When most sports fans are asked “What’s your favorite NFL team of all time?”, they immediately envision the grainy Super Bowl footage of the 1994 and 1989 San Francisco 49ers, the 1971 and 1992 Dallas Cowboys, the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers.
I’m not like most sports fans.
I hear and therefore interpret the question as “what was your favorite NFL team”, not what was the best NFL team. To a true sports fan, the combination of favorite and best should be as compatible as water and electricity.
Being a life-long die-hard fan of the San Francisco 49ers, my response should be easy. After all, I have FIVE Super Bowl teams to choose from (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, and 1994). Strangely enough my favorite team is none of the aforementioned.
Given that two of the Super Bowls (1981 and 1984) were won before I was even born, and two more (1988 and 1989) coincided with “my terrible twos” and self-soiling days, choosing any one of those teams would be about as fair-weather as a hole in the ozone layer.
That leaves the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. Yes I laughed, cried, and shouted my first obscenities throughout the course of the 1994 season, but so did the rest of the Bay Area and a majority of the United States.
Who didn’t love Hall of Famers Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Deion Sanders? They are to sports fans what Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers are to my fictitious pre-adolescent sister. My point is: how many so called 49ers “fans” were there in the early stages of the 1994 season?
How many “faithful” believed in Steve Young following the Week Two, 24-17 loss to the Joe Montana-led Kansas City Chiefs? How many “fans” sported the red and gold in the workplace following the Week Five, 40-8 home defeat issued by the Philadelphia Eagles?
After an unprecedented 14 game win streak, which included the breaking of team and NFL records, the dusty red jerseys reemerged from hibernation. It’s easy to become an NFL fan come January.
If you’re watching your team play in January, they’re in the playoffs. Given that I had religiously followed and blindly supported this franchise both prior to and since the 1994 season, I could suddenly relate to the families of the kidnapped victims I saw on the news.
The 1994 49ers were my baby, and fair-weather sports fans robbed me of them. In that season I grew a newfound understanding and appreciation for the fans of the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, and Arizona Cardinals franchise (yes, appearing in a Super Bowl doesn’t count).
Is it better to have lost and won, then to have never won at all?
When asked what my favorite NFL team of all time was, I look that generic monotonous question asker in the eye and say, “the 2004 San Francisco 49ers”. “But they only won two games,” one might plea. My response is simple, “Actually, it’s more like 1.5 games. They only beat the Cardinals, twice”.
The 2004 San Francisco 49ers may very well be the most forgettable franchise in NFL history. They didn’t break any records like the 16-0 New England Patriots of 2008 or the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2009. They were simply trapped in the purgatory of terrible. Coached by college legend Dennis Erickson, the 49ers played like a college team.
Their quarterback(s) included a committee of Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, and Cody Picket, providing the 49ers less offensive fire power than the Swiss army. In the off-chance that the quarterback wasn’t sacked on hike, the three pee-shooter-armed stooges were forced to throw to the famously unremarkable receivers of:
1) Brandon Lloyd: a hit-or-miss, alligator-armed receiver who either ducked from the line of a pass or made the SportsCenter highlight reel with a circus act catch.
2) Cedric Wilson: a mediocre journeyman.
3) Curtis Conway: a once solid receiver...10 years prior to joining the 49ers.
With no one to throw or catch the ball, the 49ers turned to Kevan Barlow for production, providing the worst safety plan since the 1950’s Public Service “duck and cover in the case of nuclear fallout” campaign.
As a matter of fact, the only Pro-Bowl caliber players on that team were Julian Peterson, who tore his ACL in Week Five, and long-snapper Brian Jennings.
When kids on my high school football team were picking their NFL-star alter ego, I was able to rest assured that Tim Rattay wouldn’t be taken (until my turn to pick of course).
Like the late Bill Walsh, I masterfully traded down in Fantasy Football drafts to acquire more picks, knowing full well that Brandon Lloyd, Cedrick Wilson, and Curtis Conway would still be on the board for my starting receiving core.
I could sleep at night knowing that I was the only man in San Mateo County and the greater Bay Area with a Ken Dorsey jersey in his closet. The 2004 San Francisco 49ers were MY team, and no fair-weather, microbrewery-beer-drinking sports fan can take that away from me.
Many fans might shutter when they find the skeleton of a No. 32 Kevan Barlow jersey in their closet. I don’t. I don’t have one in my closet. I wear it...with pride.
It’s not that I prefer mediocrity from my beloved NFL team; I wear it because it’s the one piece of sports memorabilia a fair-weather 49ers fan can never take away from me.
Although the fair-weather fans may have owned that very jersey in a former fan-ship, that jersey, much like their fan-hood, lost its way to a trash compactor, incinerator, or local Goodwill somewhere during that magical 2004 season.
Unlike a Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, or Michael Crabtree jersey, so called “fans” won’t find it in the store the next time the 49ers play in January. I, the 49er faithful, and some lucky members of the Bay Area homeless population will be wearing our Kevan Barlow jersey come that January.
And when the 49ers win their next Super Bowl, we’ll turn to our children, and children’s children, and children we don't even know, and we’ll tell them: “I stood at ground zero”.