When James Wilson Marshall first discovered gold in Coloma, Calif., the date was Jan. 24, 1848.
Needless to say, the self-proclaimed “49ers”—named after their 1849 wild wild westbound departure—arrived fashionably late to their own party.
To be fair, word spread slowly.
Mobile consumers had yet to make the switch from TNT to AT&T, and the Verizon Network consisted of tin cans, string, and a toothless banjo player whose name was prefixed with “Billy."
Perhaps they adopted the infamous Oregon Trail-inspired “strategery” and were slowed down by the 200 tons of Buffalo meat (“You have hunted 1,219 buffalo, but can only carry nine”).
Regardless of their reasons, the 49ers late arrival was about as fashionable as parachute pants, and better yet, everyone was doing it.
Contrary to cliché sayings, it was the late bird that got the worm in 1849. However, in the best consolation prize since Clay Aiken’s musical career, California locals and 1848 arrivals received an early bird special of Gold, and lots of it.
Before you perform a double-take on this article’s title, asking yourself: “What does Clay Aiken have to do with the 49ers?”, “Where in the world is Coloma, California?”, “Does this mean parachute pants are back in style?”, allow me to explain.
Similar to 1848 Gold Rush California, the underrated and appropriately named San Francisco 49ers are poised to experience a similar westbound bandwagon in 2009.
You can see it in the ownership, as just last season, John and Denise Debartalo-York passed team Presidential duties onto their eager son Jed, the nephew and protégé of legendary 49er owner Eddie Debartalo.
Following the 49ers’ season finale victory over the Washington Redskins, Jed York assured a celebratory locker room “This is the last time our season ends in December.”
Despite being just 27 years old, Jed’s NFL age can be measured in dog years. After all, he was practically birthed in an NFL locker room.
As a family member of 49er ownership, Jed York grew up within a legendary 49er franchise.
While most Bay Area kids hung posters of Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice on their walls, Jed hung out with his childhood heroes.
By the time he reached the second grade, Jed had made more Super Bowl visits to the White House than two time Super Bowl winner James Harrison.
Needless to say, with such a head start on NFL life, Jed York is much more experienced and NFL-ready than his youthful age may otherwise suggest.
Listening to the 49er coaching staff, you can’t help but notice the gold-flake lining on the Bay Area shores.
As Mike Singletary explained to a crowd of cheering fans at Saturday’s 49er Family Day, “I guarantee you this, the 2009 San Francisco 49ers will be special.”
When Mike Singletary says “special”, he means special.
He does not mean it in the endearing sense that your mother used to sugarcoat your awkward Beanie Baby phase that lingered into high school.
The former Hall of Fame, Chicago Bear linebacker was special, he played special (10 Pro Bowl selections), for special teams (see: 1985 Chicago Bears).
By “special”, Singletary intended a team that will outlast adversity, outwork their competition, and outperform analyst expectations.
The 49ers will run the ball, but not just run the ball. As Singletary explained to the 49er fan base, “We will dictate our rushing offense and run the ball at will.”
That’s not all folks. Singletary also emphasized a “balance” of offensive powers.
The 49ers will pass the ball, but not just pass the ball. In a recent interview with 49er beat writer Matt Barrows, quarterback Shaun Hill described the mentality of a Jimmy Raye passing attack. As he explained, “He does ask [quarterbacks] to take a little bit more control, a more charge of the offense than we've had in the past. So, that's nice. There's more on our shoulders, but we really like that. That's something that quarterbacks really enjoy."
In addition, this newfound attack should involve quicker reads, implementing three and five-step drops in addition to the seven-step drops that characterized Mike Martz’s offense. In an interview with 49er beat writer Matt Maiocco, left tackle Joe Staley described the new 49er offense as, “getting the ball out a little quicker.” As he elaborated, “The reads are a little bit faster to cut down on the sacks."
This offensive adaptation should benefit both the quarterback and offensive line, reducing the pass protection required, while minimizing quarterback sacks, hurries, and knockdowns.
