Ken Garcia: Struggling 49ers’ rough patch may become one for the ages

You have to wonder how committed the San Francisco 49ers are to building a costly new stadium, given that they may never again field a team that could fill it.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the organization was in such a state of decline. The franchise was saved when new owner Eddie DeBartolo hired a coach named Bill Walsh and turned the worst team in the National Football League into a model for all of professional sports. And it’s taken about 10 years for Eddie’s sister, Denise, and her husband, John York, to bring the team back to rock bottom.

Fans will recall that there was a time when the 49ers were the New York Yankees of football — a team that had such high expectations that anything less than a Super Bowl was considered a crushing disappointment. The bar was so high that DeBartolo nearly fired Walsh after a stunning playoff loss to Minnesota, eventually reconsidered, and then the team came within a Roger Craig fumble of winning three championships in a row.

Every professional sports franchise hits rough patches, but the strive for parity has allowed teams to rebuild and recover in a relatively short period of time. The Detroit Tigers lost 119 games three years ago and made it to this year’s World Series. The A’s continually lose marquee players only to find a new cast to take them to the playoffs. And numerous NFL teams jump from worst to first with the addition of a few players or a succession of good drafts.

And the 49ers? Right now they would have a hard time cracking the top five in BCS collegefootball rankings, and Ohio State would probably be favored by two touchdowns. It’s not just that the team isn’t winning — it’s not worth watching. The 49ers have given up more than 40 points in three of the last four weeks and have surrendered 235 points through just seven games. At that pace the team of the ’80s and most of the ’90s is about to become the New ’70s Orleans Saints of this decade. The 49ers are on schedule to break one of the most unreachable records in sports — the most points ever given up in a season, a dubious honor held by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.

But the main problem isn’t their defense. It’s their structure.

I called Ira Miller, a former colleague and one of the most respected football writers in the country, to talk about the state of the team. And his assessment: The team’s best player is having quite a season — in Seattle (Julian Peterson).

“The three most important positions in football are the owner, the coach and the quarterback,” he said. “And I’m not quite ready to pencil in Alex Smith for the Hall of Fame.”

York has shifted courses and coaches since taking over the team, never hiring a proven NFL personnel man during his tenure. Nolan has yet to show that he knows how to be a head coach, talking about how solid the organization is — despite the results on the field. Moreover, Nolan does not appear humbled by the losses, acting as if the team is just a few plays from being competitive. It’s kind of like the captain of the Exxon Valdez saying it was just a little oil spill.

“He acts like he invented football,” Miller said. “He talks about how good things are in the building. Well, people don’t care about what goes on in the building. They care about the team and this team isn’t even close to mediocre.

“Now it is true he was not left with a lot of talent when he got here. But good coaching should be able to make up for some of that. Bill Parcells turned Dallas around in a year. So Nolan’s arrogance is not befitting of a team when it’s this bad.”

Yet even though beat writers are beginning to say Nolan is feeling the heat, Miller expects he will be around next season — if only because York just hired him. “You can’t keep changing course,” Miller said.

Miller, who writes for the online edition of the Contra Costa Times, said any claim of a quick turnaround probably would have the same merit as the promise of a new stadium.

So let’s look at the Xs and Os. The 49ers are woefully short on talent. They have a coach who thinks they’re much better than they are. And they have an owner who wants to prove to the world he really knows how to build a great organization — all facts to the contrary notwithstanding.

It has all the makings of a new cry for the faithful: How ‘bout those Sharks?

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.LocalNFLSan Francisco 49ers

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

A health care worker receives one of the first COVID-19 vaccine doses at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital on Tuesday Dec. 15, 2020. (Courtesy SFgov)
SF to open three large sites for COVID-19 vaccinations

Breed: ‘We need more doses. We are asking for more doses’

Tongo Eisen-Martin, a Bernal Heights resident, named San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Tongo Eisen-Martin becomes San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate

Bernal Heights resident Tongo Eisen-Martin has become San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate.… Continue reading

Homeless people's tents can be seen on Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 16, 2020. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/S.F. Examiner)
Statewide business tax could bring new funds to combat homelessness

San Francisco could get more than $100 million a year for housing, rental assistance, shelter beds

The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco (a mural by artist Jamie Treacy is pictued) has a lineup of free online programming including activities for youngsters scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18. (Courtesy Demetri Broxton/Museum of the African Diaspora)
Stanford, Museum of the African Diaspora host MLK Day activities

Online offerings include films, music, discussion

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi presides the US House of Representatives vote on the impeachment of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol, January 13, 2021, in Washington, DC. - The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives on January 13 opened debate on a historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump over his supporters' attack of the Capitol that left five dead. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
House votes 232-197 to impeach Trump a second time

Focus shifts to Senate, where McConnell has signaled he may not stand by president

Most Read