How did you decide to be a 49ers fan?
How old were you when you made the conscious decision to root for them, to live and die with them on fall and winter Sundays, to forsake all other NFL teams for exclusive loyalty to the crimson-and-gold?
For many, the decision is simply geographical. You're from the Bay area, they're the local team, and that's that, period.
For others, fandom is traditional, similar to how we, as kids, get indoctrinated into our different religions. Your faith is passed down to you by your family and you roll with it. You don't even think to question it. It never occurs to you that there are other options.
Just like it'd be highly unusual for parents to sit little Johnny down with different religious pamphlets to explain, "These are what Christians believe, these are what Muslims believe, these are what Jewish people believe," and so on, it's doubtful your old man ever gave you a pros-and-cons speech about the benefits of being a 49ers fan as opposed to a Cowboys fan as opposed to a Packers fan, etc.
My fan story is different than some, I suppose.
I started out as a 49ers fan, like my father, when I first discovered football, but came to be less enchanted with them just as I was becoming less enchanted with him.
Maybe rooting for some other team 3,000 miles away (the Eagles) was my first act of rebellion; who knows?
What I do distinctly remember, however, was that I started seriously reading the sports section every day, The San Francisco Chronicle, to be specific, at around the age of nine or so, in 1987, and that it couldn't have been a mere coincidence that the more I read their coverage of the team, the less connected I felt to it, or to 49ers fans in general.
Ira Miller was the Chronicle's main beat writer for the Niners back then, and every Monday he would write these long "Monday Morning Quarterback" columns about the game, complete with report cards on the offense, defense, special teams and coaching.
The 49ers were a juggernaut back then, of course, a perennial Super Bowl contender who were heavy favorites in most of their games, back when the league didn't have the parity (or the salary cap) it does now.
They would routinely beat up on some poor divisional opponent like the Atlanta Falcons or New Orleans Saints (back when they were division opponents) like 37-13, and the next day Miller's column would be giving the offense a "B," the defense a "B+," a "C+" for Bill Walsh and his coaching staff and a "B-" overall for the team.
49ers fans, taking their cues from the popular Miller, would then rage on KNBR at night back when sports-talk radio was first starting out locally. They'd express doubts and despair about their "slumping" Niners, who hadn't won the Lombardi Trophy since way back when (1984), being unable to overcome Mike Ditka's Bears, Joe Gibbs' Redskins or Bill Parcells' Giants.
Even as a child, I distinctly remember thinking, Man, these people complain a lot for a team that wins 37-13 every week.
I'm not sure if I was born with this underdog, contrarian mindset or what, but the collective arrogance of 49ers fans, the way they just assumed they'd win Super Bowls every season like it was their birthright, just turned me off in a subconscious way.
So now I root for a team that's never won a Super Bowl and may never win one, inviting myself to weekly scorn from friends, family and "Tweeps," since I, ironically, have spent the past four years covering the 49ers in some form or fashion.
I share this anecdote because I was reminded of the glory days of the '80s 49ers last week, in the wake of the team's blowout over the hapless New York Jets.
While it would be hyperbole to suggest that my Bleacher Report grades column or my Twitter feed were deluged with comments (I don't have enough readers or followers to be deluged), there was a surprising amount of critical comments concerning the play of Niners' QB Alex Smith.
I was taken aback reading some of the vitriol, thinking to myself, These people know they won 34-0, right?
To be fair, Smith, who was an ordinary 12-of-21 for 143 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions against the Jets, did miss on a couple of deep sideline passes in the game on plays where his intended receiver had a step or two on his man.
Still, Smith, who might as well have been a doctor for the "first, do no harm," dictum upon which he performs on the gridiron, was ultimately successful at his job because he never turned the ball over, never put his defense in a precarious spot, and the 49ers won the game, just as they have in 18 of Smith's past 23 starts.
Some fans were calling for Smith to give way to young, fast, strapping Colin Kaepernick, a precocious talent with blazing speed, a cannon for an arm, and the kind of windup reminiscent of a young Walter Johnson.
Kaepernick, who had a couple of fine runs in the game but was fortunate to not be intercepted on his lone pass attempt (the Niners should try playing Randy Moss as a dime corner since he's not expending too much energy on offense), is already a superior quarterback to Smith in the eyes of some because he's another carbon-based life form.
Of course, it will be impossible in the eyes of some fans for Smith to ever live down the first six years of his career (before Jim Harbaugh entered his life), where he was either terrible, injured, terrible while injured or injured while terrible.
For some fans, the mantra will forever be that the 49ers win in spite of Smith far more than they do because of him, and these people cite the team's offseason flirtation with Peyton Manning and run-heavy game plans as proof that even the coaching staff doesn't think much of Smith.
Going into the Jets game, where New York had just lost star corner Darrelle Revis the week before, the prevailing wisdom was that 49ers' coaches would take advantage by throwing early and often.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman however delight in being counter-intuitive. The more people think they're going to zig, the more determined they are to zag.
