SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On Thanksgiving Day, 2014, Joe Staley walked off the Levi’s Stadium field the angriest he’s been during his 13 years in the NFL.
It wasn’t just the fact that his 49ers had been dismantled on national television at the hands of their rivals, the Seattle Seahawks. It was the sight of Richard Sherman biting into a golden-brown turkey leg at San Francisco’s 50-yard line that enraged the starting left tackle.
“I just remember f***ing Sherman eating turkey on our field,” Staley told the Examiner last week. “I was so pissed walking back to the locker room.”
While Seattle would go on to appear in its second consecutive Super Bowl two months later, the loss triggered a gutting of the 49ers. It also ended what was one of the bitterest rivalries in the NFL over the previous decade. On Monday night, San Francisco has a chance to reignite the feud, and cement themselves as true contenders in the NFC.
“I remember when the rivalry was probably the best in the NFL,” Staley said. “We havent’ held up our end of the bargain these last few years, but hopefully, this is the start of another one.”
Before that game — on Nov. 27, 2014 — the 49ers had transformed their franchise from a perennial doormat in the NFC West to one of the most feared teams in all of the NFL. Under head coach Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco appeared in eight postseason games between 2011 and 2014.
But while San Francisco ascended, so did Seattle, drafting quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012 while beginning to groom one of the best secondaries of the era: The Legion of Boom, featuring Sherman, safeties Cam Chancellor and Earl Thomas as well as cornerback Byron Maxwell.
In the final moments of the 2013 NFC Championship game — the 49ers third consecutive appearance, and first since losing the Super Bowl — Sherman, who had been coached by Harbaugh during his college days at Stanford, tipped a pass from quarterback Colin Kaepernick to wide receiver Michael Crabtree right into the hands of linebacker Malcom Smith, sealing a 23-17 win for the Seahawks.
“I’m the best corner in the game,” Sherman exclaimed during his infamous post-game rant. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get!”
Seattle went on to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl, adding drama to the following year’s prime-time game between the two teams on Thanksgiving Day. Things weren’t nearly as competitive, as Harbaugh’s relationship with the 49ers front office began to fray. The result: A 19-3 beatdown on the 49ers’ home field during Levi’s Stadium inaugural season.
The lopsided outcome prompted 49ers CEO Jed York to head to tweet, “Thank you #49ersfaithful for coming out so strong tonight. This performance wasn’t acceptable. I apologize for that.”
Meanwhile, Sherman and Wilson sat at a gold-covered table, enjoying a Thanksgiving spread as the Players of the Game.
“I remember I dropped a pick — it would have been my first three-pick game so I was upset about that,” Sherman said. “But then I got Player of the Game and got to eat turkey.
“That was the problem that year,” he continued. “Maybe the score should have pissed them off and maybe I wouldn’t have been eating turkey out there.”
Exactly a month and a day later, the process of stripping the 49ers franchise began, beginning with the termination of Harbaugh. Two years later, general manager Trent Baalke would be gone as well. Kaepernick opted out of his contract in March of 2017, and hasn’t played in the NFL since.
Staley is the lone remaining figure from that 2014 team. Sherman is now a 49er himself, serving as the veteran voice for their defense which has carried San Francisco to a perfect 8-0 record this season.
Since 2014, San Francisco has lost all but one game against Seattle. The lone victory came as a 26-23 stunner in December of last season, with backup quarterback Nick Mullens at the helm.
On Monday night, the 49ers have a chance to spark the once heated rivalry again. Seattle is 7-3, riding the play of Wilson, who has performed at an MVP level. Throwing for 2,505 yards through nine games while rushing for another 203, Wilson has the Seahawks just 1 1/2 games behind San Francisco in the NFC West.
Staley —who has not played since Week 2 with a broken fibula — will return to the field, with fullback Kyle Juszczyk (who missed four games with a meniscus sprain) almost certain to, as well, and perhaps right tackle Mike McGlinchey, out since Week 5 with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery.
Monday comes as the biggest game between the two franchises in the last five years, and the first for San Francisco since 2014 with potential playoff implications. For the first time since 2013, they 49ers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
“It’s a game on our schedule and it’s a really big one,” Staley said. “They’re a really good team and it’s exciting.”