Life Before Greatness: The 49ers Rise from the Rubble of a Golden Era

2003-2010                                                                                         2011-2012

In today’s modern world, every great piece of art rises from the rubble of some other form. Music, film, painting, sculpturing, etc., are all a version of a form that was once the evolution of the forms that came before it. It’s a cycle that will continue for as long as art is a part of our civilization, and it can’t be stopped.

The way sports evolve is something of an enigma. I wouldn’t consider baseball an example because of the way their lack of a salary cap articulates success for the teams with the most money. Why do you think the Yankees have won 27 World Series since 1901? Cold…hard…big-city cash. There’s no possible way that baseball can evolve this way, unless big money teams fall victim to embezzlement, or some form of financial crime.

Football is continuously evolving, becoming a different form of what it once was. The league used to stress the importance of running the ball and playing tough defense. Now, it has become a league where, without an elite quarterback, you will be lucky if you even make the postseason. But there are so many teams who have the intangibles. Every year, multiple teams rise up and win games that they wouldn’t have won the year before. At the same time, teams fall from grace with the same speed. I predict 2010-2020 will be the decade of parity for Super Bowl Champions. Every team is on the rise and decline. No one team is more dominant than the other.

The San Francisco 49ers, as amazing as they have been in the last two years, are not any exception to the rule. Thanks to the era of football we watch, the 49ers can’t be super every year. But for the last two years, they’ve evolved into the next best thing.

But hold on just a moment. Evolution won’t always be positive.

You all remember the 49ers of the 1980’s. Bill Walsh and the quick rhythm West Coast offense, Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott patrolling the defense as one of the most feared hitters in NFL history, and, of course, their four Super Bowl wins. They were the Kings of the Hill, the best of the best. And they were lucky enough to have another Hall-of-Fame quarterback sitting behind Montana in Steve Young, who led them to a fifth Super Bowl win in 1994.

Those teams were the face of that era of football, when franchises and fans had more patience with their teams. Those 49er teams were consistently giving their fans reasons to believe that they’d be in contention for a title every season.

The 49ers, however, became a victim of the evolution into the modern era of football. The sport and its decision makers have the shortest memory span of any in football’s past. The mentality of “win now, or you’re gone” began to envelop the league in the last decade, and it has become the culprit of premature evaluations of players and coaches, hundreds of lost jobs, and the burning down of storied franchises. The monetary constraints and need to keep fan interest and star power strong and consistent is more important than ever. Teams have continued to win Super Bowls, of course, but it’s harder and harder now for teams to maintain the core group of their best players.

Every tackle hurts that much more
when you’re losing.
San Francisco hasn’t reached the top since that last title win in ’94. 1999 and 2000 were seasons below .500, their first since 1982. And 2002 was the last time they made it to, and won a game in, the playoffs.

Bay Area fans who grew up in the Golden Age of 49ers football will tell you how much of a struggle it was to watch their team in the 2000’s. 49ers football, as far as they knew, was a mentality of winning, of being the best every year. They were witness to teams that, year in and year out, were favorites to win the Super Bowl.

As a fan of Seattle since their 2005 season in which they lost the Super Bowl, I can tell you that I know how Niners fans feel, if only in a small way. I watched Seattle in the middle of their four consecutive division-winning seasons. I always assumed that they were going to be in the playoffs and have a chance to win it all every year. Then, in 2008, one of the worst years for Seattle sports, they went 4-12 and completely belly-flopped on the winning culture I thought was always a part of Seahawks football.

And I watched my team beat those terrible 49ers teams of the 2000’s. It was strange for me to have seen film of the 49ers teams from their hey day, and then watch them get pummeled game after game.

Arnaz Battle loses a fumble.
The red and gold were laughing stocks for almost an entire decade. For eight dark years, the team did not post a record above 8-8. In 2004, they went 2-14 and, for the first time since 1964, owned the first pick in the draft in 2005. Fans thought that maybe the pain was over. Two seasons with an overall record of 9-23 were hard enough. With that first selection, the 49ers picked quarterback Alex Smith from the University of Utah. In college, he was poised, he was confident, and he was a leader who could take a team and carry them to the finish line. Smith looked like the miracle response to the prayers of San Fran fans.

You know how that turned out. For Smith’s first five seasons, he was considered a bust. The 49ers did not get better. In fact, they got worse. They won only 16 games over the next three years and would disappoint fans over and over again, in complete contrast to the Niners of old. Fans kept their hopes up, reminding themselves that there was a time when the 49ers were the best in the business. When they were contested by and answered to nobody.

