San Francisco 49ers: The 6 Biggest Misconceptions in Recent 49er History
It is a testament to the loyalty Bay Area fans have for this team, which was the first professional sports franchise on the West Coast, that the 49ers remain the No. 1 sports team in the region without a winning record in eight years.
The Niners have always been San Francisco. They were innovative, talented and, for the most part, classy. Their storied run from the 1980s to the mid 1990s as the league’s dominant team produced five Super Bowl championship teams.
Now it’s been eight years since the 49ers made the playoffs. They last made it to the Super Bowl in January of 1995, so 16 seasons have not only failed to bring the ultimate prize, but they've never even come close.
In that time, the 49er reputation has, like brass left too long in the sun, tarnished. That’s why it’s time for us to look at the six biggest misconceptions of the 49ers.
The shotgun offense was born in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Before that, the wing-T offense originated in San Francisco in the late 1940s. Then Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense bloomed in San Francisco in 1981.
San Francisco had its first championship pro football team, and since then Joe Montana still cannot buy a drink in The City.
Niner fans today, however, have to wonder whether there was a date when Walsh’s legacy for inspirational offense ran out. Steve Mariucci, the former head coach who schooled under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, was the last coach to make the 49er offense something to reckon with. Of course: Holmgren learned under Walsh.
Consider the years 2002 to 2010. The Niners averaged an offensive rank of 22.5 out of 32 teams. Put another way, that’s the bottom third of the league’s 32 teams.
From 1992-2000, the team’s average rank was No. 5, and that’s with a No. 22 in 1999. But 49er fans know this in anecdotal terms over the last six years or so. They’ve ranged from horrible (2007) to poor (every year since, by 49er standards).
Under Mike Nolan and then Mike Singletary, the Niners have taken a Raven approach to success: Build a great defense that keeps scores low, with the offense limited, but careful to produce nine or 10 wins a year.
That almost came to bear in 2009, when the Niners ended the season 8-8 and had one of the league’s best defenses. That D slipped in 2010 due to poor pass coverage.
Nolan’s steerage did include periods when he brought in first-rate players, such as Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis, not to mention Frank Gore and...well, talent isn’t the issue with this squad. Singletary’s approach obviously alienated some players.
The 49ers have become defensive-minded, which runs contrary to their formative years of being offensive innovators. Though it has to be said that the NFL is a defense-first league, the idea that the 49ers are still fun to watch on offense has died.
What made the Walsh teams so interesting is that they played with such precision and elegance that they seemed almost “pretty.”
With that came the notion that the team was “soft,” that it couldn’t stand up to big hits and hard pass rushes, that so-called “hard-nosed football.”
Coach Bill Parcells found the antidote to the West Coast offense in the form of a fierce defense led by Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson. But during the glory years, the Niners had their own defensive stars that weren’t afraid to bring some wood to the party.
Ronnie Lott, for one, was the most prominent, but the line behind him stretched for a long while. Names like Fred Dean, Hacksaw Reynolds, Carlton Williamson, Dana Stubblefield, Kevin Fagan, Bryant Young, Pierce Holt, Keena Turner, Merton Hanks, Tim McDonald, Ken Norton, Gary Plummer and others were more than willing to play with great physicality.
They set the tone that the likes of Patrick Willis and Dashon Goldson and others have to follow. The 49ers are no longer soft.
Subjects of Fawning Fans and Media
Those new to the Bay Area have expressed their surprise at how critical the local media and fans are when it comes to the 49ers. Having been around the country, the Bay Area is not a bastion of bile like Philadelphia, which can be caustic on failing teams and their players.
It is not New York either, whose talk show hosts waver daily from “the end is near” to “greatest team ever” sensibilities when it comes to the Yankees, Mets, Giants and Jets.
The Bay Area is more like Boston—passionate but at least attempting for objectivity in its assessment of the locals. Given that the 49ers are the area’s first team, they tend to get the greatest response.
But not all of it is supportive, and not all is critical. Perhaps it’s the enlightened nature of the region, but here, honesty sells better than spin.
There are so many things to do in the region that spending six hours on a nice Sunday afternoon watching pro ball does not necessarily rank as the No. 1 option for all concerned (compare that outlook to, say, what happens every fall Sunday in Wisconsin).
