SEATTLE—Any more parallels between these two rivals, and they will morph into the St. Louis Seahawks and Seattle Rams.
Throughout the decade, the Rams and Seahawks have fought each other for NFC West titles, with the other teams sometimes also in the playoffs as a wild card. St. Louis ruled beginning the 2000s. Then the Seahawks won four consecutive division crowns. All that ended with a thud last season, when both flopped.
Matt Hasselbeck said of his team's 4-12 season, its worst in 16 years.
The Rams were even worse. Their 2-14 record was their worst since 1962.
So, yes, both teams are thrilled 2009 finally starts on Sunday, against each other.
"I think it (is) important for us to come out of the gate, to look good, and to kind of regain our home-field advantage we lost last year," Hasselbeck said of Qwest Field, which wasn't so raucous last season while the NFC's winningest home team since 2001 went just 2-6 there. "To regain, I think, a little bit of that swagger that we used to have."
Both teams have debuting coaches. The Rams and Seahawks use the same term describing their new leaders: "straight shooters."
St. Louis rookie head man Steve Spagnuolo is one of nine first-time head coaches in the league this season. The former defensive coordinator for the Giants has gotten rid of so many underperforming veterans on a porous defense now led by rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis that Hasselbeck said the Seahawks "have no idea" what they'll face Sunday.
On offense, Spagnuolo wants the Rams' former "Greatest Show on Turf" to be as old as Kurt Warner. He wants his team's identity on offense to mirror the rugged running of Steven Jackson.
Jim Mora's tenure leading his hometown Seahawks also begins Sunday. He was San Francisco's defensive coordinator before his first go-around as a head man, in Atlanta from 2004-06. His defense promises to attack more. Dynamic rookie Aaron Curry, the fourth-overall draft pick, starts at outside linebacker. Cory Redding is in from Detroit at end, and there are three new starters in a secondary that allowed the most yards passing in the league last season.
Like Spagnuolo, Mora is also ditching a more passive, pass-first offense - the one Mike Holmgren had in Seattle for the last 10 years. Mora has brought in offensive coordinator Greg Knapp to install his zone-blocking, one-step-and-go running game, a scheme that has produced top 10 rushing offenses eight consecutive years in San Francisco, Atlanta and Oakland.
"That's the thing with defensive coaches, they realize that running the ball is their friend," said Jackson, who last season joined Eric Dickerson as the only Rams to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. "It keeps the defense off the field and it allows for the offenses to wear out the opponent's defense. I think both teams want to be physical."
And healthy, for a change.
Both have star quarterbacks coming off injuries.
Hasselbeck insists the bulging disk in his back that cost him nine games in the worst season of his career is healed. That's largely thanks to intense rehabilitation with the same Canadian physiotherapist, Rick Celebrini, who helped Steve Nash with a congenital condition in the NBA star's back.
"Oh my back? You guys are, like, months behind," Hasselbeck said this week, chiding reporters for asking. "My back is fine. Where have you been?"
Yet Hasselbeck can still be excused for looking over his shoulder for franchise career sacks leader Leonard Little and the rest of the Rams coming at him. Seattle will be without three starters on the offensive line, including nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones and center Chris Spencer. Plus, rookie Max Unger will make his first career start at right guard.
In St. Louis this week, Marc Bulger took direct snaps for the first time since breaking his right pinkie. The Rams quarterback said Wednesday he's not pain-free, but he's good enough to play Sunday, barring a setback before he gets on the team plane.
Jackson's not exactly fretting about Bulger.
"It's a pinkie," he deadpanned.
Bulger missed the last three preseason games after he got hurt in practice on Aug. 17. Yet he says there's no excuse for being rusty Sunday.
"I'm not going to use it as a crutch ... if things don't go right," Bulger said.
Here's a possible excuse: the inexperience of his wide receivers. Torry Holt is gone, one year after fellow mainstay Isaac Bruce left. What remains are just four wide receivers, none of whom has more than two years' experience. Starters Laurent Robinson and Donnie Avery have just 18 combined starts entering Sunday.