The teams are two games apart in the standings, but one position clearly separates the Seahawks from the 49ers: quarterback.
The most important man on the field, it’s the position that has determined the trajectories of these two teams in football’s worst division.
The Seahawks are starting Matt Hasselbeck, who has played under four different general managers and stands one win away from matching Dave Krieg’s franchise record for most victories as the starting quarterback. Hasselbeck is the veteran who has adapted to Pete Carroll’s prerequisites for the position and kept Seattle’s offense from capsizing due to all the injuries.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have come full circle, which is not necessarily a good thing, reinstalling Alex Smith as the starter this week after discovering the alternative of Troy Smith wasn’t all that much better.
“We just feel like Alex was suited better now as the starter,” coach Mike Singletary said.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. The 49ers rank higher than the Seahawks in both yards gained and points allowed. They have a top-10 rushing defense, and yet the uncertainty at quarterback has undermined this season.
Smith was nearly benched during a Monday night game in favor of David Carr, was eventually replaced by Troy Smith as the starter and on Monday Alex was restored as the starter even though the 49ers went 3-2 in Troy’s starts.
Expect the 49ers to be one of the teams very interested in seeing whether the Seahawks re-sign Hasselbeck. The Cardinals, too. This season in the NFC West has illustrated the dangers of uncertainty at the most important position.
The 49ers entered the year as the presumptive division favorite, but they didn’t even make it to halftime of the regular-season opener before beginning to unravel. Seattle scored 28 points in a single seven-minute span that began at the end of the second quarter and continued to the start of the third. Smith was picked off twice, one of which Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant returned for a touchdown.
Afterward, Singletary said problems with the headsets hampered the offense while Smith said it was the timeliness of the playcalls. It was foreshadowing for this turbulent 49ers season. San Francisco fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye early in the year, and just this week Johnnie Lynn, the team’s secondary coach, stepped down. Three players left the team as well.
Meanwhile, Seattle has seen progress under center as Hasselbeck realized that avoiding turnovers is a prerequisite for any quarterback under Carroll. That took time for Hasselbeck to learn because after he was picked off three times in a Week 2 loss at Denver, the reins were tightened and Hasselbeck grew timid. Seattle went six quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown in Games 3 and 4.
“There’s a fine line between being aggressive, and just being a little too cautious,” Hasselbeck said. “You’ve still got to play offensive and play a little bit aggressive.”
It wasn’t until the night before Seattle played at Chicago in Week 6 when offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates provided an automotive analogy for how to find that balance between throwing recklessly and playing tentative.
“You don’t want to drive like a student driver,” Hasselbeck said. “I was playing quarterback a little bit like a student driver.”
The result was a breakthrough of sorts for Hasselbeck, who was picked off only once in the next five games. And even now, as he has been intercepted four times in the past two games, the coach feels a sense of confidence with his quarterback.
“His conscience is in the right place,” Carroll said.
“He’s working hard at it.”
Meanwhile, the 49ers have changed quarterbacks, they just haven’t found stability at that position, and San Francisco doesn’t appear any closer to finding an answer at quarterback, and that as much as anything explains the difference between these teams.