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Fresh off of a heartbreaking loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, it's more than understandable for the moods of 49ers fans to be in the doldrums. And while it's easy to revisit the gaffes of the final 3 plays on their last drive, or look to the team-wide flaws that dug them a hole too deep to climb out of, or blame the referees—what's done is done, and none of that is changing. One way to ease the pain is to look to 2013 and all of the possibilities this team has available to it with a coaching staff that remains in tact, a supremely talented roster, and 14 picks in the draft. But an even easier, and more humbling, way to appreciate the San Francisco 49ers in getting over their Super Bowl blues is to look at just how far this team has come.
Not so long ago (nearly 2 years ago to be exact), this organization was an embarrassing, incompetent laughing stock with seemingly no light at the end of a near decade-long tunnel of futility. The Niners had not garnered more wins than losses in eight consecutive years. The quarterback position was a year-to-year carousel of horrendousness, with Alex Smith taking several spins on that carousel. They had just dismissed their third head coach in that same time span and, along with him, their 8th offensive coordinator—a new one for every single season since Mariucci left in 2002. Their offense and defense were annually ranked in the lower third of the league, and close to dead last several times. The offense was perpetually unwatchable and while the defense's ranking would see an improvement in Singletary's second season, this didn't translate into winning football.
Off the field, the 49ers were equally repugnant. Their front office seemingly had no clue how to run a franchise. General Manager Terry Donahue drafted unarguably the worst draft classes this franchise has ever seen (see Harris, Kwame; Woods, Rashaun; Rumph, Mike). His successor Scot McCloughan consistently whiffed on several picks as well (Kentwan Balmer, Manny Lawson, Chilo Rachal, and Glen Coffee to name a few) despite picking in the top-ten virtually ever year. Sure, he cashed in on Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Michael Crabtree, and a handful of others, but even a broken clock is right twice a day; and I'm sure every single person reading this article would have made those same picks (safe for moving up to grab Staley). I know I would have.
This three-ring circus of a franchise was headed by Dr. John York and his wife Denise, owners who knew close to nothing about football and wanted nothing to do with it. The team was thrown on their doorstep once Eddie D. had to step down, and they treated it like a neglected child. No money was spent in free agency, no progress was made in a new stadium deal, and the 49ers fall from grace dove to deeper depths by the minute.
Basically, the 49ers lost in every possible way for eight straight seasons. They did so in spectacular and, at times, inexplicable fashion. Fans would see the likes of a 2-14 season in which their only two wins came against the dreadful Cardinals—both by a field goal, both in overtime. If that isn't a glorified 0-16 season, I don't know what is. Heck, even the Lions played better football in their winless campaign. Fans would also see Mike Nolan throw his QB Alex Smith under the bus and pace down the sidelines in a ridiculous suit as his team would set new franchise lows weekly.
The final act of this tragedy goes by the name of Singletary. After finishing strong in relief of Nolan during the 2008 season, newly appointed CEO Jed York named him head coach for 2009. This was it—a headstrong head coach who was ready to whip the Niners into shape and create a "bully" of a team in his likeness. 2009 offered a glimmer of hope. The Niners finished 8-8, their first non-losing season since 2002, and swept the division-winning Cardinals. 2010 was poised to be the year it all finally came together for the 49ers. The defense was budding with talent and Alex Smith was playing decently, receiving tutelage under the same coordinator for the first time in his career.
Instead, it was just another punch line in the long-running joke.
After a 31-6 dismantling at the hands of Seattle, the trendy offseason sleeper (keyword: sleeper) 49ers would go on to start 0-5. The offense sputtered miserably, running an archaic scheme that many times would suffer a communication breakdown before getting to the QB (rumors surfaced Jimmy Raye called plays from memory and often confused nomenclature). After a 31-10 loss to the Chiefs, Kansas City players told reporters they were recognizing and calling out the Niners offensive plays before they happened. Candlestick Park rose to its feet weeks later, chanting "WE WANT CARR!" during a loss to Philadelphia. And yet, despite all of this, the bumbling 49ers were still in the NFC West (Worst) playoff race heading into Week 16 against St. Louis. Sure, the team would get smoked in the playoffs, but fans were starving for postseason play and would settle for it any way they could get it. Sure enough, all hope was dashed as the Niners fell flat to a lowly Rams team 25-17. Singletary was fired and Jim Tomsula took over for the final game of the year.
