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Two words to describe the ever-escalating rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks: It's on.
As if the Scot McCloughan "beat the hell out of them" episode, the Jim Harbaugh honking incident and the Sunday Night Slaughter at CenturyLink Field last December hadn't created enough drama between these NFC West foes, Monday's news that the Seahawks have agreed to trade their 2013 first-round selection and two other draft picks for Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin officially took things to the next level.
The excitement continued three hours later when the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson reported that the 49ers had agreed to trade a sixth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for veteran wideout Anquan Boldin.
The trade for Harvin, first reported by FOX's Jay Glazer, underscores the Seahawks' desire to challenge the Niners for NFC West supremacy – right now, without holding anything back – and to go after a whole lot more. Given that San Francisco and Seattle may well be the strongest teams in pro football heading into the 2013 season, that 800-mile-or-so line along the West Coast that runs between the two cities has become even more electro-charged.
"Oh, it's always alive and well," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said of the rivalry Monday via text message, shortly after learning of the trade. "We are gonna be tough."
When 49ers owner Jed York told me, in the immediate aftermath of his team's NFC championship game victory over the Atlanta Falcons, that he wasn't sure San Francisco should be favored to win the division in 2013, he wasn't speaking in hyperbole.
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The Seahawks barely lost to the Falcons in the playoffs. The Niners barely escaped Atlanta with a victory the following week. And then the Ravens, a team that seems destined to take a step backward in 2013, barely held on for a Super Bowl XLVII triumph over San Francisco.
In addition to comprehensively talented rosters, the 49ers (Colin Kaepernick) and Seahawks (Russell Wilson) each have dynamic young quarterbacks who seem destined for sustained stardom.
What's interesting is that the two franchises, at least thus far into the offseason, seem to be taking different approaches toward shoring up their respective positions. Two weeks ago, the Niners made news by agreeing to trade backup quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for a haul that could be as hefty as two second-round draft picks. Depending upon how free agency shakes out – and the compensatory picks that could arrive if players are signed away by other teams – San Francisco could own up to 14 picks in the upcoming draft.
That would allow the 49ers to trade away some of those picks and stockpile prime selections in future drafts, much like the New England Patriots did in the previous decade, and theoretically set them up for a long run of sustained success. And while the trade for Boldin, 32, is more of the 'win-now' variety, the relatively small price surrendered by the Niners speaks to a more restrained philosophy.
The Seahawks, as the Harvin trade illustrates, aren't sweating the future. They want the 49ers' lunch money, and they want it now. At 61, Pete Carroll is the NFL's second-oldest head coach, and he's approaching this window with the same restraint and subtlety that he did 10 years ago when building a mini-dynasty at USC.
The Harvin trade was not without risk: Seattle, according to Glazer, will give up its first-round pick in the 2013 draft (25th overall), its seventh-round selection this year and a mid-round pick in 2014. That's not the only cost for the Seahawks: Harvin, who has reportedly been unhappy with his rookie contract for more than a year, has reached terms on a lucrative extension as part of the transaction, according to Yahoo! Sports colleague Jason Cole. Terms of the deal were unavailable. He clearly wanted out of Minnesota and has a reputation for being difficult, and at 5-11 and 184 pounds, he doesn't have the physical stature of most elite wideouts.
With all of that said, I completely understand why Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider felt good about taking this big swing. For one thing, they have positive associations with such a move, having reaped the benefits of a 2010 trade for running back Marshawn Lynch that was considered a gamble at the time. Further, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had the same job with the Vikings during Harvin's first two NFL seasons, and obviously there's a familiarity and comfort level that helped convince the team this was a worthwhile move.
It also addresses perhaps Seattle's biggest area of need. The shifty, elusive, ultra-quick Harvin slices up defenses out of the slot position, which will give the Seahawks another dimension to an evolving attack. With Lynch's power running and Wilson's continued comfort out of read-option sets, Seattle's receivers (wideouts Sidney Rice and Golden Tate and tight end Zach Miller) were finding themselves increasingly open as the 2012 season progressed. They should have even more room to operate in 2013.
Before an ankle injury cost Harvin the final seven games of the 2012 season, he was on his way to a monster year, and this despite playing for an offense without another legitimate receiving weapon. If you believe that Wilson is better than Christian Ponder and Lynch is as close to Adrian Peterson as any mortal in pads and a helmet can be, inserting Harvin into the Seahawks' huddle should be unnerving to opposing defenses.
Sherman's description of Seattle's offense: "Very scary."
Oh, and Harvin also is a gifted return man, which should make the Seahawks' already potent special teams that much stronger.
All of this is enough to get any opponent's attention, and you can bet the 49ers are no exception. That said, I highly doubt that there's an undercurrent of fear rippling through the team's Santa Clara training facility in the wake of the Harvin news – especially given the relative steal of Boldin from Baltimore. The Niners are legit, and they know it. Even if they continue to proceed down a pragmatic path geared toward ensuring a fruitful future, they remain a load in the present.
Still, I wonder if this flare from the Pacific Northwest might influence their immediate intentions beyond the Boldin trade. For example, sources within the franchise seem to be going out of their way (in conversations with other outlets) to refute a recent report by my Yahoo! Sports colleague that the 49ers are poised to make a run at New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.
As with Harvin, Revis would be a costly acquisition that would carry risks: He's coming off a torn ACL and is unhappy with his contract, which expires after next season. He also has a history of contentious disputes over money. If the 49ers pass on a potential Revis trade, it will be totally understandable.
Still, I wonder whether Harbaugh will be lobbying general manager Trent Baalke to counter the Harvin move by acquiring the one cornerback whom we know (when healthy) can shut down the shifty slot receiver. And I wonder if Baalke, given Harbaugh's tightly wound persona and penchant for blowing up, suspects his highly-gifted coach may not be around for the long haul, which could make the Niners' perceived window a lot smaller than it seems to be.
In the meantime, Monday was a very good day for a budding rivalry that has the potential to be pro football's spiciest for years to come.
The Seahawks and 49ers will meet twice in 2013, and though a lot can happen between March and next January, a third meeting – perhaps in the NFC championship game – seems highly plausible.
“I'm almost positive there will be,” Sherman said.
Yep – it's on.
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