down considerably, but fans should expect the 2nd and 3rd string quarterback slots to be competitive the next few seasons until Pete Carroll and John Schneider find the guy they want to ride long-term. Josh Portis will get his chance next season to compete for the back-up spot, and with names like Matt Barkley and possibly Landry Jones out of the upcoming draft, Portis will get a longer look. It’s not out of the question that the Seahawks could have two new quarterbacks on their roster next season if they find guys they like better than Portis.
The 49ers have Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien behind Smith. Kaepernick was taken in the second round, so it is unlikely the 49ers will be bringing any other quarterbacks in the near future. The 49ers future at this position will be either Smith or Kaepernick. The Seahawks future is undefined. Advantage: undefined.
The 49ers have Frank Gore and rookie Kendall Hunter, along with Anthony Dixon. Gore is 28, and is no stranger to injury. He is Marshawn Lynch three years down the line. In other words, don’t bet on Gore having much left. The 49ers were wise to get Hunter who is a faster version of Justin Forsett. He’s a great pass blocker, good receiver and shifty runner. There may not be a significant drop-off when Gore moves on, but it will be interesting to see how the 49ers handle Gore’s inevitable slowing. Their willingness to transition away from a team leader will impact their team’s fortunes.
Seattle almost certainly will re-sign Lynch given the positive chatter from Carroll. He’s 25, and should have at least three more years of Pro Bowl potential. Forsett will have a hard time holding onto his roster spot past this season. His production has been subpar, and the team will need to find a young back in the draft who can share more of the load with Lynch. Again, that provides the potential for a higher upside than the 49ers since Lynch will be in his prime and the team can add another young stud to the mix. Leon Washington will still be around, but not necessarily a huge part of the backfield. Slight Advantage: Seahawks
The 49ers and Seahawks took very similar approaches to their offensive line rebuilds. The 49ers used two first round picks on Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis in 2010. The Seahawks used three of their top four picks in 2010 and 2011 on Russell Okung, James Carpenter and John Moffitt. Each team has an old man in the mix. The 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin, is 33, and Robert Gallery is 31. The injury situation for the Seahawks line makes the 49ers situation more predictable. However, Tom Cable is a huge advantage for the Seahawks. One healthy season from the Seahawks line could vault them far higher. Slight Advantage: 49ers
Vernon Davis is a near All-Pro tight end. Nobody else on either team’s receiving corps can say that. Zach Miller has been a Pro Bowler, but is not an All-Pro guy. Sidney Rice is the best receiver on either team, but has health issues. Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, and Ben Obomanu are better than Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams and Josh Morgan by a long shot. Rice, even with injury concerns, is more valuable than Michael Crabtree. Delanie Walker is a great second tight end. Cameron Morrah and Anthony McCoy combined are worth Walker, especially given their blocking in the running game. Advantage: Push
Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch are fantastic. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga are more disruptive right now. Smith is 32, and Sopoaga is 30. Clemons is 30, but Bryant is only 27 and the other two starters are just 26. Seattle likely adds another edge rusher this coming off-season. Advantage: Seahawks
Willis is a beast. NaVarro Bowman is a Pro Bowl candidate. Aldon Smith has 13 sacks as a rookie. Seattle has some nice players at linebacker, but this one is not close. Advantage: 49ers
Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are in their second year with both playing at a Pro Bowl level. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are in their first year (even if Browner is 27), and are playing darn near Pro Bowl level. The 49ers have a nice safety tandem as well, but not in the class of Chancellor and Thomas. Carlos Rogers is their best CB and he is 30. This one is not close either. Advantage: Seahawks
It should come as no surprise that the future of these two teams will come down to who fills the quarterback position. Seattle is young all over, and is already good enough to step in the ring with the 49ers. Even in places where they are not close to the 49ers right now (e.g., linebacker), the Seahawks are poised to make significant improvement with young players growing. The 49ers dominance is predicated on a dominant front seven on defense that has a couple of 30+ year-old lineman. Fast forward two years, will it still be as dominant? The Seahawks young defensive lineman, bolstered by a young edge rusher, could easily close the gap. The offensive lines are probably a push, but I like the upside of the Seahawks, especially if the team can secure Cable’s services for a few more years before he gets another head coaching job. Seattle has better weapons on offense, and they should improve considerably over the next few years when you think about Rice and Miller still being 26 and Baldwin/Tate enjoying some early career success. Tomorrow marks a great moment to watch these two teams battle for division dominance (both can still end the year 5-1 in the division depending on tomorrow’s outcome), but it is only a moment. The war will be won in the coming years, and the Seahawks trajectory is much steeper with a better foundation to help it last.