Rebuilding a Dynasty in San Francisco

Joe Scaringi
July 17, 2009

The last time the San Francisco 49ers appeared in the post-season, they achieved the second-greatest comeback in team playoff history. The club rallied behind quarterback Jeff Garcia to overcome a daunting 24-point deficit and squeaked out a breathtaking 39-38 victory over the New York Giants.

Unfortunately, this feat took place in 2002, a depressingly lengthy seven seasons ago. For the city of San Francisco, such an extensive playoff drought simply will not do.

Rewinding the clock three decades will take us back to the 1980s and the days of glory for San Francisco’s beloved 49ers. With future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana at their disposal, the Niners were headed by Bill Walsh and his famous West Coast Offence. Utilizing this strategic game of short passing, Walsh was able to muster a championship squad with Montana’s passing game compensating for an extremely mediocre running game.

In 1981, the 49ers found themselves in the NFC Championship with the Dallas Cowboys, a game that featured one of the most memorable moments in NFL history. Down by six with less than a minute to play, a third-and-three play on the Cowboys six saw Dallas collapse on San Fran’s offensive line. The play call, known as “Sprint Right Option,” called for Montana to find receiver Freddie Solomon in the end zone. But with Solomon covered and two Cowboys stalking him, it seemed an inevitability that the scrambling quarterback was either to be sacked or forced out of bounds. Montana however, pump-faked to narrowly escape the pressure and sent a high pass toward Dwight Clark in the end zone. “The Catch” as it came to be known, saw Clark soar into the air, making an incredible grab and tying the game at 27. The extra point would give San Francisco the win and the team’s first ever Super Bowl appearance. The Niners would make good on their opportunity, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 and providing the city of San Francisco its first NFL championship.

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The 49ers would continue their dominance throughout the 1980s, capturing Super Bowl championships in 1984, 1988 and 1989. The 1989 club has been regarded as one of the most dominant teams ever, destroying the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIX by a score of 55-10 – an NFL record for points scored in a Super Bowl as well as widest margin of victory. They won their three playoff contests by a combined score of 126-26 – domination to say the least.

With a well-established one-two tandem of quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice, the team captured a record fifth Super Bowl in the 1994 season, defeating the San Diego Chargers 49-26. They would qualify for the playoffs in the next four seasons, although fail to make it back to the Super Bowl.

Then in 1999, the dynasty began to unravel.

Four games into the 1999 season, MVP quarterback Steve Young was sidelined and would not return to action, eventually opting to retire. The team finished the season with a disastrous 4-12 record and the glory days were officially over.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia was able to bring some magic back to the team in the 2001-2002 season; however, this enchantment was short-lived, as a playoff loss to eventual Super Bowl winners, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sent the 49ers packing.

The team then parted ways with Garcia, as well as flamboyant receiver Terrell Owens, and dynasty quickly became disaster. Injuries, coaching changes and little depth anywhere on the roster helped San Francisco set up shop in the bowels of the NFC West. The team has not found the post-season since.

In 2006, running back Frank Gore was named as a starter and would set a franchise record with 1,695 yards rushing. While Gore was without question a bright spot on a weak offensive line, the Niners were just too frail in most other areas. In the years following, “Gore up the gut” became a play-call that was all too common.

The 2008 season saw a drastic change in administration, as head coach Mike Nolan was fired mid-season, and assistant Mike Singletary was named his successor. Singletary’s second game as head coach was a Monday night match-up against division rival Arizona; a Week 10 game of profound significance as the 49ers narrowly trailed in the standings.

For many years the NFC West has been the laughing stock of the NFL, with the Seattle Seahawks usually the division’s landslide winner. In 2009 however, the Seahawks were just as weak as the others and therefore the division was up for grabs. Just like when two people are being chased by a wild dog, they both needn’t outrun the dog, rather simply the other person. Ergo, whichever team mustered a better record than the three other squads would find themselves with a ticket to the post-season.

Down by five with 1:06 to play in this fateful game, the 49ers marched down field, eventually landing on the Arizona one. With 20 seconds on the clock, Frank Gore was handed the ball and he’d charge wide left with nothing in his path but end zone. However, Cardinal Chike Okeafor was able to graze his hand on Gore’s back, causing him to lose just enough balance to fall over his own two feet prior to hitting pay-dirt.

Oh Chike Okeafor, how maddening is thou touch?

Had Okeafor not grazed Gore’s back, the San Fran running back would have marched into the end zone and given his team a 31-29 victory. Had that been the case, the Cardinals and 49ers would have finished the season with identical 8-8 records. That would have taken them to tie-breakers, where a mathematician is usually needed to figure out the NFL’s complex formula.

The point to be made is that the Cardinals, with their less-than-stellar 9-7 record, went on to Super Bowl XLIII. The 49ers on the other hand went home early for a seventh consecutive season.

Regardless, the 49ers won five of their last seven games and promise is in store with Singletary remaining at the helm for the upcoming season.

At the 2009 NFL draft, San Francisco selected 10th and acquired talented wide receiver Micheal Crabtree who could potentially give the team a shot in the arm on offence. The team also re-signed quarterback Shaun Hill and acquired free agents Justin Smith, Isaac Bruce and J.T. O’Sullivan in the off-season.

What will the future hold for the once-dominant San Francisco 49ers? Only time will tell. But with the team heading in an upward direction, a new dynasty could be creeping its way to the forefront. As the Cardinals proved last season, a weak division can go a long way – long enough to land in the Super Bowl. As patient Californians await the 2009-NFL season, don’t be surprised if there is some magic in the air in the city of San Francisco.

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The Author:

Joe Scaringi