By the turn of the millennium, the San Francisco 49ers had gotten used to dominating decades. In the 1980s, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, the Niners had won four Super Bowls. In the '90s, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, the Niners had set a record for wins in a decade--since broken in the '00s by the Colts--and added a fifth Super Bowl title. Put those decades together, and you've got the longest run of sustained excellence in the history of professional sports.
Alas, as the world was celebrating the dawn of a new age, the Niners were grieving for the death of their dynasty. With a final shot to the head, Young's career had come to a sudden end, and he was replaced by Jeff Garcia, a scrawny unknown. More ominously, Eddie DeBartolo, the managing owner whose passion and spending were the catalysts for those years of glory, had been exiled in the wake of a bribery scandal, and he was replaced by his brother-in-law, John York, who reportedly was far more interested in making a buck than in winning a title.
After those decades of dominance, the '00s were looking to exact a little revenge.
And in brutal fashion, that's exactly what they did.
Oh, we didn't surrender, at least initially. Indeed, as bleak as things looked going into the decade, we found immediate hope, a reason to believe we might keep it all going. Under the tutelage of head coach and notorious quarterback-wrangler Steve Mariucci, Garcia came out of nowhere to be one of the league's best. Brilliantly executing Marty Mornhinweg's third-generation West Coast Offense, Garcia grabbed the Niners' quarterbacking legacy and promptly beat it into submission. For nearly 20 years, either Montana or Young was the Niners' top guy. And in his very first year in that pressurized role, Garcia threw for more yards in a season (4,278, along with 31 touchdowns) than either of those legends ever did. On the receiving end for 1,451 of those yards and 13 of those scores was Terrell Owens, who was entrenched as the league's most dominant (if mercurial) wideout. Add in the 1,142 yards gained by running back Charlie Garner, who greatly outperformed his status as a desperate replacement, and the Niners emerged with the league's fourth-best offense. Granted, that shocking success was undermined by a 29th-ranked D that was still in tatters from the salary-cap purges of the late '90s, and we finished a lowly 6 and 10. But there was no doubt in our minds. The football fates might've been trying to send us into oblivion, but the fates were in for some disappointment. After a stunningly quick rebuilding process, we'd be back.
And we WERE back, even more quickly than that. In 2001, we announced our return, in thrilling fashion. Despite losing Mornhinweg, the offense didn't miss a beat, with Garcia throwing for 3,538 yards and 32 scores, Owens catching for 1,412 and 16, and Garrison Hearst once again proving his indomitable will by returning to run for 1,206. But this year, taking advantage of a long-overdue infusion of young talent, the defense made a huge jump, all the way to 13th. At 12 and 4, we were one of the bigger surprises in the NFL, but the record didn't do justice to a season where seemingly everything went right. Sure, there were suffocating blowouts, such as our late-season beatings of Buffalo, Miami, and New Orleans by a combined score of 94 to nothing. But just as spectacular were our breathtaking escapes, such as our three wins in overtime, including one that featured a touchdown (naturally on a pass from Garcia to Owens) and a two-point conversion with one second left on the fourth-quarter clock.
We were back, all right. Unfortunately, though, in the same division as the "Greatest Show" Rams, 12 wins were good enough for only a wild-card spot, and to make matters worse, we were shipped to Green Bay, where Brett Favre was waiting with that special heartbreak he seems to reserve only for us.
Still, there was no reason to think the '00s would be any different from the '80s and '90s.
In '02, though, things began to change. Though both went to the Pro Bowl for the third straight year, Garcia's efficiency and explosiveness seemed to drop, and Owens was more and more of a clubhouse distraction. Still, the Rams faded out, allowing us to win the division for the first time in five years. And that achievement was followed by a game that sits comfortably in Niners lore alongside anything produced in the dynasty years. Down 38-14 in the third quarter against the Giants, the Niners scored the game's last 25 points to finish off the second-greatest comeback in postseason history. With nothing left for the eventual champion Bucs the next week, that game stands as the highpoint of a decade that was about to see us completely collapse.
