Seattle and San Francisco have had divergent experiences through the first three weeks of the season. The Seahawks are 3-0, and are generally considered one of the top two teams in the NFL, while the 49ers have fallen to 1-2 on the field while facing an array of issues off it. There is little question that San Francisco has the talent to right their ship, but this turnaround will require more than physical skill. Seattle forged their success through arduous incremental steps over three years. San Francisco tasted success immediately when Jim Harbaugh came aboard two years ago. What comes next will be a lesson in the invisible elements fused into the foundation of great teams.
Pete Carroll inherited one of the worst rosters and worst teams in the NFL when he arrived in Seattle in 2010. The franchise had just invested the #4 overall pick in Aaron Curry, and the quarterback was close to the end of his career. Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Max Unger are the only position players on the current Seahawks roster that were in Seattle before Carroll arrived. The team lost more than it won for two years. Injuries were rampant.
Carroll’s first year saw the team lose most of the defensive line and large chunks of the offensive line. Seattle was 24th in the NFL in adjusted games lost due to injury. They were a joke across the country, igniting calls to change to the playoff seeding and qualification rules. The team faced that disrespect, and beat the defending Super Bowl champs. Talent gaps can be overcome. National perspective does not decide games. Lessons learned.
Next season was not much easier. Seattle had even more significant injury issues, as they dropped to 27th in games lost due to injury. They bid adieu to the face of the franchise in Matt Hasselbeck, and replaced him with a player most did not believe was an NFL starter in Tarvaris Jackson. The offensive line featured two rookies and Robert Gallery in his final season. Jackson was hit repeatedly and relentlessly. He persevered. So did the team. They surprised the eventual Super Bowl champs by beating them in New York with Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback for a significant portion of the game. They beat Ray Lewis and the Ravens in character-testing physical battle. Jackson played most of the year with a torn pectoral muscle and never uttered a bad word about his offensive line or showed frustration on the field. Seattle could beat great teams at less than full strength. The arrows always point out of the tent, never inward. Lessons learned.
It was the 2012 season when Seattle found their stride, but not right away. They were a 4-4 team through eight games, and 6-5 through eleven. The players and coaches knew they were talented enough to contend for a championship, but the results were not reflecting that. Their new quarterback, Russell Wilson, rose like a phoenix from the flames. His play lifted the team’s fortunes. The roster saw the quality of his character, his resolve, and his unending efforts to improve. He was the last piece of the puzzle. This team was ready to be the best in football. They had everything they needed, and proved it in a comeback win on the road in the playoffs, and a nearly historic comeback win in Atlanta the next week. Lessons learned.
Seattle has faced doubts and doubters. Nothing has been given to them. Players have been suspended. Injuries to key players have been commonplace. Still, they come. San Francisco have been front-running for two years. They enjoyed otherworldly health, ranking 1st and 8th in fewest games lost to injury the last two seasons. They had a better two-year turnover margin than any team could hope for, even with a terrific defense. National pundits cheered them. Their franchise drips with past Super Bowl glory. Two years, two division titles, two trips to the NFC Championship, and one trip to the Super Bowl. So much success, such little adversity.
They now face what Seattle faced early on. Key players are lost due to injury or suspension. Doubters are emerging from every corner. They are losing more than winning. These are the moments when an empty draft class (see 2012) can silently hollow out an organization. These are the times when a coach known for being abrasive to everyone outside the locker room can chafe against his players inside it. Will Harbaugh build his players up to come out of this funk, or tear them down to shift fault away from himself? We do not know the answer. And that is the point.
Seattle has faced demons and come out stronger for it. San Francisco faces them now. Seattle is not on easy street. They are 3-0 with a long list of key players missing, or just coming back. The foundation of the organization, however, has been reinforced year after year against challenges like this. The 49ers have been convinced nobody has it better than them. They may have been right, but no longer are. What now? There are lessons to be learned.