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Forward to the 49er Past

Sep 9, 2017 at 11:38 AM0

For the past several months the entire 49er organization has sought to waken the echoes of the team's illustrious past, by which they mean not the brief interregnum that Jim Harbaugh wedged into Jed York's otherwise dismal tenure, but, rather, the Bill Walsh era. They have sung the hosannas of bygone personnel decisions, made nice with former players from those storied days, and bowed low before gridiron glories of old. Even when Jed appears on a financial network, CNBC, he never fails to harken back to Super Bowls past.

In all fairness, what else can you do coming off a fourteen-loss season? You certainly want to elide any focus on the rumblin', bumblin', stumblin' miscues of the last three seasons. And, beyond repressing the Harbaugh-exit fiasco, Jed has other demons to dodge, notably his anxiety-of-affluence issues. Not only must he court parental disapproval by paying millions to departed coaches, but he must consider comparisons to his most situationally similar relative, Uncle Eddie, who just went into the NFL Hall of Fame! Luckily, Jed still has the love of the 49er faithful, for whom he can do no wrong, and who, magnanimously, forgive his every foible.

So, in that collegial spirit, let us now play along with Jed, return to Yorkian yesteryear and, if possible, ascertain if his make-the-Niners-great-again dreams have any basis whatsoever in reality. I know, I know, I, too, have grown weary hearing my aunts and uncles brag on and on about the good old days when the 49ers waxed magnificent and even grown men worshipped them. I, too, have listened to older cousins extol old-school 49er virtues, as though they outshone even the holy game of football. And I tell you, I'm sick of it. It makes me feel small, like predecessor prospectors have already claimed the largest nuggets of 49er fandom, leaving for subsequent generations mere golden dust.

Nevertheless, I braved the cobwebs in our attic, dragged out the creaking old trunks, and thumbed through the yellowed pages of ancient sports magazines to learn something about Bill Walsh, and particularly his first few Niner teams, back before, even, they became great, before Bill became known as a genius and co-wrote a book, back when, in short, they struggled. Not unlike today's squad, maybe. Not unlike Jed's indomitable dream, with likewise a young co-owner dizzy on his ancestors' dollars. What might we glean, and what insights might we scrape together to apply to this year's team? How might we assess the Niners' progress, or lack thereof, the next few seasons, using Jed's Walshian lens?

Learning to Lose

Many commentators who know far more than me insist that young teams must "learn how to win." Not Bill Walsh. Rather, he said, you can learn most about a team, and the players on it, by observing how they lose. True, the 49ers may possibly never lose a game, barring preseason, for the next six years. Likely, however, they will, and maybe more than just a few. And as they do, what would Walsh want to see? Obviously, you want to see players play with the same verve and intensity, regardless of the scoreboard. But beyond this, Walsh would want to see players continue to execute with precision, learn the intricacies of their jobs, and improve their fundamentals. We, too, as hardcore faithful, might better serve the cause by focusing more directly on the field while loosening our obsession with the win column. How consistently do defenders maintain gap discipline? How adroitly do blockers utilize footwork to gain leverage? Particularly in Shanahan's offense, how well do backs read the cut-back options and then plant their feet decisively to get upfield? Observing such details can make us more attentive fans.

Roster Roulette

Scads of well-wishers like to pat John Lynch's back over his manipulations during the first round of last spring's NFL draft. Fewer point out how his familiarity bias caused him to get fleeced by Denver a couple days later in the Kapri Biggs trade, nor how sidekick Martin Mayhew's same bias may have generated another dubious trade with Detroit for guard Laken Tomlinson. Likewise, some of Lynch's free agent signings seemed, even at the time, somewhat boneheaded. Curiously, though, I don't think Walsh would mind. First, these maneuvers cost the Niners merely some York money and a couple late-round draft choices. Second, Walsh believed that a team should pursue all available means of rebuilding a depleted roster. Walsh himself supported some clinker draft choices, engaged in some short-lived flirtations with past-their-primers like Hollywood Henderson, and attempted to convert a world-class hurdler, Renaldo Nehemiah, into a wide receiver. When necessity dictates scattershots of quantity to increase odds of adding quality, a fair share of mistakes invariably ensues. So let Lynch/Shanahan flail away, so long as their failures do not become chronic.

