After a third consecutive season of late-round postseason heartbreak, it's easy for 49ers fans to hang their collective heads, question what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what could have been. While that is certainly an understandable, natural inclination (I did so myself Sunday night and part of yesterday), it gets tiring and inhibits the football grieving process.
In helping to mitigate the melancholic disposition many fans are experiencing, I invite you to take a walk down memory lane. Prior to 2011, Niners fans would have probably paid good money out of their wallets or sold a kidney for the chance to see the red and gold play in an NFC Championship game or Super Bowl. Heck, I know I would have shelled out or parted ways with a vital organ just to watch a 9-7 playoff season, even if it meant getting brutalized in the Wild Card round.
For some much needed perspective and statistical comparison of just how far the team has come, I've sprinkled in some excerpts from a piece I wrote for 49erswebzone.com in the wake of last year's Super Bowl defeat:
Consider this mind-blowing statistical analysis:
Total # of Seasons
Total # of Wins
Total # of Wins Against Above .500 Teams
Avg. # of Wins Against Above .500 Teams
Total # of Wins Against Teams 10-6 or Better
1.25 per season
5.7 per season
So from '03-'10, the Niners managed only 46 total wins
- Of those 46 wins, only 10 came against winning teams
(An average of 1.25 wins a season against winning teams)
- Of those 10 victories against winning teams, 5 were against teams with pedestrian 9-7 records and 2 of those 9-7 teams didn't even make the playoffs (Broncos in '06, Jets in '08)
- '04 and '10 yielded no wins against above .500 teams, while '05,'07,'08 yielded only one respectively
From '11-'13 under Harbaugh, the Niners notched 41 total wins (includes their 5 playoff wins)
- That's only five shy of their total during an 8-year span, and two more victories than they could muster during seven combined seasons (39 wins were accumulated from 2004-2010).
- Of those 41 total wins, 17 came against winning teams (an average of 5.7 wins a season against winning teams)
- Of those 17 victories against winning teams, 13 were against teams with records of 10-6 or better
The most remarkably awful aspect of those limited wins from the dark ages, as I like to call them, is when you take into consideration how many of those wins came against winning teams. The 49ers virtually never won upset games or garnered "quality" wins.
Meanwhile, the 2011-2013 49ers have already won seven more games against winning teams than the ‘03-‘10 teams combined in just over a third of the time. They've beaten the likes of the Giants, the Steelers, the Packers (four times, including twice in the playoffs), the Patriots (handing them their first home loss in December in a decade), the Seahawks, the Saints, the Bears, and the Falcons. Furthermore, despite beating themselves (with further help from the officiating crew) the team came within 5 yards of a sixth franchise Super Bowl title versus the Ravens last year, and were one touchdown pass against the Seahawks away from returning to the Super Bowl this year.
As a diehard fan who had the (good?) fortune of being at the Super Bowl last year, that loss was devastating as is this one. But once I took the time to review the dark ages of 2003-2010 and chronicle just how far the team had come, I started to feel a lot better about things.
If the stat sheet didn't drive the point home already, let's take a closer look at just how bad those 49ers teams were:
Basically, the 49ers lost in every possible way for eight straight seasons. They did so in spectacular and, at times, inexplicable fashion. Fans would see the likes of a 2-14 season in which their only two wins came against the dreadful Cardinals - both by a field goal, both in overtime. If that isn't a glorified 0-16 season, I don't know what is. Heck, even the Lions played better football in their winless campaign. Fans would also see Mike Nolan throw his QB Alex Smith under the bus and pace down the sidelines in a ridiculous suit as his team would set new franchise lows weekly.
After a 31-6 dismantling at the hands of Seattle on opening day in 2010, the trendy offseason sleeper (keyword: sleeper) 49ers would go on to start 0-5. The offense sputtered miserably, running an archaic scheme that many times would suffer a communication breakdown before getting to the QB (rumors surfaced Jimmy Raye called plays from memory and often confused nomenclature). After a 31-10 loss to the Chiefs, Kansas City players told reporters they were recognizing and calling out the Niners offensive plays before they happened. Candlestick Park rose to its feet weeks later, chanting "WE WANT CARR!" during a loss to Philadelphia. And yet, despite all of this, the bumbling 49ers were still in the NFC West (Worst) playoff race heading into Week 16 against St. Louis. Sure, the team would get smoked in the playoffs, but fans were starving for postseason play and would settle for it any way they could get it. Sure enough, all hope was dashed as the Niners fell flat to a lowly Rams team 25-17.
