In 1979, Bill Walsh took over a club that went 2-14. Two years later, "The Catch" stunned America's team and propelled the 49ers to the franchise's first Super Bowl Victory on the shoulders of a young, home grown prolific passer, gutsy leader, and downright magical kid named Joe Montana.
Walsh went on to build a dynasty that won 2 more Super Bowls in 1984 and 1988. He then passed the torch to Defensive Coordinator George Seifert. Seifert took the team back to the Super Bowl in 1989 for back to back wins and one of the most lopsided Super Bowl games in NFL History.
Long time backup quarterback Steve Young eventually assumed the helm and success still followed. Young led his team to a super bowl victory in 1994. Freakish Athletic Specimen Terrell Owens's abilities played the aging all time greatest receiver in NFL history off the team, but little changed.
For about 20 years, the 49ers were well known as a finesse passing team. Montana, Young, and Jeff Garcia could kill you with their arms. Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, and Terrell Owens proved time and time again good coverage just wasn't enough. Roger Craig, Tom Rathman, Ricky Watters, William Floyd, and Garrison Hearst could kill you just as fast on the ground as they could through the air.
For the same period, the defense was no slouch either.
When Walsh turned over to Seifert, a winning system was in place, with players who knew it and believed in it. There was no reason to change anything. San Francisco won 2 additional Super Bowls under Seifert's command.
When Seifert gave way to Steve Mariucci with the most wins ever for a 49ers head coach, the 49ers still had a QB who could play the system. They still had Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. The biggest change noted in the Mariucci era was the emergence of the running game, with Garrison Hearst or Charlie Garner rushing for over 1000 yards in each of Mariucci's first 5 seasons as head coach.
This was the first time in team history the team had more than 2 consecutive seasons with a thousand yard rusher. Garrison Hearst missed 1000 yards in Mariucci's 6th and final season by 28 yards. Mariucci successfully integrated the power running of Garrison Hearst and the shake-and-bake of Charlie Garner into the pre-existing potent passing game he inherited.
The real downfall of the 49ers started in 2003. Under controversial new head coach Dennis Erickson, the team went 7-9. Erickson inherited a team with substantial salary cap issues, but this is where the 49ers started to go against the grain. Erickson abandoned many elements of the West Coast Offense in favor of his desire to run a "hybrid" between it and the pro style offense he was used to running. The team lost leaders Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens as it went from 10-6 to an NFL-worst 2-14 under Erickson.
The Dennis Erickson era threw the 49ers into disarray. The team identity was gone. The confident pocket passer, the prolific wide receiver corps, the dual threat running back, and the formidable defense were all a thing of the past.
The 49ers first attempt at recovery was Mike Nolan. While a seeming step in the right direction was to get back to a strong defensiv- minded coach, Nolan would prove that he was not the man to bring new identity to the team. Nolan's sotic and nonchalant personality gave players repetition at fundamentals, while leaving a gaping void about what it meant to be a 49er.
The 49ers needed a lot of things at this point. They didn't need a coach who wanted to stand on the sidelines and make a fashion statement like President Obama during the oil spill cleanup. Nolan was fired midway through the 2008 season after having coached the team in 55 regular season games and winning only 18.
Enter Mike Singletary, a homegrown product who recognized that the lack of pride and identity was one of the things plaguing the club which Nolan and Erickson failed to address. "Coach Sing" brings to the table the ability to play at a hall of fame level, the ability to command respect, results, and attention.
Perhaps the most important thing Singletary had the presence of mind to do is to stand in front of a group of confused, bewildered football players and tell them what it means to be a 49er, and explain to them that if they didn't want to sell out to be a 49er, that the door was right behind him.
At the time, the team had a spread offense quarterback, a power running back with an offensive line that wasn't good enough for power running against most teams, and to sum it up several highly paid players who weren't living up to their potential for one reason or another.
Singletary put into words and example what he wants the 49ers to be, and left it up to every man to materialize it. Many players have already taken hold and took advantage. Dashon Goldson unseated Mark Roman on the depth chart and led the team in interceptions in 2009. Ahmaad Brooks led the league in sacks over the last 8 games of the season after showing promise as a rushing threat from the outside.
Perhaps nothing speaks louder to the praise of Singletary than the emergence of TE Vernon Davis. Davis was flirting with bust status after being selected with the sixth overall draft pick in the 2006 draft. Not only did Davis post career bests in catches, yards, and tie the record for touchdown receptions in a season by a tight end, but he was a near perfect example of effort and fundamentals. Davis touched the ball almost 80 times, produced just shy of 1000 yards and never fumbled once.
On Frank Gore's long touchdown runs of 80, 79, and 64 yards, Davis was right behind him as he used his freakish speed to ensure the his team mate had blocks if he needed them to reached pay dirt.
Singletary's message was clear that starting jobs are only as secure as the players make them. He verbally challenged Alex Smith, Nate Clements, and the entire offensive line to play better.
The 49ers lost their identity this decade, but Coach Singletary has restored a meaning to being a 49er and the team appears to be continuing in an upward and positive direction towards a common goal. While it's not the identity of the 49ers most of us grew up with, the team needed to get its players on the same page to get back to the ways of winning, and Mike Singletary was just the man to instill it.