San Francisco 49ers: The Old 'Heart Attack Kids' Are Not Yet a Cohesive Team

Keith MathewsCorrespondent IIINovember 8, 2010

Coach Singletary Ponders
Coach Singletary PondersScott Boehm/Getty Images

I’ve been a 49ers fan since 1980, the year my new father-in-law took me under his wing and taught me how to watch a football game. He was a well-known radio announcer for the Denver Broncos and was appalled that I did not watch football because I thought football to be a game for dumb jocks.

Showing me the strategies, tactics and skills used in the game, as well as introducing me to several professional football players, among them a doctor, a philosopher and one soon-to-be history professor disavowed me of my old prejudices and gave me a new and wonderful pleasure to pursue.  

Craig Morton, the Bronco quarterback during the “Orange Crush” days, met us for dinner one night after a game, walking in with the help of two clumping, heavy, metal canes. I had watched him wander about the pocket for the entire game and it never occurred to me that he was playing on painful knees that had long since seen their better days.

I found him to be humorous, urbane and educated, as well as gritty as all hell playing on those knees and still winning games. I do not remember what we ate, but I remember Craig Morton.

Since I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, my team became the about-to-be “Team of the '80s” 49ers.

I know a bit about management of groups of people from my military and business days and what I have seen so far this year is a dispirited bunch of guys trying to play football without being part of a team. They have no morale and almost no team spirit.

Three people have walked away from the group so far this year in displeasure. The group expects their fellows to let them down, and because there is no team as such, it does let them down. There may be no “I” in “team,” but there is no team in the current 49ers, either.

The group of 53 players has impressive talent on both sides of the ball, but it does not have a center—and I’m talking about group dynamics here, not the position. Coach Singletary is the kind of guy I’d love to have over for dinner, a man guaranteed to entertain with great stories and a full and impressive personality.

Singletary is a Hall of Fame football player, a man to be reckoned with.  And he deserves kudos because he showed up when the team needed him in the middle of a playing season. I firmly believe he has given his best to the 49ers. He gave us all hope for a while.

But the 53 individuals are not yet a team and that is the first priority of a coach. The 49ers are a bunch of talented individual football players without being a cohesive group.

As an example of team-building skills, 49ers coach Bill Walsh had an old boxer’s trick he used in coaching. Boxers are often trained to try differing punches, footwork and defenses during the first round, “feeling out” the opponent. Based on the reaction of the opponent to these tests, the boxer’s manager could then plot a course for his man to use during the rest of the bout.

Bill Walsh, a boxer in college, would script 15 or so varied plays for a game, having them practiced and ready to go at kickoff. As the scripted plays played out in the first quarter, he could analyze the opposition’s reactions to them and then modify the game plan based on the success or failure of those first testing plays.

He would “feel out” the opposition, testing the talent, speed, reaction time, strengths, weaknesses and the knowledge of the opposing players on that particular day. And, importantly, he would stay intellectually nimble during the course of the game.

Other, purely team-building exercises were used. I remember a cat fishing day when the pond at the training facility was stocked with fish. The whole team was issued poles and bait and the day was followed by a fish fry.

Other times, there was a restaurant that the whole team met at on the Monday following games to eat hamburgers and generally mix with one another. This forced the people on the team to get to know one another apart from football, to give them some semblance of a cohesive group.

The result was that teams the 49ers played against often did not know what hit them.  They blamed the “West Coast Offense,” as if Walsh was cheating to be playing the game of wits as well as brawn. They said he used short passes like running plays, as if that was going against the culture of smash-mouth professional football.

They complained he used “finesse” against them, as if psychological strategies were alien to football. But he forged a team that won football games, many of which a lesser coach and team would have lost. They won so many tough games in the last few minutes (or seconds) that my gang of fans labeled them “The Heart Attack Kids.”

Walsh seemed uncanny at exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition, even when the opposition appeared to be (and often was) the stronger team. Remember the Chicago Bears, in their house and their freezing weather?

I’ll bet Coach Sing does. That is why the guys came together as a coherent self-sacrificing team for him. They suspected he knew more than they did, they admired and looked to him for solutions. His creativity on the sidelines became legendary in the NFL and his “suggestions” were followed even when the team members had no idea what he was up to.

Even with the many changes in personalities that came and went during his tenure, this cohesion of the team could be easily noticed and was often noted by his ex-teammates. Many, very successful under his tutelage, went on to other teams, with mixed results.

The team went through a period where it produced an inordinate number of stars for a single team. But it was not only the talent of the players that made them stars; talent is a prerequisite to get into the NFL in the first place. It was the brilliant creativity of the coach that made their play so successful and their winning games so commonplace. Nothing makes a star as quickly as winning does.

There was a time when the fact that the San Francisco 49ers were coming to your house to play you was a fact that engendered both fear and awe in both players and fans. That psychological edge won some games in and of itself.

I would love to see that 1980’s dynamic return, but sadly I cannot clone Bill Walsh, so it is up to the team owners to find a creative and effective team builder to forge this group into a team.

If Coach Singletary can forge them into a team, then they will begin winning and he can save his budding career. If he cannot, they will continue to lose in the last few minutes and the 49ers will be looking for a new coach.

If they look to a new coach, they would be well-served to look at coaches that do creative things with a team—and are successful. They would be wise to look for a coach that can bring a group of guys together as a coherent team and, as is often said, feels like a “family.”

The team model is not unlike the Army squad or the Air Force ‘finger’ flight of four fighters, a small group of guys that cover each other’s back every day, help each other and become so loyal they hate to leave the field of operations because of the loss of that closeness to and dependence on other members of the team.

The ownership and Coach Singletary has the onus of doing something dramatic, and soon, if they want fans to fill the seats and for the 49ers to make a profit. The current 49ers are “The Heart Attack Kids” again, but for a decidedly negative reason.