NGSC Sports

Through The Window to San Fran-six-o: The Turnaround of the 49ers

As 49er lore goes, it’s the latest of iconic Super Bowl moments for the franchise’s lexicon. Hall of Famer QB and Super Bowl XXIX MVP Steve Young says to teammate LB Gary Plummer, “Someone take the monkey off my back, please!” Plummer then playfully pantomimes pulling the specter of failure and disappointment attached to not winning an NFL championship. Any great player in any team sport faces this phantom, but it was compounded by the onus of being the understudy for the NFL All-Time QB Great and 4-time Super Bowl Winner, Joe Montana. Young, however, managed to extend the glory of the Red and Gold to a 5th Super Bowl — a feat unmatched by any team in football at that time.

The word “dynasty” was thrown about in the late 80s to describe the prowess of the San Francisco organization brought to its apex by football sage Bill Walsh coaching from the sidelines. The Niners enjoyed some further high points following after Steve Young’s 1994-95 ring-rendering campaign under then-Head Coach George Seifert. Among them was “The Catch II” where they beat the Packers on a game-winning catch by a young WR Terrell Owens that lifted them into the Conference Championship as well as a playoff run in 2003 where the eventual Super Bowl XXXVII champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, beat them in the divisional round. Yet slowly, but surely, the organization was becoming mired in mediocrity in the new millennium. Just as jubilation filled San Francisco during the journey to top, the dive downward doled out disappointment to a spoiled fan base. A fan base who would not see their team in the post season again for 8 years.

The Niners went 46-82 following that playoff loss to the Bucs between 2003-2010 including an abysmal 2-14 season in 2004 under then Head Coach Dennis Ericson, the worst in the NFL that year. Yet there was a silver lining for the Red and Gold as they took advantage of their solid draft placement to acquire the first player important to their reascension out of the muck of misery. And no, I don’t mean their 1st overall pick in the 2005 Draft, Utah’s QB Alex Smith — I’m referring to 3rd round phenom RB Frank Gore out of the University of Miami.

When Gore hit the Hurricanes’ roster as a freshman, he impressed many along the beaches of South Florida and throughout the ranks of college football being named The Sporting News’ “Big East Freshman of the Year” by amassing 575 rushing yards, 3rd highest in the History of the “U”. The promise of productivity presented by his first years’ 9.3 yards per carry average was so enticing to the coaches, he was set to start ahead of Miami sensation RB Willis McGahee. All that was forced to a screeching halt when Gore suffered an ACL tear that suddenly ceased his 2002 season where the team played in the National Championship.. While he posted solid years in 2003 and 2004 where the Canes claimed respective victories in the Orange and Peach Bowls, the injury he suffered his sophomore year dropped him into the 3rd round of the draft where he was selected under rookie head coach Mike Nolan.

Nolan’s 2005 campaign improved the 49ers by only 2 games to 4-12. Fans weren’t impressed with the limited improvement, but once again, San Francisco was in position to draft a key piece to their reascension, 1st round selection Maryland TE Vernon Davis.

Davis as a draft prospect was not only the fastest at his position in the 40 yard dash, but among the entire 2006 class with a time of 4.38 seconds. Coupling that with a formidable 6′ 5″ 250 pound build, it was no shock the Niners scooped him up 6th overall. A hairline fibula fracture hampered Davis from making a maximum impact as a rookie, but he still did enough to help San Francisco improve to 7-9 — 2 games short of the playoff picture.

The return of their team as a competitive force during 2006 whetted the fans to foster expectations for 9 wins or more and a playoff berth in the upcoming year. With that in mind, the focus shifted to the Niners toughness on defense. Enter 2007’s draft selections: 1st round pick LB Patrick Willis of Ole Miss, 3rd round pick D-lineman Ray McDonald from Florida, and Washington’s S Dashon Goldson in round 4. With pressure to win mounting, San Francisco also traded their 2nd round pick and 2008’s 1st round choice to New England to acquire TE-turned-OT Joe Staley from Central Michigan as an additional 1st rounder. These 4 draftees are current 49er starters placing that year’s draft among the best in the organization’s recent history.