After a highly publicized pursuit, the 49ers successfully managed to nab Stanford coaching visionary, Jim Harbaugh. The acquisition seemed like the first step toward climbing back to respectability, and looking back on it now…boy, was it ever.
Consider this mind-blowing statistical analysis:
|Year Span||Total # of Seasons||Total # of Wins||Total # of Wins Against Above .500 Teams||Avg. # of Wins Against Above .500 Teams||Total # of Wins Against Teams 10-6 or Better|
|2003-2010||8||46||10||1.25 per season||5|
|2011-2012||2||27||11||5.5 per season||9|
So from '03-'10, the Niners managed only 46 total wins
- Of those 46 wins, only 10 came against winning teams
(An average of 1.25 wins a season against winning teams)
- Of those 10 victories against winning teams, 5 were against teams with pedestrian 9-7 records and 2 of those 9-7 teams didn't even make the playoffs (Broncos in '06, Jets in '08)
- '04 and '10 yielded no wins against above .500 teams, while '05,'07,'08 yielded only one respectively
From '11-'12 under Harbaugh, the Niners notched 27 total wins (includes their 3 playoff wins)
- That's more than half of their total during an 8-year span, and 2 more victories than they could muster during 5 combined seasons (2004-2008).
- Of those 27 total wins, 11 came against winning teams
(An average of 5.5 wins a season against winning teams)
- Of those 11 victories against winning teams, 9 were against teams with records of 10-6 or better. Only 2 came against teams with a record of 9-7 and one of those teams was the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants in 2011
So the more remarkably awful aspect of those limited wins from the dark ages, as I like to call them, is when you take into consideration how many of those wins came against winning teams. The 49ers virtually never won upset games or garnered "quality" wins.
Meanwhile, the 2011 and 2012 49ers have already won more games against winning teams than the '03-'10 teams did in a quarter of the time. They've beaten the likes of the Giants, the Steelers, the Packers (twice), the Patriots (handing them their first home loss in December in a decade), the all-of-a-sudden powerful Seahawks, the Saints, the Bears, the Falcons, and despite beating themselves (with further help from the officiating crew) came within 5 yards of a sixth franchise Super Bowl title versus the Ravens.
GM Trent Baalke has been a guru of free agency and the draft since taking over in 2010—signing key veterans like Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss; and drafting Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Kendall Hunter, Colin Kaepernick, Bruce Miller, and more. Miller, a 7th round defensive end, was converted to a fine starting fullback in his rookie season, under a rookie head coach, in a locked-out offseason. That alone is a ridiculous feat.
As for Harbaugh, you can't say enough about him and his staff. Sure, Roman and Fangio come under fire now and then; but even detractors can agree that this staff has done an excellent job as a whole, especially when using their predecessors as a comparator. Fangio's defense, despite falling apart at the end of the 2012 season and postseason, was ranked as a top-2 defense in his first two years. Roman's offense has progressed tremendously from year-one to year-two and, under Kaepernick, has become a downright dangerous unit with sky-high potential.
Sure, there's always going to be the argument of: "The past is the past, once you get there you have to seize the moment". And that argument is certainly a valid one—and it's one that I can empathize with. But many people said the same thing after last year's championship game loss—that they blew their chance, that next year's schedule would be harder, that they wouldn't sneak up on anybody, that teams would "figure them out". Sure enough, the Niners one-upped their 2011 campaign and got all the way to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years.
So fans who are still in the throes of despair should take a quick walk down memory lane, as I recalled in grotesque detail in this article. Just the fact that fans and pundits expect greatness from the San Francisco 49ers is a huge testament to the turnaround Harbaugh and company have commandeered. The future is bright and wide open for this young Niners team. A dynamic new quarterback, a defense that should return to form, a coaching staff that refuses to accept anything less than perfection, and an offseason of loading up more talent can only mean good things for the 49ers. Beyond the X's and O's, the Niners have a passionate, young-gun CEO in Jed York, who is a year away from opening a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium (albeit it in Santa Clara).
So buck up Faithful—the 49ers are back, and (in the paraphrased words of Karen Carpenter)… they've only just begun.