But the losses kept coming. From 2003 to 2010, their overall record was an abysmal 46-82. Their seventeen previous division titles were a distant memory. There was nothing but a shell of a team. No matter how you looked at them, analyzed them, measured up the statistics…the 49ers were gone. Darkness set over Candlestick Park every game, with every fan simply hoping for a win.
But, lo and behold, a savior, a real answer, was about to walk through the gates of Candlestick. The former kingdom of champions was about to be jolted back awake.

Coach Jim Harbaugh brought a winning
culture back to the 49ers franchise.
Jim Harbaugh, the former coach of the Stanford Cardinal, the man who groomed one of the best college quarterbacks, Andrew Luck, since the great Peyton Manning, and was once a brilliant quarterback himself for fifteen years in the NFL, was coming to San Francisco. Harbaugh, whose brother, John, coached the consistently brilliant Baltimore Ravens on the east coast, signed a five-year, $25 million contract to revitalize a franchise once known for winning big.

And, boy, have they.

2011 became a season of redemption. Jim Harbaugh, with his blue-collar mentality, the aggression of a linebacker, and the passion of a seasoned veteran, somehow took the same roster that had been lackluster and disappointing for eight seasons, and showed how underachieving they really were.  No one believed that a rookie college coach, no matter how much NFL experience he had as a player, would be able to take this terminally ill team to even eight wins.

They went 13-3 and almost claimed a conference championship.

Harbaugh turned Patrick Willis, perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the San Fran defense into the best unit in the league. He stressed running the ball on an offense that carried one of the best power runners in the league in Frank Gore and one of biggest stalwart offensive lines in the NFC. Most importantly, Jim Harbaugh turned Alex Smith from liability and draft bust, into the most efficient and reliable quarterback in the NFL. Smith may have been a game manager and not a team carrier, but he was a primary reason why the 49ers were able to succeed in 2011.

Harbaugh took the whole team and forced it to evolve into a team that emphasized smash mouth football. He knew that to counteract the passing trend taking over the NFL, he would need to find the antithesis that would pose a unique problem for any opposition that the 49ers would face. Why not go back to the roots of the football? Run the ball and stop the run? That almost got them to the Super Bowl last year.

2012 NFC Championship Game.

Don’t forget that if it weren’t for a couple of gaffes on kick returns against the eventual Super Bowl winners New York Giants, we could be talking about the 49ers who are returning to the biggest stage for a second straight championship after a Cinderella Super Bowl win last year. 

This time, second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick is taking them to the Super Bowl for real, after taking over the starting job from Smith in Week 9 in Tom Brady circa 2001 fashion when Smith suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams. Kaepernick added a running dimension to his position and molded the team into one of the most explosive offenses in the league.

The team has become a playoff contender for years to come. Maybe not a Super Bowl contender for every year, but certainly the fans of the Bay Area need not worry with Harbaugh, Kaepernick, and their paralysis-inducing defense eating teams for dinner.

Even though we all know the 49ers have a winning history, the fans of the 49ers deserve the wins that are rolling in.

San Francisco became a team feared by the league because of the unique problem it posed to all other teams. They went against the grain, and allowed themselves to grow into an identity that seemed foreign to them. The 49ers are not the Packers, the Patriots, or even the Ravens. They simply became better in their own way.

I’m personally rooting for Baltimore, simply because I believe that every player on that Ravens team has toiled for too long to be denied a championship now.

But San Francisco has risen from a broken team, pieces of what they once were, to the top of the NFL food chain through reinvention, innovation, and realizing the opportunity before them. Take a step a back and take in what you’ve just read. The fans, the franchise, and everyone who has been a part of the struggles of being in the cellar is finally being rewarded.

San Francisco’s turn around is the model of what teams can become with the right vision. Evolving, it seems, is not to conform to what is trending, unless you have the talent on your team to conform and believe that it’s the best way to win. Evolving is more about how you make the new, incoming and outgoing pieces fit. A coach cannot simply choose their team’s identity, but rather finds an identity that makes the machine work. You can’t shove a gear into a machine that doesn’t quite fit. It stops the entire process.

Not only have they risen back out of the scrap heap, but San Francisco is transforming everything we know about the game today.

Perhaps San Francisco, and not the Baltimore Ravens, are the real team of destiny this year.

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