You've gotta pity Steve Mariucci. All he'd done was go from six wins to a division title in only two years, and it seemed like everyone wanted him fired. York thought Mariucci was negotiating with Notre Dame and the Buccaneers to try to pry a contract extension out of York. (It didn't help that Mariucci had been hired by Eddie, whom York evidently despised.) General manager Terry Donahue thought Mariucci was after the GM's authority. (An odd concern, since Donahue's primary interest in the job appeared to be its liberal vacation schedule.) And bunches of vocal fans, not yet knowing what REAL suffering was, were disgusted by Mariucci's so-called lack of "killer instinct," most recently exhibited in the playoff loss, when--much to Owens' visible displeasure--the coach elected to run out the first-half clock after his offense had just shown its first sign of life.
So Mariucci was fired. But given what was to come, maybe he doesn't need pity at all.
Donahue appeared to have no one in mind. After an uninspiring process involving uninspiring coaches, Donahue set his sights on his old stomping grounds--the Pac-10--and brought in Dennis Erickson. While certainly a surprise, Erickson at least had a record of success, and his promise of a more aggressive offense with a more vertical passing game was music to the ears of the fans who'd demanded Mariucci's demise. But those plans never even got off the ground; Garcia injured his back on the eve of training camp, and he endured just a miserable season. Despite starting off with a delightful pasting of the Bears, we heartlessly finished at seven and nine, the first in a streak of non-winning years that continues to this very day.
The "Donahue purge," at the end of '03, is where the bottom dropped out. With the Niners a seemingly permanent resident of salary-cap hell, Donahue devised a bold (and very risky) plan. He'd get rid of almost every bit of his veteran talent, he'd replace it with young guys, and by the time those young guys developed, he'd have himself a healthy team both on the field and in the wallet. He warned us it wouldn't be pretty--he used the phrase "taking our medicine"--but he assured us the plan was in place.
The timing seemed right. Garcia looked to be on his last legs, and despite a couple of nice years in Tampa he hardly went on to rejoin the elite. Owens was totally unmanageable, and he went on to prove it at two other stops. Hearst as well was winding down, and one year later he was out of the league. So no, it wasn't that Donahue blew it by shedding all his veteran talent. He blew it with his young guys, who largely had no talent at all.
Donahue had been handpicked by Bill Walsh himself. The great architect of the Niners' dynasty, in his second tour as the team's GM, supposedly taught Donahue everything he knew about building a franchise through shrewd player evaluation. (Of course, his second tour showed he wasn't nearly as shrewd as he'd been in his first.) But whereas Walsh's brilliant drafting was what got us off the ground, Donahue's utter incompetence was what drove us back into it.
The 2002 draft was the first with Donahue fully in charge, and it ranks among the worst drafts ever, certainly by the Niners, perhaps by anyone else. Corner Mike Rumph, who famously didn't allow a touchdown pass in his entire career at Miami, looked as a pro like he'd never played the game before, and he was out of the league in five years. Linebacker Saleem Rasheed, whose religion forced him to go part of the season without eating, was out of the league in FOUR years. And so it went: kicker Jeff Chandler, retired in three years; safety Kevin Curtis, injured and gone immediately; quarterback Brandon Doman, retired in three years; and DT Josh Shaw and tight end Mark Anelli, off the team by '04. Finally in the seventh round, Donahue backed into versatile offensive lineman Eric Heitmann, who became one of the Niners' best players of the decade and is still going strong today. A bit late for a draft to yield a good pick, though, and a total disaster for a team on the brink of a youth movement.
With that draft and two more going into '04--and with Donahue's other first-rounders, OT Kwame Harris and receiver Rashaun Woods, joining Mike Rumph in a stunning trifecta of busts--the stage was set for a collapse of epic proportions. The '04 Niners were easily the worst since before Walsh arrived and are somewhere among the worst teams of all time. Splitting quarterback starts between fringe players Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey, we ranked 30th in points, 32nd in points allowed, and we were the first team ever to go winless in regulation in a 16-game season. Save for two overtime field goals, both for some reason against Arizona, we'd have beaten Detroit to historic perfection.
Proving he had some semblance of conscience, John York stepped up and fired Donahue and Erickson, putting a serious dent in his image as a tightfisted cheapskate. But the damage had been done. Two years after firing Mariucci in the wake of a division title, the Niners were reduced to the level of an expansion team. And if the history of expansion teams indicated anything, the road back this time would NOT be quick.
