From 1981 to 1998, the San Francisco 49ers enjoyed one of the longest and most prolifically successful stretches in the history of the NFL. However, they had to go through their share of trying times to get to that point.
Indulge me if you will on a trip down memory lane (admittedly not my personal memories, but nonetheless).
After head coach Dick Nolan led the team to its third consecutive division title in 1972, the 49ers would fail to win more than eight games in any of the next six seasons (albeit prior to 1978, the NFL season was only 14 games, so eight wins constituted a winning season). These struggles culminated in a dismal 2-14 season in 1978.
Edward DeBartolo Sr. bought the team in 1977, and surrendered controlling interest to his son, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., due to the fact that as owner of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, DeBartolo Sr. could not own the 49ers as well per existing conflict of interest laws.
DeBartolo Jr., who would come to be known as Eddie D., set about rebuilding the 49ers, beginning with the hiring of Stanford University's head coach, a former rising NFL assistant with Paul Brown's Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Walsh in 1979.
Walsh would quickly assume the team's General Manager duties in addition to serving as head coach. In 1979, Walsh made what many considered some questionable draft moves, selecting Notre Dame's quarter back Joe Montana in the third round, and Clemson's wide receiver Dwight Clark in the tenth round.
While early returns brought much ridicule as the 49ers won just eight games combined in 1979 and 1980, Walsh and his young and determined team would shock the world in 1981, winning 13 games in the regular season and ultimately beating the Cincinnati Bengals to win Super Bowl XVI.
Flash forward to 2005. Mike Nolan, son of the very same Dick Nolan who coached the team through the early 1970s, was hired as head coach inheriting a 2-14 team, and drafted his own quarter back, Alex Smith from the University of Utah.
People around the San Francisco Bay Area were extremely excited and optimistic about the potential of the team under coach Nolan. They drew the obvious parallels to Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and waited with baited breathe to see how quickly the team could turn around.
Nolan bested Walsh's record in his first two seasons at the helm, winning four games in 2005 and seven in 2006. Expectations were sky high for 2007, but instead of again reaching the pinnacle of NFL success, the 49ers suffered a major setback under Nolan, going just 5-11.
When the 2008 season got off to a 2-4 start, Nolan was released from his duties and former Hall of Fame and Super Bowl Champion linebacker Mike Singletary assumed the coaching reigns rather unceremoniously. Eddie D's nephew Jed York would ascend to the role of team president and by the end of the season, announced that Mike Singletary would remain on as the team's new full-time head coach.
Now Mike Singletary sits poised to enter his third overall season as head coach, with one of the most talented 49er squads in recent memory. I for one, find myself asking whether 2007 was just a false start and 2010 is the year the magic from 1981 returns.
Many things are very different.
Bill Walsh was an offense genius who reinvented the way the game is played. Mike Singletary was a fearsome defensive force in his playing days and relies more on discipline and effort than innovation.
Bill Walsh had a legendary stoicism, and his sideline manner rarely wavered. Mike Singletary has a fiery demeanor, and often shows unbridled emotion on the sideline and in press conferences .
Alex Smith is a far cry from Joe Montana, and the 2010 defensive backfield has major strides to make before being compared to Dwight Hicks and his Hot Licks.
Though things are different, interesting parallels exist. The elegant sophistication of Bill Walsh's "beat you to the punch" mentality has been supplanted by the brute strength of Mike Singletary's "hit you in the mouth."
Still, both teams possess a confident head coach who in many ways is the face of the team. While the team's identities may be polar opposites, both teams have a strong identity, and a roster built to bring it to fruition.
Jed York is also trying to foster the same caring family environment that served the team so well under his uncle. The signing of Pro Bowl mainstay Patrick Willis to a lucrative but reasonable five year extension reflects this mentality. Willis could have made much more in free agency, but wanted to remain in red and gold largely because of the winning and caring culture the team is cultivating.
Given the time and opportunity, Singletary and Willis could become every bit the dynamic duo that Walsh and Montana were. The soul of the 49ers has shifted, but the heart of a champion beats on.
This could be the dawn of an exciting new era of dominance in the annals of 49er lore, if one that the legends of yesteryear would never have foreseen.
Keep the Faith!
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