In case you missed it Sando wrote a thoughtful article about the 49ers fall from grace titled What happened to the flagship 49ers. The beauty of the article was Sando turned to 49ers fans to share their insight and astute observations to fill in the details.
I can't really cite the entire article so I'll give a quick summation (the link to the article is provided above). In short, the consensus thesis was the 49ers fell from grace because the team lost their owner and in turn lost their traditions, style of play, key leaders including the front office and link to great players of the past.
It's probably a must read. If not thought provoking it's at least the voice of observant 49ers fans. Admittedly got my mind turning and thought I'd try to elaborate more on the details since Sando mostly focused on the quotes.
Traditions & Style of Play
First and foremost we are talking about Walsh's offense, better known as the West Coast Offense (WCO). Short passes, quick reads, slants, hitches, curls, posts, arrows, check downs mixed in with an effective, yet sneakily dynamic running game to force the defense defend the entire field. The 49ers really haven't had a good offense since they abandoned the WCO.
Every once in awhile I like to pop in an old 49ers tape and watch the offense work. Surprising the first thing that always sticks out is the running game. Sweep left, pitch right, off tackle schemes always bouncing to the outside. The offense could attack the edge and do it consistently. Outside runs were a staple of the offense and Ricky Watters was really the best, he'd do it for entire drives. The defense couldn't contain it. Linebackers lack the athleticism to defend the edge while corners and safeties have to sit back and honor the pass. It is a pick your poison offense, stop the outside run or open holes in the passing defense. We need to get to back to running the ball constantly to the outside than counter, trick the defense running the ball inside. Defensive players haven't evolved so attacking them at the edge with sweeps and short passes for YAC should still be effective.
One beneficial development for the WCO is the development the Tampa 2 defense that cropped up in the late 90's. The Tampa 2 plants two cornerbacks in the flat to rough up the receivers at the line scrimmage and challenge any short or quick passes to the outside. Unfortunately can't exploit those two cornerbacks deep because the defense also plants two safeties deep to the outside. Can take your chances running slants towards the middle but the odds are good the middle linebacker in his exclusive inside zone will plant a kill shot on the wide receiver. The deep middle zone can also be difficult to attack since that special breed of Tampa 2 linebacker can also double as a deep inside safety. Still there are two crippling weaknesses on the Tamp 2 defense to exploit. Hammer the ball up the gut using small, athletic WCO offensive linemen. Or have the traditional WCO QB rifle deep 15 yard out passes in-between the safeties and shallow corners.
The good news is Jim Harbaugh is arriving to restore the 49ers roots to the WCO. In his press conference he promised to install the WCO and already uses its terminology. Since the hire I've been study Harbaugh's teams at Stanford. For a lack of better description he runs a macho version of the WCO. He's got this wrinkle of lining up six offensive linemen or three tight ends in his formations to beef up his power run game. He does a fantastic job of confusing the defense with multiple pre-snap shifts and is so detailed in his play calling his offense hardly ever shows the same sequence of shifts twice although underneath he's really re-running the same basic plays. His best attribute is how he works with quarterbacks. He's renowned for taking non-descriptive quarterbacks and producing great seasons out of them, best yet he's performed this magic act with multiple non-descript quarterbacks. Harbaugh version of the WCO aligns closely with the lineage of Joe Gibbs.
49ers style and traditional also has a place on defense. Currently the 49ers are at a crossroad with Nolan's imported 3-4 Ravens style defense. The running aspect of the defense has produced fantastic results but the passing aspect continues to flounder. In today's modern NFL it's passing that counts. The team lacks any notable outside linebacker to attack the quarterback and what they currently have is likely to be expunged from the roster. The question is simple, if the 3-4 isn't slowing the pass down then why not consider transitioning back to the traditional 4-3 defense? At least it would solve the Manny Lawson roster issue. He's never proven to produce a consistent pass rush so let's consider switching to a 4-3 defense because Manny is an ideal weakside linebacker.
The 4-3 defense has always worked for the 49ers. George Seifert innovated the defense in 1984 with the concept of a defensive line rotation with specialized players for down and distance situations. In many regards it outperformed the revered 1985 Bears defense, although historians haven't taken much notice all the NFL did, copying and adopting Seifert's defensive line rotation by 1987. The linchpin of the defense is a strong pass rushing defensive end. The 49ers had back to back Hall of Famers in Fred Dean and Charles Haley (some day). They did not find a comparable defensive end throughout the 90's but it wasn't for lack of effort spending half their draft picks on the project. Eventually the 49ers did find Julian Peterson who so stood out amongst the defensive cast you could call it the Julian Peterson defense.