They approached the Jets game as though New York had two healthy Revises at corner instead of none, and applied their most liberal dose of Kaepernick to date against the squad with the most famous wildcat quarterback in football.
The problem many 49ers fans have is that, going back to the Joe Montana days, it wasn't enough to win or to even win handily. Like the Brazilian soccer team, the Niners have to win with style, panache.
Unfortunately, in the modern NFL when words like "dynamic," "creative" or "aggressive" are thrown around to describe an offense, they inevitably refer to the passing game.
The 49ers actually have one of the most creative offenses in the league, but most of their funky plays and quirky formations come on run plays.
Whether it's the read option with Kaepenick, a fly sweep with a slot receiver or a toss to Kendall Hunter off a jumbo formation featuring seven offensive linemen and a defensive tackle moonlighting at fullback, the Niners continually find ways to out-think, out-flank and out-muscle opponents even while seeming conservative on the stat sheet.
What will happen this Sunday against the Bills?
It would be silly to suggest that Smith had his best game, or even a good one, last week, but I wonder how many critics realize how difficult it is for a quarterback—any quarterback—to get into any kind of rhythm when asked to throw every sixth or seventh play.
Smith's best sequences against the Jets, late in the second quarter and during a touchdown drive in the third, came on sequences where he got to throw a few passes in succession, and the same was largely the case for his successful drives during the first three games and during the 2011 season as well.
It's a chicken-and-the-egg argument, but, would Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers be who they are if they were asked to hand off as often as Smith does, or does Harbaugh specifically run the offense he does because of Smith's limitations?
Remember, Harbaugh had Andrew Luck at Stanford, the best quarterback prospect since Manning, and had him handing off most of the time, too.
Ultimately, as long as the 49ers keep winning, the outside criticism of Smith will just be noise. Fans have short memories, and it seems a lot of them have already forgotten how well the quarterback played the first two weeks of the season at Green Bay and vs. Detroit.
The only way there's a legitimate story here is if Smith is called upon to win games for the team and he comes up short, repeatedly, causing the team to go in a three- or four-game tailspin.
Until then, all the Ira Miller wannabes out there need to calm down, look at the scoreboard, and realize that rooting for a so-called dynamic, exciting, play-making QB and an offense that passes it 45 times a game isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
Take it from an Eagles fan who has to watch, in perpetual horror, the Mike Vick/Andy Reid combo week after week. I'll take a boring 34-0 win any day.
As for Sunday's game against Buffalo, I'll step out on a limb and say another 34-0 won't be in the offing, and that the Bills will surprise San Francisco's defense early in the game with their speed, particularly with C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson.
Tight end Scott Chandler presents another potential match-up problem.
It won't exactly bring back memories of the famous 1992 game at Candlestick Park—the only regular-season game in NFL history without a punt—which the Bills ultimately won 34-31 behind Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, but I see both offenses trading scoring drives in the first half before the 49ers finally settle down on defense, turn Ryan Fitzpatrick over a couple of times, and coast to a 27-20 win.
Will it buy Smith a week's reprieve from the critics? Will he deserve one? Right now he ranks seventh in the league with a 98.1 passer rating, and I think we can all agree that's pretty terrible.
No one knows suffering like 49ers fans.
1. Houston (4-0): Their point differential (+70) is only 22 points higher than the next-closest team and might be doubled by the time they get though with the Jets on Monday.
2. San Francisco (3-1): Don't make them angry. You won't like them when they're angry.
3. Baltimore (3-1): I love almost everything about them but doesn't "@Kansas City" sound exactly like the kind of trap game where they'll use Flacco too much and Rice not nearly enough?
4. Atlanta (4-0): Winning luckily by two points at home against the sorry Panthers earns you no respect from me, Falcons.
5. Chicago (3-1): The defense looks absolutely ferocious. I love their corners, and I root for a team with two good ones. Jay Cutler's Hollywood hair is kind of freaking me out.
6. New England (2-2): They'll probably finish 14-2 and have us all barfing by December.
7. New York Giants (2-2): I know they lost to the Eagles Sunday night, but I'm not even remotely considering the possibility that they're the worse team. They still have the better coach and QB, and it's not even close.
8. Green Bay (2-2): Their offensive line has serious problems, there's an injury epidemic at receiver and the referees seem to hate them. Otherwise, it's all hunky-dory for the Pack.
9. Minnesota (3-1): To me, they're a bigger surprise than even Arizona. At least people knew the Cardinals had good personnel defensively. I thought the Vikings back seven would be awful, and they've held up quite well.
10. Arizona (4-1): The offensive line played far above their heads the first three weeks, but it seems reality has set in. Kevin Kolb has been surprisingly un-spazzy so far this season, but 17 sacks the past two weeks should fix that. Also, not nearly enough is being made of the fact that Ryan Williams is kind of terrible.
11. San Diego (3-1): Hard to figure these guys out. They've blown out three terrible teams and been blown out, at home no less, by the Falcons. Another winless team, the Saints, looms on Sunday, but it's a roadie.
