In theory, of course, this was no big deal.
For weeks now, the NFC West had been in the bag. It still was one of the league's worst divisions, and the Rams were one of the league's worst teams. So we beat the Rams, and we clinched the division, along with the playoffs. No surprise, and according to Jed York, nothing that's worthy of hullabaloo. "Sometimes celebrating this early isn't always a good thing," he warned. "We haven't won anything yet. ... You have to keep your head down and keep working, or else this doesn't mean anything."
Naturally, I commend Jed for his refusal to be satisfied. Winning the West isn't much of an achievement, especially for this franchise. Even for this season, despite eight years of misery, the bar already was set much higher.
Yet I can't help but think that Jed overdid the whole "eyes on the prize" thing. This is a cause for true celebration. Not so much for what it is--the championship of a crummy division--as for the greater achievement that it represents.
The 49ers' official rebirth.
First let's dispense with this notion that the crumminess of our division is itself a source of diminishment. As a certain writer once explained: "The crumminess of this division should be celebrated, not begrudged. After all, in our glory years, that crumminess was one of our most underrated boons. Remember when the NFC 'West' contained the Rams, Falcons, and Saints, all of whom stunk to high heaven? In the 14 years of our Super Bowl dynasty, the Rams were .500 or worse 8 times, the Saints 9 times, and the Falcons an astounding 12 times. Our own teams were pretty good, of course, but let's face it. Winning at least 10 games every one of those years--except the year in which fewer than 10 games were played--was a whole lot easier when we played 6 a year with the dregs of the league.
We didn't apologize for it then. And we shouldn't apologize for it now."
It's funny. I wrote that more than two years ago, after a shutout win against the Rams gave us what looked like an early stranglehold on the division. I guess I jumped the gun there. But the point was valid enough. Our rebirth isn't minimized by the crumminess of our division; our rebirth is confirmed by the fact that we dominate it.
And yet, really, that's just the beginning.
Earlier in the week, with exquisite timing, the Niners announced that they had secured the funding they needed for their own billion-dollar amusement park in Santa Clara. It goes without saying that the now-inevitable move to the south is more than just a tad controversial. Though no one would seriously contend that the Yorks' move is akin to, say, Art Modell's, it's undeniably a little sad. (Given the mind-blowing numbers involved, it's also likely a little risky, but I'll leave such details to politicians and economists.) The crucial facts, however, are these. The Niners desperately need a new building, and they've needed it for decades; the Yorks gave San Francisco a fair chance, if not an exclusive one, to get its act together; and they showed an uncommon commitment to the Bay Area, when they had every right to go somewhere else. (They might've been hunted down like dogs, but they still had the right.) And thus, with this announcement, those publicity stills look like more than science-fiction. They look, instead, like home, at last.
In the same week that Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh delivered a playoff berth--which promises to be the first of many--the Yorks delivered a Bay Area stadium worthy of one of the league's crown jewels.
That's a good week. A week that's worthy of true celebration.
And the milestones didn't even stop there. As if the mood wasn't effusive enough, Frank Gore became the Niners' all-time rushing leader. It's somewhat odd that a representative of such an otherwise dismal era would achieve such a prominent status, but then again, those years of losing only enhance Gore's achievement. Despite his two reconstructed ACLs--and despite picking up various other injuries while being driven into the ground--he's given his maximum effort on each and every single rush. And even as he was running repeatedly into a wall of humanity, he never bitched, never complained. He merely asked for the ball again, trusting that one day he'd play for a winner.
Harbaugh's statue might be a bit much. These statues now have become almost trite, and in any event, the Niners should bronze a dozen guys before they get around to Gore. But there's no denying it: of those who deserve to celebrate this playoff berth, Gore is at the top of the list.
On the other hand, maybe he's second.
Many observers have settled on Alex Smith as our QB of the future. I myself am not quite there, though it was awfully tempting to go all-in when he joined the festivities by putting up a career-best passer rating, with two perfect touchdown bombs (one of which, alas, was dropped). But the bigger point is this. Despite the eternal debate about Smith's abilities, no one can question the man's resilience. Through insult and injury--indeed, through public vilification expressly directed at his destruction--he simply refused to ever give in. He easily could've joined the list of first-round burnouts who've drifted into obscurity, but instead he did what so many of us would hope we could summon the power to do. In the face of a seemingly endless struggle...he just kept going.
No matter what Smith's future holds, he deserves this playoff chance. And he deserves to celebrate it.
And so, of course, do we.
Talk about resilience. Niner fans have been through so much. Okay, maybe we were spoiled by those trips to the playoffs, year after year. But these last eight years, of hopes raised and hopes dashed, have just been torture. Each one a mocking reminder of our winning past, which seemed to be fading into oblivion.
We got restless, of course, and maybe even a little snippy. But we never quit. We stuck it out, holding out hope that we'd retake our place on the postseason stage, not just once but perennially. Hope that we'd be, indeed, reborn.
That rebirth is official now. By all means, guys: Keep your heads down. Keep working. (And please, get in the end zone a little more often.)
But forgive us, Jed, for celebrating early.