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A Rivalry To Relish

Posted Oct 25, 2012

Hate might be too strong a word, but there is definitely something extra for Cards-Niners

Safety Rashad Johnson delivers a hit on 49ers tight end Delanie Walker during last year's game in Arizona.

Larry Fitzgerald learned from his mom.

The wide receiver knew there were teammates who professed to “hate” the 49ers, who visit University of Phoenix Stadium Monday, and there is little question the rivalry simmers year after year. Fitz couldn’t do it.

“My mom told me a long time ago, you never say you hate anybody,” Fitzgerald said. “I know a lot of the players over there. I don’t hate any of those guys.”

But, Fitzgerald added, “This is the kind of game you love being a part of.”

However it is described, from the Calais Campbell notion of so-called “hate” to Fitzgerald’s more subdued approach, no one who has spent time around the Cardinals in the Ken Whisenhunt era could say there isn’t an edge when it comes to 49ers’ week. Whisenhunt even said he felt it was something that lived even before he showed up, a fair assessment thinking back to the Denny Green days.  

If there is an origin, no one can really pinpoint. Some point to the 2005 game in Mexico City between the teams. My guess was the heavy expectation laid on the two teams around that time, when Seattle ruled the division but every year seemed to bring predictions that either the Cardinals or the 49ers were on the verge of breaking out.

The race to do just that in front of the other team created conflict. Even when the Cards ended up taking that step, there was always a feeling the Cards didn’t get respect from the franchise that had five Super Bowl titles in their back pocket, and it didn’t help that the 49ers won many matchups even as the Cards won a couple of division titles.

Once those hard feelings were around for a while, they settled into being truth.

It’s not hate. Or is it?

“Yep,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “It is what it is. They don’t like us, we don’t like them. It’s a rivalry.”

Quarterback John Skelton said it was hard not to notice some “bad blood” between the teams.

The funny thing is, while the Twitter back-and-forth between Dockett and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is often cited as either a cause or a symptom of the rivalry, the two are friends. Both are from the Maryland area, and often work out and spend time together in the offseason.

Now, Davis and safety Adrian Wilson? That’s a little different story.

Wilson tried with a straight face to say Monday’s was “just another game.” He couldn’t help but break into a grin a few seconds later. “No, it’s not,” he acknowledged. “It’s not.”

In Wilson’s world, it’s the three-game losing streak the Cardinals are trying to break that makes the 49ers’ game big, not a rivalry. In Wilson’s world, he has a hard time calling it a rivalry in the first place.

“All I know is four of the five past times, they have beat us, so it’s kind of hard to say it’s a rivalry when we haven’t won our share,” Wilson said. “We’re just looking to rebound.”

The 49ers didn’t react much to Campbell’s comments – “I’m sorry he feels that way,” San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith told reporters – but they weren’t going to ignore whatever it is that exists between the teams.

“It’s a huge rivalry, a big rivalry,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said in a conference call with Arizona reporters Thursday. “It’s tough to put into words.

“You see each other twice a year for so many years, so (division games) all have their own character and own little plot. This one’s no different.”

Both Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and guard Adam Snyder – who played for the 49ers for seven years before signing with the Cards as a free agent – acknowledged there was a “little something extra” for Cardinals-49ers.

Maybe Snyder is right. He thinks the hatred angle is probably more for the fans. In the “little fraternity called the NFL,” Snyder said respect lives.

That’s also true. Everyone, from Campbell to Fitzgerald to Dockett to Wilson, talks about what the 49ers have accomplished the past couple of seasons and how well they have played. There might be an edge to the rivalry, but it hasn’t cost perspective.

This is a game to look forward to, Dockett said, “because it really shows the true talent of football.”

“It ain’t about scheming, it ain’t about something spectacular. You know what they’re going to do, they pretty much know what we’re going to do. It’s line up and play football. The best team wins the game. Not the best individual, the best team.”

It doesn’t hurt when beating a certain team adds a bonus to a win. It’s hard to believe, for example, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh not making the point to his team this week – not publicly, of course – that the Cardinals’ win against the Niners last year at UoP Stadium was the only NFC West loss San Francisco has suffered since Harbaugh took over the team.

The fact that first place is available to the winner only adds to the tension, but that’s not everything.

Not with this game.

“It wouldn’t matter if both of us were sitting 0-7,” Dockett said. “I think we’d still both try to kill each other.”

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