The San Francisco 49ers definitely showed their fans and the NFL something in their Monday Night loss to the New Orleans Saints. The only question is: what exactly was it?
Back in the heady days of Steve Mariucci's coaching tenure, the 49ers used to script the first 16 plays of the game in honor of former quarterback Joe Montana. It seemed as though the 49ers had started a new similar tradition in 2010—taking the first five quarters off in honor of their five Super Bowl titles.
After a dismal opening effort against Seattle, the 49ers stumbled to a 9-0 deficit in the first quarter of Monday's contest, and looked poised to flop their way to 0-2 and stoke the fires of the ever-present pleas for the unceremonious release of head coach Mike Singletary and quarterback Alex Smith.
Then they woke up.
The 49ers overcame a rough start to make a game out of a tough situation. The defense held the high-octane Saints offense under 300 yards; even the vaunted Alex Smith led three scoring drives, including a gutsy two-minute drill to draw a late tie.
Several supposed experts were so impressed that they claimed the 49ers had out-played the Saints, that they had done all they could to win—and probably should have—but the Saints proved their Super Bowl mettle and withstood the barrage to steal a tough win.
Were they watching the right game?
The 49ers played admirably in spots, and were clearly more motivated and emotionally in control than they were in Week 1. However, focus and execution still lapsed to the tune of four turnovers, a fluke safety, and several critical penalties that either hampered 49er charges or extended Saint drives.
Perhaps most perplexing of all was the fact that the pride of the team—the defense—was the unit that ultimately suffered the decisive lapse. The 49er defense posted an inspired effort after a late punt return drop by Phillip Adams gave the Saints the chance to salt the game with a touchdown. The defense prevented said score on three consecutive plays from inside the two yard-line, keeping the deficit at eight points and giving the offense the chance to force overtime.
Likely to the surprise of many, the offense came through and posted the tying tally, but left over a minute for the Saints to try to grab the game in regulation. The defense had no heroics left, as they dropped back into a conservative coverage package for the first time and allowed the Saints to pick up more than 50 yards to set up a short field goal for the win.
Take the game as a moral victory if you like, as the 49ers certainly come away with much to build on. But was it really the inspired effort it was made out to be, or just a reflection of how parity continues to undermine the legitimacy of the NFL?
In recent decades, the NFL has gotten its wish as revenue sharing and the salary cap have created a league where any team can and might well beat any other on any given Thursday, Sunday, or Monday. Such a premise seems desirable and even noble, but is it really good for football?
Should every team always be on even footing? Should a Super Bowl Champion almost lose a game against a struggling underdog when they force four turnovers and a safety?
I love the 49ers, but they had no business being in that game with the mistakes they made. Still they could have and almost did beat a team considered by many to be a juggernaut in the NFL. This is what the league has been reduced to.
If we really want true parity, absolve the draft and have all teams surrender their scouts to the league. Then have the league force player redistribution and negotiate all salaries and ensure that all teams are truly on a level playing field. Better yet, play the games just for fun and hand out miniature Lombardi Trophies to each team every year, or assign the title of Super Bowl Champion honorarily on a rotating basis.
That may seem ludicrous (and it is), but it is not all too far down the slippery slope that NFL parity has already begun to create. A true Super Bowl Champion should never have to struggle in a game like Monday night's, good teams should not be penalized for their success, and an 8-8 team should never make the playoffs.
I will repeat that I love the 49ers, but if they limp to an NFC West "title" at 8-8, I will root against them in each playoff game. Hopefully, though, it will not come to that.
The 49ers may be better off at 0-2 in 2010 than they were at 2-0 in 2009. One of their toughest hurdles is already behind them (if not quite cleared), and previous years lead us to expect a midseason push toward contention. Consider also that the last time the 49ers opened with a disappointing road loss then returned home to narrowly beat the Saints in Week 2 was 1999, the year Steve Young's career abruptly ended. Bullet: dodged.
The 49ers need to ensure that 2010 is the year their midseason surge ends with a playoff berth. Given the progress shown in Week 2 (even if aided by the sorry state of the NFL) they may have what it takes to do so.
Keep the Faith!