The imminent greatness is foreshadowed in the swaggering athletes that grace the 49ers' Santa Clara practice facility.
San Francisco's biggest playmakers are yet to come, as the starting roster continues to undergo a much-needed youth infusion. This includes the addition of electrifying players such as outside linebacker Parys Haralson (who recorded eight sacks with limited starting opportunities in 2008), wide receiver Josh Morgan (who lead the 49ers and NFC in Preseason receiving), and free safety Dashon Goldson into the regular starting rotation. Although under-utilized during the 2008 season, these young athletes have become standouts and consistent playmakers during practice sessions, suggesting a bright future ahead in 2009.
In addition to the maturation of the organizations’ young, up-and-coming athletes, expect an improved performance from 49er veterans.
Should Shaun Hill win the quarterback competition, the winning NFL veteran will be entering his first season as a starter. With an offseason of critical repetitions under his belt, expect Hill to continue, or better yet, improve upon a Pro Bowl-worthy season-ending stretch in 2008.
If Shaun Hill were to lose the quarterback competition, it would entail a miracle-worthy preseason performance from Alex Smith. Such an outcome would be equally as optimal, as it would suggest that Smith has resurrected from his nagging shoulder injury, and may finally escape the dreadful four-letter “b” word.
With a swagger that’s visible and energy that’s palpable, 49er players have undergone a transformation in philosophy and demeanor.
Upon deciding to forego retirement, Isaac Bruce justified and paralleled his 49er return with a return to the playoffs, and better yet, a Super Bowl.
Such optimism has become an epidemic at 4949 Centennial Boulevard. Running back and offensive centerpiece Frank Gore has vowed to play his first NFL game in his hometown of Miami this season. To those unfamiliar with the 2009 NFL regular season schedule, the 49ers are not scheduled to play in Miami. That is, unless they play in the Super Bowl.
In addition to an undeniable swagger, 49er players have adopted an attitude from their fiery head coach. The 49er locker room no longer resembles the nice-guy cast of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood that Coach Mike Nolan assembled.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the newfound disposition of quarterback Alex Smith. Unlike his unconditionally kind former self, Smith has embraced the confrontational nature required of an NFL field general. This included his indirect calling out of 49er WR Isaac Bruce for being the lone player absent from OTA activities. Although some may question Smith’s credibility in criticizing a potential future Hall of Fame player, no player on the current 49er roster possesses comparable accomplishments to that of Bruce, making Smith’s declaration a bold yet necessary move.
As a 49er fan, it should worry me that every player on the 49er roster would qualify to date my future daughter. As they lay flat on the ground, I should want opposing quarterbacks, not my fictitious daughter, accepting the hand of mean 49er defensive players.
When looking over the profiles of our 2009 draft class, it excited me to read words such as “textbook scandal”, “outspoken” or “drunken rampage”.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish poor character upon my team nor community.
As an economist I believe that any competitive market rewards calculated risk-taking. The NFL draft and free agent market is no different. Had the Patriot’s not overlooked Randy Moss’ selfish attitude and provided him a change of scenery, they may still have Jabar Gaffney as a leading receiver.
As a psychologist I also happen to believe in second chances. We all too often forget that these young athletes are college-aged kids. With the pressures of stardom, the distractions of celebrity, and the purchasing power of a small country, it’s no wonder that these developing young men make the occasional mistake. What’s important is that these mistakes do not define the individual.
By accepting troubled, yet well-intentioned players with open arms, the 49ers talent pool is no longer bound by the dogmatic character restrictions of Mike Nolan.
With the recent memory of once promising seasons ending in disaster (see: 2007 San Francisco 49ers), you may wish to chase this 49er Kool-Aid with a grain of salt. Cautious optimism aside, this sports writer urges you to beat the crowds of bandwagon fans and sportscasters. Don’t let history repeat itself.
Throw on the red and gold, commandeer all household remote controls, and reschedule that Sunday wedding, a goldmine awaits in San Francisco.