The Ownership Change
Exit Eddie D. and his two decades of championship runs and enter John York with an ongoing decade of futility. 49ers fans know the line of demarcation is clearly here in a direct cause and effect relationship relating figuratively and literally to the team owner.
Eddie D. would have preserved the franchise model assured to flourish in the next decade and beyond. It's still a mystery as to why Eddie D. started releasing key players and trimming payroll in 1998 and 1999. He certainly didn't believe in holding his football team to a budget. To his credit he wanted to reverse course and continue his spend at all cost path. With a dilapidated, crumbling bottom tier revenue generating stadium Eddie D. certainly had the financial clout to win this ongoing arms race. When it comes to ownership it's always a question of desire, Eddie D. had it while John York scuttles desire in favor of a budget and so called inherited salary cap hell excuses.
Eddie D. wasn't the only key exit, long time stewards and front office personnel were ushered out during the York takeover. Names like Carmen Policy, Dwight Clark and Michael Lombardi in an Aeneid like fable relocated a dynasty to Cleveland. The roster architects who initiated the coup of JJ Stokes, drafts of Jim Drunkenmiller, Reggie McGrew, Israel Ifeanyi, R.W. McQuarters and their long list of retired players who would remain on the payroll for years to come were gone eventually leaving the franchise in hands of incompetent Terry Donahue. Eddie D. relinquished the team due to a gambling/political bribe scandal in 2000 but he must have pre-known York's disdain for the front office because Eddie initiated the house cleaning prior to York, reinstalling Walsh who remained with the team until he choose his successor in Donahue upon retirement.
One fact we do know is Eddie D. never would have fired Steve Marcucci, the coup de grâce of John York's tenure when all tradition was severed and why the franchise is stuck in its current state. Eddie D. had a long track record of remaining patient with coaches who had multiple playoff failures piling up. Marcucci had his system in place with a stable cast of WCO pieces to carry out a long stable run. Pocket passer Jeff Garcia, two 1000 yard rushers and a passing offense that distributed the ball all over the field: T.O. short, T.O. intermediate and T.O. long. This sever didn't just occur with the Marcucci firing but the non traditional hiring of Dennis Erickson, a popular Pac-10 offensive guru who never would have caught the eye of Eddie D.
Loss of Leadership
One befuddling aspect of the York regime which infuriates the fans the most is a disconnect between the current team and the great 49ers players of the past. For such a cheap family they sure have a sophisticated security system to keep retired players outside team headquarters. The young developing 49ers could benefit from the wisdom of old decorated titans who know how to walk the chosen path. Why wouldn't decade old retired players who have moved on with their lives want to spend their time sitting around a locker room dispensing advice?
I've been watching from afar but Terry Bradshaw has done a masterful job stewarding Ben Roethlisberger to his third Super Bowl appearance, their personal bond cannot be broken. Troy Polamalu and James Harrison gained a special motivation to push themselves to Defensive MVP honors from constant team dinner pep talks from Mean Joe Greene. Still Pittsburgh's greatest weapon has been dusting off the old Steel Curtain 4-3 defensive playbook and whatchamacallingit to their current league leading 3-4 defensive scheme. I guess I shouldn't praise Pittsburgh yet, Packers superstar James Starks can still crush Pittsburgh Sunday by getting a seal here and a seal here and constantly running Vince Lombardi's play down the alley! These are franchises that remain on top because they cling to a literal interpretation of their past success.
Never mind the 49ers were unable to draft enough great players in the 90's and early 00's to carry on and teach the great tradition to young, developing players today. We had Bryant Young but he eventually had to retire and wanted to get into coaching. T.O. decided he wanted to keep playing despite his close knit ties to the organization. Julian Peterson thought it would be best to have the franchise tag placed on him then sign elsewhere to reload the constantly rebuilding 49ers with more draft picks. The point is if we could just get Joe to show up for a halftime ceremony he might dispense a halftime adjustment which could win a game. Maybe Steve Young can open up the film vault and teach courses in the offseason. We the fans have a pulse on this. We see where the 49ers franchise lost it and deep down know clearly how to get the winning ways back. 49ers fans have always been criticized for being forward looking, let's switch focus and start living in the past.