Musical Positions

Part way through careers, Ronnie Lott shifted from cornerback to safety, Roger Craig from fullback to halfback, Joe Montana from quarterback to center (just kidding.) Was Jeff Fuller a linebacker who played safety or a safety who played linebacker? These examples, along with the Niners' old elephant position, represent fairly common NFL hybrids. But remember, long before it became popular, the 49ers lined up guard Guy McIntyre in the backfield. And let us not forget Dan Audick, a guard-sized lineman who wound up starting for San Francisco at left tackle. This positional fluidity has become more the norm in the contemporary NFL, but that doesn't mean it's still not worth a try. So, by all means, let's have some healthy arguments about whether Jimmie Ward should play safety or cornerback, and let us scoff at the Niners' designation of Kyle Juszczyk as an "offensive weapon" to justify his exorbitant contract. But these gambits might just work out, and, even if they don't, a bump-along-the-bottom team needs to try something.


Bill Walsh wanted smart players, and sought to fill his roster with them. One can easily underrate the contributions of smart players, because they show up not just in what they do, but in what they don't. Smart teams draw fewer penalties, miss fewer assignments, manage the clock better, ensure that teammates line up correctly, anticipate plays before they happen. Football literates, they read offenses and defenses, understand Xs and Os, and comprehend not only schemes, but the purposes behind them. And they can translate this knowledge to the field. Coaches love them, teammates respect them, and opponents fear them. Incidentally, they can also turn rivals' fans into abject haters; Richard Sherman has this effect on many a 49er fan. So how does one determine what a smart player is? That's a completely different article, but I will say this: based on a small sample size of their interviews, both Pierre Garcon and Earl Mitchell seem like smart players. Kyle Juszczyk attended Harvard. In fact if there exists an unspoken theme to the batch of new players added by the new regime, this may be it: football smarts. (Really, that's not an oxymoron.)


Some, among them former Cincinnati tight end Bob Trumpy, have argued that Bill Walsh's main mentor, Paul Brown, should have appointed Walsh head coach of the Bengals years before Bill assumed the Ninerland helm. But something about Walsh bothered Brown, and may even have intimidated him. Walsh, as do many intelligent people, had an edge to him. While brilliant at designing offenses, Brown feared his erstwhile protégé might not suffer fools lightly enough, and doubted that Bill had the right stuff to become a successful head coach. So Paul Brown passed over Bill Walsh, for Tiger Johnson, a good man who, some said, possessed the common touch. Jed York shares this same predilection for salt-of-the earth guys, which led to his misbegotten hirings of Mike Singletary and Jim Tomsula. If nothing else comes of Jed's nostalgic walk down hallowed halls of 49er yore, this might bode the best: smacked upside the head by a mess of a team, Mr. York abandoned his comfort zone and actually hired a purportedly smart coach.

Whether or not Kyle Shanahan pans out we have yet to see, and of course he still needs a better roster to do so, but he may bring a genuine edge over the competition, the same sort of edge Bill Walsh once brought. Say what you will about Walsh's failings, and Bill regularly reviewed them himself, but you must admit one thing, rose-colored nostalgia aside: The man could design and implement an offense. Kyle Shanahan may bring the team that same severe advantage. And as a side bonus, well-conceived offense, like well-conceived defense, is fun to watch. After the last few years, 49er fans could use, in addition to hope, some joy, even if intermittent, even if in the service of rebuilding seasons, even if in the shadows of 49er legends past.


That's enough. I know my older relatives will regale me with the massive amount of Walshian-era lore I've left out, but it's time to put the trunk back into the attic. And they may well revile me more for the apostasies I speak next. For, while Bill Walsh was an undeniably great coach, he was not a god. Many of the Walshian principles listed above he did not create, but, rather, perfected. For instance, he did not invent the one about positional fluidity; back in the days when players never left the field they switched from offense to defense on every series. And Sammy Baugh could punt like the dickens. Still, perhaps the greatest contemporary tribute to Walsh comes not from Jed's desire to wrap himself inside the mantle of a fairy-tale Bill, but from the very real incorporation of similar principles into their own organizations by contemporary coaches such as Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, and more. They have assayed these nuggets, remolded them, and made them their own. All due respect to elders, but Shanahan/Lynch must do the same. A new generation beckons. They must create their own legacy.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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