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?