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The Niners Simply Make You Believe

Jan 8, 2012 at 12:24 PM

Truth be told, in general, I am not a man of faith.

Wait, wait. Don't panic. I'm not gonna talk about that kind of faith, the kind by which a certain quarterback (hint: his initials are T.T.) has distracted the masses from his own incompetence. I'm talking about a different faith. A faith that is, to some at least, the very essence of being a fan.

I admit, it's not easy to separate fandom and faith. What is fandom, after all, if it isn't relentless belief in your team? Fandom, in its truest sense, originates in childhood, when it's natural to believe in heroes. To a child, a professional athlete is Superman, and Superman just doesn't lose.

My own Superman was Joe Montana. To my nine-year-old eyes, he was everything. Greatness itself, excellence incarnate. But even then, I struggled with faith, and damned if Joe didn't make me pay. You might recall the scenario, getting the ball on our own 11 in the waning moments of the NFC title game, down 6 points to those cretins from Dallas. A more faithful soul might've anticipated the impending miracle, but I myself couldn't bear to watch. Overcome by the likelihood that I was about to see Superman fail, I raced upstairs, in tears, barricading myself in my room. The next thing I remember is the voice of my father, who'd stayed. I understood the words he called through my door, but nevertheless they confused me.

"They scored," he said. My reply was straightforward: "What?!" I raced downstairs and arrived in time to see the extra point go through. I was euphoric but utterly in shock.

Only later did I learn that I'd missed what's still the most famous play in the history of the game. That's a tough thing to come to grips with. But needless to say, I'd learned my lesson. That was the first and last time I ever lost faith in Superman.

As time passed, though, things changed. Superman moved on, and after a glorious second-act, the Niners got very, very bad. For me, at least, faith and fandom diverged completely. I was still a fan, as the team by now was engrafted onto my DNA. But faith? The unwavering belief that the team, if it wasn't a champion, was at least on the way to becoming one?

No. Way too much reality. After the worst decade in franchise history, I was a walking contradiction: a faithless fan, seemingly irretrievably.

Then Jim Harbaugh showed up.

His arrival was so dramatic, so indisputably hopeful, I immediately dubbed him Superman II. Then, of course, the games started, and despite the lesson of 30 years prior, my skepticism reared up again.

It's today's league, and the old rules are dead. Running and stopping the run? Dead. Defense wins championships? Dead. In today's league, passing wins. Great offense beats great defense (and great special-teams). These new rules aren't just general trends. They're essentially immutable laws. We bent 'em through most of the regular year. But to win it all, we'll have to break 'em: again, again, and again.

Forget one-game-at-a-time for a second. As I'm sure you've noticed, unless there's an upset, we'll have to beat New Orleans, Green Bay, and New England. Three Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and three of the greatest offenses ever. Sure, we've got a great defense--though the season finale demonstrated that our secondary's still subject to lapses--and our special teams might be the best of all time. But in today's league, with an offense ranked at 26 (two spots worse than even last year), running this gauntlet seems nearly impossible.

As we've discussed, a philosophical change is required. Our offense has been too conservative; we must take more chances (read: we must throw more passes), especially in the red zone and on third down. In general, though, Harbaugh's got the right idea. He doesn't have a great QB (though he's certainly got a good one), and he doesn't have elite receivers. Without some serious offensive might, getting into a firefight with Brees, Rodgers, or Brady would be certifiably suicidal. We won't beat 'em 38-35, and Harbaugh's right to not even try.

On the other hand, beating 'em 20-to-17 doesn't seem particularly likely either.

Yet this is just where faith comes in.

There's just something about this coach, this team. Not all of our wins were pretty; most of 'em were assuredly not. Yet these guys somehow went 13-and-3. Two of those losses were given away, and one was lost before it was played. Yet it never seemed we were likely to lose. Like a certain hero, somehow we'd win.

The result is simply a sheer belief. It's not an ignorance of the unlikeliness of it all. I know that this will be seriously tough. Yet I just can't shake this feeling we'll do it. If you were to ask me how, I don't think I could give you an answer. I just think that somehow we'll win. I just, simply, believe it.

I feel, in short, like a child again. The comparisons between Harbaugh and Walsh, between this season and the one three decades ago--they've become almost trite. But underneath those superficial similarities, there's something deeper. Something that reaches into an innocence long thought to have vanished. Something that penetrates the usual shields that grown-ups collect: the cynical realism, the hardened skepticism, the refusal to accept what seems inexplicable. And that's what really makes this team special. It doesn't just win. It reminds you of why you became a fan in the first place.