In many ways, Mike Nolan was York's perfect choice. As the coordinator of the Ravens' famous defense, Nolan was certainly a hot commodity. But also, his father, Dick Nolan, was a successful Niners coach in the '70s, before DeBartolo came along. This allowed York to have it both ways. He could tap into the Niners' history, and thus show his respect for it, without tapping into EDDIE'S history, which despite its success he didn't seem to respect at all. And so Mike Nolan as coach, with Scot McCloughan his handpicked personnel guru, was chosen to lead us out of the darkness.
Nolan didn't have long to wait before he'd face his defining decision. The consolation prize for the Niners' miserable '04 season was the very first pick in the '05 draft. The top pick is usually spent on a franchise quarterback, which we desperately needed. But in keeping with the Niners' dwindling luck, it was doubtful that any was there to be had. Carson Palmer was a can't-miss in '03; so was Eli Manning in '04. In '05, though, there was no such choice. Nolan was willing to trade the pick, but no one even made him an offer. He had nowhere to go. His only choice was to take a risk.
The only two viable contenders were Utah's Alex Smith and Cal's Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers perhaps was the safer choice; his arm was stronger, and having played in a pro-style offense in college, he was better prepared to make a quick impact. (Although Smith was a Heisman finalist after leading the Utes to an undefeated season, he played in an option offense, almost entirely out of the shotgun.) But Nolan was drawn to Smith, praising his work ethic, leadership, and intellect. Nolan also was impressed by how Smith handled a rigorous workout administered by offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, and he went so far as to note "little things" like how Smith called his mother "ma'am."
So Nolan chose Smith, saying the decision was easy in the end. As if to validate it, Rodgers dropped to the 24th pick, where the Packers chose him to be Favre's apprentice. Ironically, after the '05 season, McCarthy would become Rodgers' coach in Green Bay, and in '09, starting for only the second year, Rodgers would go to the Pro Bowl.
The road for Smith wouldn't be nearly as smooth.
Not surprisingly, the '05 Niners were bad. Indeed, in one respect we were even worse than '04, as BOTH our offense and defense ranked last. But since Smith had no Favre he could learn from by watching, Nolan decided he'd play. He made seven starts in nine games, and like any rookie on a struggling team, he struggled mightily. He threw only 1 touchdown pass and 11 interceptions, while suffering 29 sacks.
Still, the Niners won their last two games to finish at 4 and 12, and Smith played well in both those wins. We also found a potential star in another rookie, rusher Frank Gore, who broke a hundred yards in the finale.
There'd clearly be no miracle rise, but still we could make out the first signs of hope.
After McCarthy took off for Green Bay, Nolan got lucky. Norv Turner was a lousy head coach, but he was still the same offensive coordinator who'd led the Cowboys to two titles in the '90s. So when the Raiders fired him, Nolan wisely snapped him up. Although the Niners' O, like their D, moved up to rank just 26th, their actual improvement was much more dramatic. Taking every snap, Smith threw for 16 scores and nearly doubled his passer rating. Meanwhile, Gore rushed for a franchise-record 1,695 yards, making the Pro Bowl. There were certainly some lows in '06, such as a 41-nothing pasting in Kansas City and the Chicago game where the Bears led by that score at HALFTIME. But in their last three games, the Niners delivered two stirring wins, in Seattle and Denver. After the finale, which cost the Broncos a playoff spot and raised our record to seven and nine, the locker-room spirit was simply euphoric. We were onto something, and everyone knew it.
And out of the blue, we found ourselves a dark-horse contender. One writer went so far as to forecast a Super Bowl berth. But just as we were almost out of the abyss, the fates made sure to drive us back down.
The Chargers finished '06 with the league's best record. They lost their first playoff game with a dreadful showing against the Patriots, but this was clearly a powerhouse that'd be a contender for years to come. That's why it was so surprising when they fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer. The move was shocking not only because of the Chargers' success, but also because of its timing, in the middle of February when everyone thought the annual coaching carousel had come to a stop. Apparently Schottenheimer and GM A.J. Smith had been trying to work out their mutual differences but couldn't come up with a fix. Someone had to go, and the lower man went. So Smith began to look for a coach, a guy he knew better, a friend. And he found one, in Norv Turner.
