49ers Year-by-Year: 2001

I want to reintroduce everybody to the Year-by-Year feature on the website. This is my second comeback in the last month or so, and this one should be for good. I have been going through every 49ers season since the team's inception in 1946 and writing full summaries of some of the most important events, games and players. I had to take an extended break from the feature for the express purposes of 1) making it through the holiday season, and 2) applying to Graduate School. Since all of that is officially concluded, the Year-by-Year's should be back for good.

This week, we're up to 2001. 2001 was a very special season for 49ers fans. After the loss of Steve Young, the team had been rocked to virtually the very core. Young's injury was directly related to the fall of the dynasty, including the first two losing seasons suffered by the 49ers since the early 1980s. But things were looking up, and the team was on the verge of winning again. Read on to see what happened.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 9

Atlanta Falcons

W: 13-16

1-0

0-1

Sept. 23

St. Louis Rams

L: 30-26

1-1

2-0

Oct. 1

@ New York Jets

W: 19-17

2-1

1-2

Oct. 7

Carolina Panthers

W: 14-24

3-1

1-3

Oct. 14

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 37-31

4-1

2-3

Oct. 28

@ Chicago Bears

L: 31-37

4-2

5-1

Nov. 4

Detroit Lions

W: 13-21

5-2

0-7

Nov. 11

New Orleans Saints

W: 27-28

6-2

4-4

Nov. 18

@ Carolina Panthers

W: 25-22

7-2

1-9

Nov. 25

@ Indianapolis Colts

W: 40-21

8-2

4-6

Dec. 2

Buffalo Bills

W: 0-35

9-2

1-10

Dec. 9

@ St. Louis Rams

L: 14-27

9-3

10-2

Dec. 16

Miami Dolphins

W: 0-21

10-3

9-4

De. 22

Philadelphia Eagles

W: 3-13

11-3

9-5

Dec. 30

@ Dallas Cowboys

L: 21-27

11-4

5-10

Jan. 6

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 38-0

12-4

7-9

Playoffs:

Jan. 13

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 15-25

12-5

13-4


Head Coach:
Steve Mariucci

Key Losses: RB Charlie Garner, WR Jerry Rice, TE Greg Clark, LB Ken Norton, LB Winfred Tubbs, DT/DE Junior Bryant

Key Additions: TE Eric Johnson, DE Andre Carter, LB Derek Smith, K Jose Cortez, RB Kevan Barlow

For the 49ers, the transition between 2000 and 2001 was essentially the conclusion of the Bill Walsh dynasty. The 49ers legacy era had come to a symbolic close in 1999 when Steve Young's career ended and the team suffered its first losing season in almost two full decades. The almost two seasons following Young's career-ending hit had been a difficult transition out of the era. The 49ers spent the time shedding contracts and building through the draft, saying goodbye to longtime stars like Tim McDonald and Lee Woodall, and bringing in young talent the likes of Julian Peterson, Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster and Jeff Ulbrich. Following the 2000 season, the 49ers said goodbye to the last of the old guard, letting Jerry Rice sign with the Raiders, and losing Ken Norton, Jr., to retirement. At the same time, the team continued to build through the draft, bringing more depth to the defense with Andre Carter and Jamie Winborn, while protecting the team's uncertain future at running back by drafting Kevan Barlow in the third round. They also signed linebacker Derek Smith to further reinforce a young, but very promising defense.

Despite the difficulty of the transition, the 49ers and their fans were hopeful for the coming season. Jeff Garcia had come into his own over the course of 2000, and appeared to be a more than capable replacement for his Hall of Fame predecessors. Where Jerry Rice had been lost, Terrell Owens appeared to have grown into an elite receiving target. Garrison Hearst was returning from a grisly ankle injury, and hopes were high that he could recapture his former success.

Meanwhile, the defense also provided hope for the coming year. The growth of young stars like Julian Peterson, Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, Jeff Ulbrich, Lance Schulters, and Zack Bronson had begun to show over the course of 2000, and promised only to continue as the 2001 season approached. The only thing left to do was to play the games.

On September 9, the 49ers opened the season at home against Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons. Though they fell behind early, the defense held the Falcons to 13 over three quarters and Garcia, Owens, J. J. Stokes and Tai Streets were able to climb back in the fourth, sending the game into overtime. A Jose Cortez field goal sealed the victory.

Two days later, tragedy struck the nation. On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked, both towers were destroyed, and millions of American lives were changed forever. The tragedy shook the nation, and many national sports suspended play for at least the week, and some for longer. The NFL was no exception. The second week of the season was rescheduled for the first week of the next calendar year, and all NFL players, coaches, and staff members were given the week off to begin to recover from the shocking blow. On September 23, the 49ers returned to the field of play to face the St. Louis Rams at home.

