When I think back on the darkest days I have ever seen in my lifetime of loving the San Francisco 49ers, two seasons spring instantly to mind: 1999 and 2004.
Not only were both seasons marred by dismal records and mass despair throughout the extended 49er Faithful family, but each was lowlighted by a particular event of grave consequence to the franchise.
In 1999, it was a singular moment. On September 27, 1999, a missed block by Lawrence Phillips resulted in a brutal hit by Aeneas Williams on Steve Young, saddling the future Hall of Fame quarterback with the concussion that would ultimately end his career.
In 2004, it was an entire game, one played the afternoon of September 26, 2004 at Seattle's Quest Field. This game was truly the lowlight of a 2-14 season that tied a team record for futility in a 16-game campaign, as Seattle shut out the 49ers 34-0.
Prior to that, the 49ers had played in 420 consecutive games without being subjected to a shutout, dating back to October 9, 1977 and a 7-0 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Little could anyone have imagined that a date in 2010 would be destined to join these lowly annals, particularly after the resurgence of the offense and the team under former third-string QB Troy Smith. Then came November 20, 2010.
In the course of a 60-minute game, so much changed for the 49ers. Troy Smith's unbeaten streak came to an end. The 49ers turned the ball over for the first and second time with Smith at QB. Rather than closing to within one game of the division lead at 4-6, the 49ers fell to 3-7 and remain two games out.
But perhaps of the greatest gravity, from an historical perspective at least, the 49ers' streak of 284 home games (one was at Stanford Stadium in 1989 and one was at Wembley Stadium in 2010) without being shut out came to an end.
It took the 49ers more than 24 years to amass their streak of 420 games overall, and more than 33 years to build the similarly significant streak of home games. The significance of what we have all witnessed should not be lost.
In all statistical probability, neither streak will ever be broken. The salary cap, revenue sharing, free agency and other such parity-spawning enigma have succeeded in creating such a fluid and diluted pool of talent in the NFL—where the supposedly elite teams are always subject to upsets by the last-place team in the league and teams go from worst to first in no time flat—that it is indeed hard to fathom such a run of offense ever re-emerging.
Ironically, that same parity could conspire to prolong the 49ers' woes beyond the end of the 2010 campaign.
At 3-7, it should be a foregone conclusion that the 49ers are playing for next year, that Mike Singletary is a sitting duck, and that multiple heads will roll by season's end. One could well argue that the 49ers would be best served using the remainder of 2010 to help determine just whose heads those will be.
However, in this age of parity which has brought us the uniquely dismal NFC West, the 49ers are far from dead in the water for 2010. The division leader is merely .500 and 7-9 may well be good enough to win the division. One would hope such a pedestrian team would be immediately eliminated in their first playoff game, but with parity at play, that might not be the case.
Thus the 49ers are faced with the conundrum of whether to start building the pieces that will ultimately serve the franchise best in the long run, or to again mortgage their future for a long shot at short-term success. With free agency and parity, the patience of owners and fans is short, so any self-respecting franchise finds itself reserved to the need for short term results—at any cost.
Thus parity has found a way to potentially perpetuate the frustrations of at least one franchise. But wait—I thought parity was here to elevate the weak and help make the game better. Things are not always as they seem.
If the NFL is so sold that this new game is best, perhaps my previous hesitation over rooting for an 8-8 49er playoff team was too short-sighted. To the contrary, I now hope the 49ers go 7-9, win their division, and win the Super Bowl in an error-filled mockery of pro football history. Then we shall see how great parity has made the game.
Keep the Faith!
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