And all it took was the greatest coaching performance since, well, three decades ago. He's made mistakes. At rare points, he's seemed almost lost. He's a human being, and when he needs a nudge, we'll give him a nudge. But humanity aside, he's still our new Superman, every bit the savior we'd hoped. And I won't repeat my youthful mistake. I won't lose faith in Superman.

It's playoff time. And for the first time, in a long time, I'm not just a Niner fan.

I'm a Niner Faithful.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Lucky Phil's "Pep Talk"
    THIS IS OUR TIME, THIS IS OUR TIME, THIS IS OUR PLACE, THIS IS IT you worthless sons of [email protected]! ... Ok, left hand fellas ... Jeff, you know what you have to do. You got to get down and "Tebow It". If every member of Niner Nation grabs another member of Niner Nation and yanks the bejesus out of said member, we can win this game. Who's with me? Haaaaaaaaaaaahhhaaaa.... Haaaaaaahhaaaaaaaa....LeeeeeeeeLuuuuuuuuu....YYYHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAAA!
    Jan 14, 2012 at 10:15 AM
  • mississippininer
    well well jeffy...you are breaking your pessimistic tone and sounding somewhat skeptically optimistic. To be faithful you have believe what you don't see. we all know that the NFL is a copycat league and if our team is not doing what others are doing we somehow say our team is not good. on the contrary, I want to be different. I want our team to be different. join with me as we celebrate the refreshing return of team football not fantasy football. where we don't measure the success of our team by yardage and TD/FG ratios in the redzone but by wins. So Jeff welcome home to the faithful. we've missed you.
    Jan 12, 2012 at 4:49 AM
  • hector
    very nice, just wanna compliment you on your writing. Almost got emotional LOL ;)
    Jan 9, 2012 at 10:21 AM
    Response: There's no shame here, Hector. Go ahead, emote. And thanks for the compliment.
  • Rob
    I understand what you are saying about the Packers. But I compare them more to the Chargers and Dolphins of the 80's. I know they won a Super Bowl but their defense was good last year. If you look at the Stanford teams I think there is always a sense of balance there. And Harbaugh preaches 50-50 run pass. That doesn't mean I think they won't try to improve their explosiveness on offense, I just think they will try to be a complete team, being good at all phases of the game. I don't think the NFL should get to a situation where if a team is only good (even great/spectacular) at one phase of the game be it passing, running, stopping the run, stopping the pass, or special teams, it is enough to win a super bowl.
    Jan 9, 2012 at 9:49 AM
  • Rob
    I like the way you compared the '81 team to this team. It is funny, the '81 team revolutionized the game from more of a run-heavy offensive approach to a short-pass-first/balanced offensive approach. Of course, since then the league has gone completely pass-crazy because of all of the new rules favoring passing. It will be interesting if the 49ers are successful with this new (old) approach of balanced offense and good defense. Perhaps they will re-revolutionize the game back to when Walsh did it in '81.
    Jan 9, 2012 at 8:54 AM
    Response: This might sound weird, Rob, but I hope they don't. The Packers' high-flying offense is the WCO at its highest form, and that's what we should be striving for. Of course, running it would require some offensive upgrades, especially at WR, and I'm sure we'll try to make 'em. Until then, with the personnel we've got now, balance is the right idea (though, again, even our balance should be generally pass-first and more aggressive). But I have "faith" that Harbaugh won't stick with balance and defense as a long-term philosophy. In today's league, that's just not playing the odds.
  • AJ Dembroski
    Jan 9, 2012 at 8:24 AM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    It's good to see "your romantic side," brother.
    Jan 9, 2012 at 7:39 AM
  • joe weigel
    It is our year because we have 53 supermen.
    Jan 8, 2012 at 11:45 PM
  • overthemiddle
    I have always believed defenses win championships. I hope it still holds true. And yes going thru the Saints then the Packers and the Patriots to win the SB would have to be one of the greatest runs to the Lombardi Trophy. Think in these terms: with a break and a couple of calls we could have won the Raven game, we were in it till the end. We should have won the Cowboy and Cardinal games - were we that close to 16-0?
