Two teams with 11 Super Bowl titles between them. Opposite ends of the country. Opposite ends of the football philosophy spectrum. The San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers meet for only the third time this century when they collide at Candlestick Park Monday night.
The Steelers were the team of the '70s, the Niners the team of the '80s. However, while Pittsburgh was able to stay relatively stable, even through some lean times, into the new century, the Niners fell apart, wracked by ownership squabbles off the field and constant change on it.
When the Steelers began a degree of decline, the Rooney family didn't panic, start making wholesale changes, or bring in a new head coach every other week. They stayed patient, the hallmark of the franchise for so many decades. And when Chuck Noll gave way to Bill Cowher, and Bill Cowher gave way to Mike Tomlin, everything stayed on an even keel. If a Kordell Stewart didn't work at QB, they'd try a Tommy Maddox, and get the most out of him while waiting to develop through the draft, which they did with Ben Roethlisberger.
The San Francisco 49ers arc was distinctly in the opposite direction. From the West Coast genius Bill Walsh, through the quiet guidance of George Seifert, the Niners amassed five Lombardi trophies. Players and fans hailed Eddie DeBartolo as the owner's owner, doing everything right and making the Niners a world-class organization. By the late '90s, DeBartolo became involved in legal and political problems that eventually resulted in his having to give up control of the team in 2000 to his sister, Marie York.
What happened from that point on was a slide from the heights to the pits. From 1980-99, the Niners averaged 10.8 wins per season. In the 2000s, only 6.7. The Steelers, meanwhile, were going the other way—8.5 wins per season from 1980-99 and 11.5 wins per season in the new century. The Niners have had five head coaches since 2000, and the instability has been obvious.
As the Steelers come off a wholly expected Super Bowl year, what nobody expected was that the Niners would be where they are now: NFC West champs, headed for the playoffs, all with a first-year coach, (Jim Harbaugh) and a staff that had no offseason to get anything going, plus a QB (Alex Smith) who has worked under more offensive coordinators than he probably cares to remember.
Imagine the problem of completely changing an offensive system as quarterback. You have to learn completely new terms and new plays, and you have to know every assignment on every play. Bay Area fans were ready to ride Smith out of town the past couple of seasons, but he hung in, becoming the second-best QB story of the year behind that guy in Denver whose name escapes me right now.
Speaking of QBs, it probably won't be until game time before we know if Big Ben goes or not. I'm assuming he will just because he's so tough and he's probably chewed off the wounded part by now.
This game has major implications for both teams. Pittsburgh needs to keep winning to gain at least a wild-card berth and the Niners have to get back on the winning track to gain momentum for the playoffs.
If the Steelers defense can keep its footing on the notoriously wet Candlestick track, it can shut down the Niners run game. If it's not Roethlisberger for the Steelers, the Niners job on defense will be made much simpler.
We could go through the list of who is hurt for both teams, but at this time of year it's pretty much safe to say, "Everybody's hurt."
The biggest winners out of this matchup? ESPN. They finally have a Monday night game that has a bit of swagger to it.
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