The second game of the season did not go nearly as well as the first, and an extremely potent Rams offense led by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk eked out the victory. Faulk accounted for much of a nearly seven minute drive at the end of the game that put things away. The win was the Rams' fifth consecutive victory over the 49ers.

The loss to the Rams was discoursing, but the improved play of the 49ers was obvious, and they took those improvements first into New York to defeat the Jets and then back home to hand George Siefert his first loss as a head coach opposing his former team. Then, in a rematch with division rival Atlanta, the 49ers feel behind big in the first half on the road. Down 7-20 at the end of the first half, the passing game again thrust the team back into the game. Receptionless in the first half, Terrell Owens racked up nearly 200 yards in the second half as the 49ers tied the game by the end of regulation. Again facing the Falcons in overtime, it was an Owens touchdown that finished the game this time.

Through the team's success, controversy was brewing. Terrell Owens and head coach Steve Mariucci engaged in a public feud. On the field, though, the results kept coming. After a loss to Chicago which sparked the controversy as Owens criticized his coach's playcalling, the receiver again fueled a 49er victory as San Francisco rolled over Detroit. The next week against New Orleans, the hero was Garrison Hearst, and the week after that it was Jeff Garcia against Carolina. Garcia's performance drew comparisons to Joe Montana, and even drew open praise from his controversial star receiver.

At 7-2, the 49ers were just one win away from assuring that they would not suffer another losing season, and just two wins from getting back to their winning ways. Facing an uncharacteristically weak Colts team and a dismal Bills team in the coming weeks, those victories both came quickly. It was in a press conference following their loss, Colts' head coach Jim Mora uttered his infamous exclamation about his team's chances of reaching the playoffs.

But even at 9-2, neither the team nor the fans were satisfied with simply having a winning season. Rather, the division - if not more - was the goal. At that time, the 49ers were tied with the Rams for the division lead, and as luck would have it the teams were scheduled to meet each other that week.

The game was marked by a trick play performed by the Rams on fourth down deep in 49ers territory. With time ticking off the clock, Kurt Warner began walking to the sideline in disgust. However, what looked like a broken play didn't end in the timeout the 49ers were clearly expecting. As Warner walked away from the play, Marshall Faulk took a direct snap four yards for the first down, and the Rams went on to score. As it turned out, the Rams didn't need the trickery. They handled the 49ers with ease on the way to a 27-14 victory and sole possession of first place in the division.

From that point on, the Rams never looked back, but the 49ers could still claim a wild card spot to reach the playoffs. And the team recovered from the crushing loss with a convincing victory over a strong Dolphins team  With a hard-fought win against the Eagles that included impressive defensive stop after impressive defensive stop, the 49ers found themselves in the playoffs. A Saints loss that same week secured it.

All the while, controversy continued to surround the team, as Steve Mariucci made it known that he was feeling more and more isolated from the decisions made in the team's front office. Though John York and Terry Donahue met with the coach to try to ease his mind, questions remained about the head coach's role in ownerships plans moving forward.

However, all of the controversy took a back seat as the 49ers headed steadily toward the playoffs. With a wild card spot secured, San Francisco split its final two games of the season against the Cowboys and the Saints. The first round of the playoffs - and Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers - awaited.

In their first visit to the playoffs in more than two years, the 49ers marched into Green Bay, a familiar and unfriendly place over the last decade. With temperatures as low as 29 degrees, the Green Bay homefield advantage was in full swing on January 13. The game was close in the first half and most of the second, but as the game came closer to its finish it became clear that Brett Favre was playing at the top of his game - and that the top of his game was too much for the 49ers on that day. Despite hanging onto a tie as late as the 4th quarter, the Packers proved too much for the 49ers and ultimately came away with a 10-point victory.

Though the loss was as disappointing as it was demoralizing, and though the controversy surrounding all of Terrell Owens, Steve Mariucci, and the team's front office was as distracting as it was dismaying, the overall performance of the team gave fans and players hope for the future for the very first time since the loss of Steve Young.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/2001.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_NFL_season
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/sep/10/sports/sp-44212
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/sep/24/sports/sp-49319
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/oct/15/sports/sp-57511
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/nov/05/sports/sp-431
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/nov/19/sports/sp-6010
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/nov/26/sports/sp-8502
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/dec/10/sports/sp-13440
http://articles.latimes.com/2001/dec/23/sports/sp-17447
http://articles.latimes.com/2002/jan/14/sports/sp-nfc14?pg=2

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