12. Cincinnati (3-1): Another squad that's perfect except for the one game they've played against a legit team, in their case, at the Ravens in Week 1. Andy Dalton's numbers at Jacksonville flattered him as two picks were flat-out dropped.
13. Philadelphia (3-1): Aside from their awful play-calls in the red zone, their total lack of pass rush against Eli Manning, their horrendous kickoff coverage and Andy Reid's decision to give the Giants two shots at the game-winning field goal, I was really impressed by the Eagles last Sunday.
14. Denver (2-2): This team has the reek of "sixth seed that squeaks into the playoffs and gets absolutely destroyed in the opening game" to them. Have to think Bill Belichick will force Peyton Manning to try and beat them over the top.
15. St. Louis (3-2): The most-improved defense in the league for my money. It's amazing what a difference having corners who can run sub-5.0 40-yard dashes can make. Also, it seems their investment in Robert Quinn was worth the wait.
16. Seattle (2-2): Pretty similar to the Rams (and the Cardinals) in a lot of respects, all three teams field top defenses and are practically unwatchable on offense. Seattle, though, has rookie growing pains at quarterback, and an undeserved win to boot.
17. Pittsburgh (1-2): Their defense will finally be whole in time to host the Eagles on Sunday and they're well-rested coming off a bye. My guess is these bunch of geezers will look rejuvenated, but don't expect it to last.
18. Miami (1-3): The unluckiest team in the league, the anti-Eagles basically. Miami thoroughly outplayed Arizona on the road and were one play from winning and they should've beaten the Jets at home the week before that. Will they catch a break at Cincinnati?
19. Dallas (2-2): I'll say this much about Tony Romo: His win-loss record when throwing five interceptions is better than you'd expect. He should spend the bye week in Mexico with Jason Witten, just as a giant "Eff You" to all the pundits. And they should swap wives just to blow everyone's minds.
20. Washington (2-2): Robert Griffin III has single-handedly made this otherwise drab outfit one of the most fun teams to watch in the league. Also, their defense stinks in part due to the injuries they've suffered, so all their games are close, high-scoring affairs.
21. Detroit (1-3): Special teams disaster or no, there really isn't much excuse for only scoring 13 at home vs. Minnesota. Also, Matthew Stafford is going to get one of his receivers killed if he keeps this up.
22. Buffalo (2-2): Jim Harbaugh said that the Bills are a very impressive team, statistically during his mid-week presser. It's possible he missed the statistic where they've allowed 100 points in two road division losses at New York and New England.
23. Tampa Bay (1-3): Three hard-fought, competitive, down-to-the-wire losses against NFC East teams for the Bucs. They'll spend their bye week searching for their je ne sais quoi, otherwise known as "Why couldn't we be in the AFC?"
24. Carolina (1-3): They make it look so easy at times, when their read-option running game is working and they're getting nine yards a clip with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart or Cam Newton. But it's all a tease, isn't it?
25. New Orleans (0-4): The observant among you will notice that No. 25 seems awfully high for an 0-4 team, as well as the last NFC entry. Take it as a subtle hint of my total disregard for the other conference.
26. New York Jets (2-2): They've lost their best player on both sides of the ball, their quarterback hasn't cracked the elusive "50 percent completions" plateau in three straight games and they have the worst starting running back in football. And this is a mediocre AFC team.
27. Jacksonville (1-3): Oddly competitive defensively for a team with no discernible pass rush whatsoever. Their offense is good for one awesome drive per game and like seven three-and-outs.
28. Indianapolis (1-2): My expectations for Andrew Luck might have been a tad unrealistic, and I kind of feel like a jerk for thinking it, but he's been a bit of a disappointment for me so far.
29. Tennessee (1-3): To be fair, their schedule through four games has been ridiculous. Also, their starting QB is hurt. At the same time, if they lose at Minnesota on Sunday, they're 1-4 and doomed, so what good are excuses then?
30. Oakland (1-3): Their defense is flat out terrible at all three levels, but I'm sure they'll get it all sorted out with some high draft picks next year.
31. Kansas City (1-3): So... Geno Smith or Matt Barkley?
32. Cleveland (0-4): Good news, Browns fans, basketball season is just around the corner. Go Cavs!
Week 5 Picks:
Steelers 27 (-3), Eagles 16
Packers 30 (-7), Colts 20
Ravens 23, Chiefs (+6) 20
Giants 27 (-10), Browns 13
Redskins 28 (+3), Falcons 24
Panthers 26 (-3), Seahawks 20
Bears 23 (-5), Jaguars 7
Vikings 20, Titans (+6) 17
49ers 27, Bills 20 (+10)
Saints 30 (-4), Chargers 23
Texans 33 (-9), Jets 6
Week 5 W-L: 1-0 (1-0 Vs. Spread)
2012 W-L: 40-24 (13-2 Last Week)
2012 Vs. Spread: 33-28-3 (12-3 Last Week)