If the fans feel they are being lied to, they’ll click off and head to the ocean or the mountains or somewhere in between.
In other words, no one is more critical of the 49ers than a disappointed 49er fan.
White Wine and Brie
Raider fans in particular like to make fun of the 49er fans as white wine drinkers. Apparently, fans who favor chardonnay instill a willingness in their heroes to throw short on 3rd-and-long and also prevent anyone in scarlet and gold from making a goal-line stand.
Of course, 49er fans say that their tailgating practices, albeit more cultured than some but not as fervent as those of, say, Packer fans, at least do not include spontaneous MMA exhibitions followed by black and white taxi service to the Alameda County jail.
In fact, former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. noted the rather intense nature that comes over 49er fans during games. After one Monday night game, he was telling reporters that the late starting time gave Niner fans “more time to ferment.”
Having stood on the sidelines during games (albeit two decades ago), I do know that the fans are not shy about letting the players know how they feel, and not all of it is honey and sugar.
In other words, 49er fans have been perceived as passive and almost disinterested, no doubt due to the team’s storied run of success way back when.
Nothing is further from the truth—hence the sellouts despite winning less than one-third of their games in the last eight years.
Ticket prices remain some of the highest in the Bay Area, and the sellouts do come, but not as easily as in years past. That long line of ready-to-buy season ticket holders has decreased. The days of Deep Pockets Eddie D. getting the best free agents to round out the squad are long gone.
The Niners are falling behind financially. Fifteen years ago they were one of the top three most valuable teams in the NFL. According to the 2010 rankings in Forbes magazine, the Niners were worth $925 million, 22nd in the league.
Candlestick Park is more than 50 years old and in need of major work. But that means having to work with the city of San Francisco, and right now the 49ers have said they desire to move south to Santa Clara, where, after building a new stadium, they can reap the benefit of more luxury boxes and thus more revenue to the team’s coffers.
Here’s another way of looking at the situation. The teams that rank above the 49ers, according to Forbes, are the Cowboys, Redskins, Patriots, Giants, Texans, Jets, Eagles, Ravens, Bears, Broncos, Colts, Packers, Panthers, Buccaneers, Browns, Dolphins, Steelers, Titans, Seahawks, Chiefs and Saints.
Of those, only the stadiums for the Dolphins, Chiefs and Saints are older than 20 years old. It’s not just luxury boxes. New stadiums can bring top-notch naming rights, which is how the Texans end up ranked fifth.
This part of the business of pro football is where the 49ers have really lost their polish. When it comes to business, the 49ers are way down in all vital stats.
Nailed Down in the Bay Area
This is a business. Granted, we love our local teams, and the connection is emotional.
On the other side, it’s about TV rights, salaries, ticket prices, merchandise revenue and complex tax write-off schemes to maximize or minimize profit, depending on who wants to see the books.
There’s a new stadium on the books in Los Angeles developed by AEG. It’s expected that two teams will be tenants, a la the Giants and Jets in New Jersey.
There was talk about Minnesota being one of the teams, but recent news suggests that the Vikings are going to get a new stadium to get them out of the Metrodome.
Jacksonville, which ranks last on the Forbes list, has had trouble selling out games despite needing just under 60,000 in ticket sales. The Raiders, second to last on the Forbes list, also have trouble selling out. Of note, both of these teams have old stadiums.
But the NFL’s perspective is that, in light of how well the Giants and Jets share the field but operate in different conferences, who’s to say it wouldn’t want a similar arrangement in Los Angeles?
Right now, I imagine the Raider organization is dying to get out of the staid Oakland Coliseum and into a new stadium. And who is their natural rival in another conference? The 49ers, that’s who.
Though the plans are moving forward in Santa Clara, there's no guarantee yet that a stadium will actually get built. In today's economy, building a stadium that guarantees 10 dates a year for its primary tenant does not look good compared to recent cutbacks in county services. (San Jose, for example, just laid off many police officers.)
Does that mean owner John York and his son Jed uproot the Bay Area’s oldest team? Perhaps not, but if a Larry Ellison of Oracle wants to maximize his profit on a near billion-dollar investment (and who is to say the Yorks wouldn’t sell?), why not move the team to Los Angeles? That could appeal to a deep-pockets owner.
It’s just business.