The Niners had breathed a collective sigh of relief when Turner had failed to land the Cowboys' head-coaching job earlier in the offseason. Frankly we were surprised he was even a candidate, given his failures in D.C. and Oakland. But we knew how important he was to our rise, and we didn't like other teams sniffing around. In the '00s, though, the Niners only had so much luck. We dodged the Cowboys, but not San Diego, and Turner was gone just as quick as he'd come. (And despite those prior failures, he'd go on to be USA Today's '09 Coach of the Year.)
To make matters worse, it was too late for Nolan to hire a proven replacement, so he turned to his quarterbacks coach, Jim Hostler. Hostler promised an offensive scheme that'd combine elements of Turner's "digit" system and McCarthy's West Coast, which didn't intuitively seem too compatible. But no matter how sound was his abstract design, it couldn't survive his gameday playcalling, which lacked any semblance of creativity or aggression. The offense sank to astonishing depths, ranking last in total yards, last in passing yards, last in yards per play, last in first downs, and, naturally, last in points.
Alex Smith, meanwhile, was completely derailed. In week four, he separated his throwing shoulder, tearing three ligaments. After holding him out for only three weeks, Nolan put him back in for three more. During those games, all losses, it was glaringly obvious Smith wasn't right. When he came out and said so, Nolan responded by doubting his toughness. But tough or no, he was certainly hurt; as the Niners limped to a demoralizing record of 5 and 11, Smith had surgery to repair the torn ligaments. Then, in trying to prepare for the season to come, he mysteriously broke a bone in the same shoulder and wound up missing the entire year.
Smith wouldn't play again until the middle of '09. And by then, Nolan would be long gone.
Once again, the team was in ruins. Naturally, Hostler was fired. Nolan too seemed a dead man walking, but York decided to delay the inevitable; instead of firing Nolan, York promoted McCloughan to general manager, putting McCloughan above the man who'd hired him. Given his last chance, and desperate to bring in a proven offensive coordinator, Nolan elected to hire Mike Martz, late of Detroit. Known as a genius when he ran the O for those "Greatest Show" Rams, Martz was now known as a bit of a madman, continuing to rely almost exclusively on the vertical pass even on teams that were poorly equipped. But Nolan, indeed, was desperate.
The first thing Martz wanted was insurance at quarterback. So when he arrived, he had the Niners go back to Detroit, for J.T. O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan had barely played since joining the league in 2002, but at least he'd studied Martz's playbook. And when Smith went down again, we had our new starter.
With a great quarterback, Martz's O is explosive and dynamic. Without one, it's a turnover waiting to happen, and it was quickly obvious O'Sullivan wasn't great. When he was finally benched halfway through '08, he led the league in both picks and fumbles, with 11 each. In the meantime, though, with his team two and five and going nowhere fast, the ax for Nolan finally fell.
In a way, Nolan's firing was a surprise. The firing itself wasn't surprising, of course. What was surprising instead was the man who announced it. It wasn't John York, and it wasn't McCloughan. It was our new managing owner: Jed York, John's son.
Jed was young, only 27. But he grew up amid the Niners in their glory, and unlike his father, he made no secret of his fan-like obsession with seeing the Niners return to the top. In announcing Nolan's firing, he offered a reassuring promise: "I won't rest until we reestablish a championship culture." We couldn't help but see shades of Eddie, though it remains to be seen whether Jed is more DeBartolo, or more York.
Of course, first he needed an interim coach. Though he had an experienced one in Martz, he was more intrigued by a DIFFERENT member of Nolan's staff. Nolan's right-hand man, Mike Singletary.
Singletary had never been a head coach at any level, but he was considered a rising star, largely because he had the same reputation he'd had as a Hall of Fame player: an intense, fiery motivator. And he didn't wait long to show his reputation was richly deserved. During his first game, a loss to Seattle, he banished tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room, punishing him for his "T.O." demeanor. After the game, the coach delivered a booming sermon, thundering "I want winners!," the first of many such phrases fit to be printed on billboards and T-shirts. For a team that had long been without an identity, Singletary was an immediate solution.