    Jan 8, 2012 at 9:00 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Brady might have something to say about it, but Tebow is talking to God about it. Even though this is a Niner board, people don't give Tebow his due. People need to stop looking at just Tim's passing numbers and look at the running numbers for DEN. They are #1 in the league because of Tebow. The most important trait for a QB is decision making. Tebow is awesome in the option run and improving in the passing game because of his decision making. And if his body is tough enough to withstand the pounding, DEN should be grateful they have him. Have a good week Jeff. And take a minute for a little "Tebowing" before game time. Keep the Faith Niner Fans!
    Jan 8, 2012 at 7:58 PM
  • Ninerdawg
    Good article Jeff, but I disagree with you, when you say we don't have elite receivers. Crabtree may not be elite yet, but he is damn good. He has made some great catches in key situations and on 3rd downs. He doesn't get a lot of yacs because the ball is thrown to him high, or he has to wait on it, it rarely hits him in stride. If Crabtree was playing with 1 of the elite QBs in the league, I really think he would have over a thousand yards, and maybe even be a pro bowler.
    Jan 8, 2012 at 7:12 PM
  • chip
    Tebow doesn't use his Faith to mask his quarterback play. You are sadly being misled.
    Jan 8, 2012 at 5:45 PM
    Response: That's not really what I meant, but this article isn't about Tim Tebow, gang. Though to give credit where it's due, he looked pretty damn competent today.
  • Bronco Boy
    Don't talk s*@# about Tebow.
    Jan 8, 2012 at 5:17 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    LOL, good one. Jeff, I hope you are watching the Bronco game. Because regardless what you say about Tebow, nobody beats Baby Jesus.
    Jan 8, 2012 at 4:33 PM
    Response: Oh, I'd bet that Brady might have something to say about that....
  • Ernie Morrell
    This is one of the best written articles I have read in a long, long time. By the way, I share your faith and passion for the Niners! Go Niners!!
    Jan 8, 2012 at 3:24 PM
  • Ryan
    That last line gave me goosebumps, Jeff. I also believe. #Faithful
    Jan 8, 2012 at 2:00 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    LOL. By the way Jeff, I have another question for you. If Harbaugh is your Superman, what superhero would your Mike Singletary be?
    Jan 8, 2012 at 1:55 PM
    Response: That's easy, Phil. Captain Underpants.
  • The Saint
    Good luck niners... prepare to receive yours. We owe you this spanking from your "cheating the salary cap days". WE DAT!!!
    Jan 8, 2012 at 1:34 PM
  • NinerTico
    Ironic, my Niner Bro...I posted the same thing in NT. Bottom line, great to have ya over here where "faith" drives your POV no matter what or how bad it could be. I saw one day where we would eventually get there...starting with Nolan. I mean, anything's better than Erickson, right? So I was rah rah then with hope... 2006 more than ever. Then, crash...and crash...and oh yeah, crash offensively that made you wonder "why did we deserve this?" Each year, Faith, belief make you tolerate it because you see glimpses of special talent in all of the team, ST, O and D. Just like Patrick Willis preaches in his pre-game huddle, "...believe we can win this game!" That's what it is all about, belief each play, each moment...one on one. Just how much do you want it...for FOUR quarters? I'm tellin' you right now, we will see a 49ers Playoff Team so hungry in their belief they can do it that the world will go "Wow!". You truly can move mountains "figuratively" when you believe. As I asked in my thread, "Do you believe?" The more the merrier! Cheers my Niner Bro to an extraordinary season and to more of the same in years to come!
    Jan 8, 2012 at 1:26 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Another Great One, Jeff. But to truly believe you have to start Tebowing. I'm getting a prayer group together next Saturday and we are going to start "Tebowing Off" one hr. before game time. And in respect to the great one himself we are only gonna use the left hand. Go NIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINERS!
    Jan 8, 2012 at 1:08 PM
    Response: (something approaching genuine alarm)
  • ninerbill
    As a very long-term faithful fan (as a 13 y.o. I went to games at Kezar) - we truly have begun a new era - very refreshing.
    Jan 8, 2012 at 12:53 PM
  • 949
    Great article, Jeff. In my humble opinion, the best that you have ever written here.
    Jan 8, 2012 at 12:48 PM
    Response: Thanks, 9.
  • Monte
    Are you talking about Jim Harbaugh or Alex Smith? I am not trying to be coy but they have both needed each other as we have marched thru this year. Coach has realized the talent of this team, most importantly Andy Lee and Alex... his high throws that everyone is critical of never get intercepted! WIN and TEAM are big and these men exemplify that. Go niners!
    Jan 8, 2012 at 12:41 PM

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