Notwithstanding the team’s remarkable off-season maneuvering going into 2007, the first drafted player in the Nolan era, QB Alex Smith, had yet to prove himself a solid option as a field general. Constant changes every year with the offensive coaching were said to have hampered his development. That combined with a nagging shoulder injury and a knee injury causing a 2nd shortened season in a row for TE Vernon Davis, the Niners struggled to score enough points to win games despite their improved defense behind QBs Shaun Hill, Trent Dilfer, or Chris Weinke. With this, the 49ers regressed back to a disheartening 5-11 to finish that season leaving the front office and the fans asking if Mike Nolan was the right man for the coaching job.

While the 2008 draft didn’t yield any significant players, free agency was a different story. The club acquired DE Justin Smith, a Pro Bowl caliber player from the Bengals who is still a starter in San Francisco today.

After starting 2-5 in the 2008 season, the franchise had lost hope in Nolan’s efforts to lead the team to victory and fired him midseason. He was succeeded by Defensive Coordinator and Hall Fame Super Bowl Winning LB Mike Singletary.

Under the interim coach, the 49ers went 5-4 to complete a losing yet encouraging season at 7-9. Fans and front office people all liked that kind of party that Singletary brought to the Red and Gold sideline which was marked by his “I want winners” speech that motivated the rest of the 49ers’ squad Vernon Davis in particular. He was hired as the full time coach into the next year.

During the 2009 offseason, WR Michael Crabtree out of Texas Tech was acquired in the 10th round of the draft. Crabtree’s acquisition was delayed 4 games into the season, however, while he held out to get a contract commensurate with WR Darius Heyward-Bay who was drafted one pick earlier by the Oakland Raiders. None the less, the Niners new head coach managed an 8-8 season on the strength of an intense defensive unit and a mean running game.

In the 2010 draft, OT Anthony Davis of Rugers and Idaho’s G Mike Iupati were selected in the 1st round while LB Navarro Bowman from Penn State was snagged in round 3. All 3 players remain starters on the current 49er roster. Yet just as with his coaching predecessor Mike Nolan, a solid draft class didn’t render a better record for Singletary’s squad which went 6-10 that year and following the season he was fired.

The 49ers were looking for a coach who could maintain the current hard nose philosophy that was founded in the previous regimes with a bit more creativity on offense. Fresh off of coaching a National Champion team at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh was a solid fit to fill that role as Niner coach for the approaching 2011 season.

The first draft under Harbaugh’s watch produced several talented additions to augment 2007’s draftees who are now seasoned veterans. 1st round pick DE Aldon Smith from Missouri and 4th round pick Kendall Hunter of Oklahoma State as well as 7th rounder and D- turned-FB Bruce Miller out of UCF all help complete building a team with Harbaugh’s personal stamp. It features an indomitable defensive front that prevents opponents from scoring plus a solid running game that piles up points while eating away the clock to keep opposing offenses off the field.

That deceptively solid roster going into the 2011 season was missing just one element, a reliable QB option. . . or so it seemed. Whether it was the solidarity of finally having a year with the same offensive coordinator 2 seasons in a row for the first time in his career or the fact that his new Head Coach is better-known as the NFL QB that Peyton Manning replaced in Indianapolis enabling Harbaugh to better understand how to advise him — Alex Smith turned in a solid NFL Season for the first time in 7 years.

The years of dynasty in the late 80’s and early 90’s are best known for the West Coast offense confusing opponents into submission while heroic QB efforts and legendary WRs like Jerry Rice and Running Backs like Roger Craig lit the score board bright with points. But in the 2011 reascension, the formula was grinding, bruising, and impenetrable defense supported the by nasty attrition of an old fashioned mouth smashing run game facilitated through a game manger to confuse defenses while keeping his own team mistake free. It could be argued that only special teams errors kept the 49ers from a chance to arrive in San Fran-six-o in the 2011 campaign. But with the solid corps in the trenches, a viable WR option in Crabtree and Vernon Davis emerging as a leader on the field and in the locker room, it may not be their final season to get an opportunity to achieve that goal regardless of who starts at QB.

~Kyle Nash

Author Profile

Kyle NashThe Student of the Game
Host of the Student of The Game Podcast Monday @ 7:30pm EST
Writer for NGSC Sports
Narrator of Sport Symposium on NGSC Sports YouTube Channel.

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