Thankfully, it appears the Baalke and Harbaugh's sustainable model is geared to keep them a contender year-in and year-out a la Belichick's Patriots; a far cry from the Donahue/Nolan/McCloughan era:
Off the field, the 49ers were equally repugnant. Their front office seemingly had no clue how to run a franchise. General Manager Terry Donahue drafted unarguably the worst draft classes this franchise has ever seen (see Harris, Kwame; Woods, Rashaun; Rumph, Mike). His successor Scot McCloughan consistently whiffed on several picks as well (Kentwan Balmer, Manny Lawson, Chilo Rachal, and Glen Coffee to name a few) despite picking in the top-ten virtually ever year. Sure, he cashed in on Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley,Michael Crabtree, and a handful of others, but even a broken clock is right twice a day; and I'm sure every single person reading this article would have made those same picks (safe for moving up to grab Staley). I know I would have.
Yes, three straight years of coming inches away from the Lombardi is agonizing in its own right, but it's important to appreciate the fact that this franchise is back to being where it belongs: among the NFL's elite. Just like last season, there are plenty of positives to take away from this 2013 campaign. Very few NFL teams come off a Super Bowl loss to appear in the NFC Championship game. It's all the more remarkable when you consider the adversity this team overcame in doing so--the devastating injuries, the Aldon Smith incident, the two-game losing skids in the beginning and middle of the season...the list goes on and on.
In the process, the 49ers made several improvements and have room to grow in 2014:
- The defense turned in a much more consistent performance in 2013, especially in the playoffs, after experiencing a serious lapse in the 2012 postseason
- Special teams also got back on track thanks to great performances by the likes of Phil Dawson, the always reliable Andy Lee, and the coverage unit led by C.J. Spillman
- Anquan Boldin was a human highlight reel week in and week out, turning in the best performance by a 49ers wide receiver since Terrell Owens was in town and effectively breaking the curse of donning No. 81 in San Francisco. Ideally, the 49ers work out a deal to bring him back.
- Those who thought Frank Gore would slow down watched the venerable franchise leader in rushing yards, eclipse 1,000 yards for the seventh time in his nine-year career, notch the second-highest TD total of his career with nine scores, and finish in the top-ten in NFL rushing. While this will undoubtedly be a hot topic of the offseason once again, those who question No. 21's longevity must also consider the fact that Kendall Hunter is an extremely capable back and Marcus Lattimore is ready to make his presence felt in the backfield as well.
Other notable developments from the 2013 include:
- Ahmad Brooks, Ahmad Brooks, Ahmad Brooks: Did I mention Ahmad Brooks? While Brooks has performed tremendously the past two seasons, he's often been overshadowed by fellow defenders Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, and Justin Smith. Brooks' off-the-charts performance in 2013 ensured he'd be recognized and he was, receiving Pro-Bowl and All-Pro honors for the first time in his career. While Bowman will be the 49er name talked about for Defensive Player of the Year (deservedly so), Brooks arguably turned in just as good a season and continued to make big plays in the clutch
- The emergence of Tramaine Brock as a legitimate starting cornerback: The 49ers wisely signed Brock to a four-year extension in November
- Defensive line depth: 2013 saw admirable performances from Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie. Once Ian Williams and Tank Carradine come back from injury, this unit will have even more depth to support veterans Justin Smith and Ray McDonald
- Eric Reid: While he suffered a few lapses during the Championship game, it pales in comparison to the massive success the rookie free safety garnered throughout the season and postseason. He not only performed at the level of Dashon Goldson, he surpassed him
So fans who are still in the throes of despair should take a quick walk down memory lane, as I recalled in grotesque detail here. Just the fact that fans and pundits expect greatness from the San Francisco 49ers is a huge testament to the turnaround Harbaugh and company have commandeered. The future is bright and wide open for this young Niners team. A dynamic young quarterback who has brought this team to the brink of a trophy in his first season and a half as starter, a depth-ridden defense that got back to its aggressive ways in 2013, a head coach who refuses to accept anything less than perfection, and an offseason of loading up more talent can only mean good things for the 49ers. Beyond the X's and O's, the Niners have a passionate, young-gun CEO in Jed York, who will be cutting the ribbon at a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium in Santa Clara this season.
Buck up, Niners fans, there's plenty to be thankful for.
Share your thoughts in the comments section and let's reflect on how bad this team was, how good they are now, and the bright road that lies ahead.