It’s no secret that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh have little affinity for one another. The genesis goes back to their days in college when Harbaugh was rebuilding Stanford and Carroll was at the top of the heap with USC. Now that they’re both in the NFL with top-tier teams, both of whom have a legitimate claim to be the best team in the NFC, it’s gone a step further. Because they’re in the same division, the animosity can only get worse as the season moves along.
The Seahawks dominated the 49ers in a 29-3 pasting in Seattle on Sunday night landing the first shot in what could very well be an NFC Championship Game rematch in the very same venue. The next game in San Francisco on December 8 could just as easily go the exact opposite way. The players and the game have become secondary to a concept as to which coaching philosophy is “right” and has gone beyond a friendly relationship of coaches digging at one another that the likes of Jimmy Johnson and Buddy Ryan had; that Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells had. Carroll vs. Harbaugh is a fight for the soul of football.
While Harbaugh is old-school, brash, loud and openly arrogant, he’s not a dictator in the pre-softened Tom Coughlin vein. As he’s shown with the deployment of versatile Colin Kaepernick as his quarterback, Harbaugh isn’t wed to a particular style as Parcells was. If he has a quarterback who needs to manage the game and mitigate mistakes as Alex Smith did, he tailors his offense to that. When he can open it up with a big, fast quarterback with a shotgun arm as he he has the ability to do with Kaepernick, he alters the game plan. As for his treatment of players, Harbaugh’s the boss and he’ll get rid of a player or bench him immediately if he’s not producing or falling into line. He has no issue with getting into anyone’s face, can be more obnoxious than Steve Spurrier and enjoys wearing the black hat as the leaguewide target.
Carroll has been trying to change the way coaches coach going back to his first head coaching job with the Jets. The gentle, outside-the-box manner of thinking got him fired from the Jets and Patriots and landed him back in college. The conventional belief was that he would stay there because it was easier to implement what he believed to be right with kids who wouldn’t talk back for fear of losing their scholarships. Instead, he jumped at the opportunity to take over the Seahawks and his way is proving to be as effective as Harbaugh’s. The team is cutting edge in its preparation and attempts to make the players comfortable. There are still the bowling nights that got then-Jets’ owner Leon Hess thinking about firing his young coach almost immediately. There’s not the martinet shrieking and bellowing that used to be the way of football coaches.
Both strategies have their place. With Carroll, the trapdoor for him is the complacency and relaxed attitude that the coach is too nice that could lead to the Seahawks’ downfall. With Harbaugh, his intensity wears thin rather quickly and the 49ers’ window is slowly starting to close with defections in the front office and on the roster and back-to-back season in which they came close, but lost.
If the coaches switched places, both teams would suffer greatly. Their styles are what got them into this position and it’s their styles that make them such convenient antagonists. Each wants to prove that his way is the one that works. Both have a chance of being right.