Importantly, though, he didn't just talk. He reined in Martz, looking to win with defense and ball-control, like his old Bears teams did. And to execute that scheme, he replaced O'Sullivan, whose "J.T." had come to stand for "Just Turnovers," with Shaun Hill. Like O'Sullivan, Hill had entered the league in '02 and had barely played, though he'd won a couple of late starts for the Niners in '07. His arm seemed to be strictly backup, but he'd play with guts, protect the ball, and make his new coach look exceedingly smart. With Hill throwing for 13 scores and a rating near 90, and a D that returned to the league's top half, the Niners won five of their last seven games. After the finale, Jed made the seemingly obvious choice. In a euphoric locker room, he took off Singletary's "interim" tag and vowed that we'd missed the playoffs for "the last time." The players exploded with joy, and once again it seemed like we were on the brink of greatness.
Philosophically, Singletary and Martz were like oil and water, so Martz was out, and Singletary went looking for the Niners' seventh offensive coordinator in seven years. The problem was, though Martz's ultra-aggressiveness was out of step with conventional wisdom, so was Singletary's ultra-conservativeness. In a pass-first league, Singletary was a run-first coach, and this made his search look haphazard and strange. He offered the job to Scott Linehan, late of the Rams, but Linehan turned him down, choosing instead the same job with the Lions, who'd gone oh and 16 in 2008. Linehan publicly said he made his decision because of his family's midwest location, but it was widely reported he wasn't excited by Singletary's old-school offensive approach. Singletary went on to consider six others, including Dan Reeves, who'd executed a run-first offense despite having John Elway at quarterback, and who'd been out of the league since 2003. Finally, he settled on an EIGHTH choice, Jimmy Raye. In more than 30 years of coaching, Raye had coordinated 12 offenses, including two for Turner's Raiders. Only one had ranked in the top 10: the 2000 Chiefs, who threw for more than 4,000 yards. So Raye wasn't strictly a run-first guy. For Singletary, though, he was willing to be.
The Niners added to the offensive weirdness by chasing Kurt Warner, who might've been a perfect fit under his old coach Martz, but made considerably less sense after Martz had been fired. Eventually, the quarterback job stayed with Hill, and the Niners won three of their first four games, with the only loss a Brett Favre last-second special. But the Niners' offense was certifiably prehistoric. Time and again, Gore was sent into stacked boxes on first and second downs, setting up third-and-longs that we failed to convert. Finally, after the O was just atrocious in the first half of game six, Singletary made the move to bring back Alex Smith. From then on, the season was marked by offensive schizophrenia. In his debut, Smith ran a shotgun spread like the one he'd run in college, and he was brilliant, throwing for three scores and more than 200 yards in a single half. In subsequent weeks, the spread made token appearances with similar results, but Singletary refused to budge from run-first as his primary scheme. Refused, that is, until players began to complain to the press, at which point he finally gave in. By then, though, the losses had mounted. Despite Jed's promise and Singletary's passion, there'd be no playoffs, yet again.
The Niners won their last two games to finish at eight and eight, and befitting that record, nobody's sure which direction they're going. On the bright side, we've finally got a playoff-worthy D, led by Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, easily the best of a largely subpar decade of drafts. On the offensive side, there's plenty of skill; Davis matured into a Pro Bowl tight end who tied a record with 13 scores, wideout Michael Crabtree missed five games in a wacky holdout but still was one of the league's top rookies, and Gore became the first Niner rusher to top a thousand yards in four straight years. But it remains to be seen whether Singletary and Raye are creative enough to give that talent its fullest effect, and whether McCloughan is able to fill the holes--particularly on the offensive line--that continue to riddle the roster. If only for the sake of continuity, all three will be back.
Most of the doubt, though, is still where it was for the decade's last half: square on the shoulders of Alex Smith. He had his best season in 2009, with 18 scores and an 82 rating, and he played well enough to go into the '10s as the man we'd presume as our starter. But it wasn't enough to spare us the doubt we've been dealing with since he was drafted.
The '00s exacted revenge, all right. In the '80s and '90s, we lost 94 games. In the '00s alone, we lost 92. We've been tested, of course, but we haven't quit. We're Niner fans, and we won't ever quit.
Here's to a much better decade to come.