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An Ode to Opening Sunday

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The Sunday after Labor Day should be a national holiday. Which I guess it kind of already is, being a Sunday and all. But you know what I mean.

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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Francisco 49ers
Good news kids: Football Christmas is only a few days away! I hope Santa brings me what I asked him for this year (hint: It’s touchdowns, lots of touchdowns)
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball’s opening day gets all the sentimental musing and rhapsodical paeans, thanks to its long traditions, and having the advantage of standing at the precipice of spring, earth’s most symbolic — and frankly over-hyped — season. But I’ll take football’s Opening Sunday any day of the week. But since it comes on Sunday, I’ll take it then.

Opening Sunday is so much more than just the beginning of football season — it’s the start of fantasy, survivor pools, pick ‘em leagues, and countless other sacred rituals and glorious traditions. There are people in my life I only communicate with during football season. Some of them are relatives. Whether they break down the all-22 coaches film every week, or don’t know a nickel back from Nickleback, football is the common language we speak. Football brings people together.

Football leads us from the heat of summer through the crispness of autumn, and into the cold heart of winter. We watch football on Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. From now until Valentine’s Day, no matter what challenges life has in store, there will always be the sanctuary of Sunday.

Each week, we’ll open another chapter in a gripping soap opera populated by an ever-changing cast of players, coaches, owners, and fans, and narrated by announcers we’ve come to love and/or hate. Sure, there have been exhibition games, and college games, but they don’t quite scratch that itch. And while the first regular season NFL game may have been played Thursday night, the season’s spiritual start comes on Sunday.

The orgy of games. The Red Zone channel. The 49ers. At least this year.

I’m not a fan of ESPN making us wait an extra day and a half to watch the 49ers. I generally welcome Monday night games — not just the national spotlight, but getting to watch my team play without missing other action. But those back-end games in the Monday night opening doubleheaders are only above Thursday nights and London games in watchability. At least until Roger Goodell finds a way to play games on Friday night (it’s a great night for football!). They feel gimmicky, half the country is asleep, and they brought us this atrocity (TRIGGER WARNING):

Those 7pm PDT starts have been pretty kind to the 49ers, however. San Francisco is 3-0, netting two of the rare wins in the Tomsula/Kelly “eras,” and a climatic victory for Mike Nolan in 2007. Those coaches only won 10 more games combined in those three seasons. (Cue: sad trombone).

But no matter what the results, no Monday night fills me with the unbridled joy and drool-inducing anticipation that I’ll feel at 9:59 a.m. PDT this Sunday, when the football feast has been laid out on the table and I’m moments away from stuffing my gullet with as much as my meaty paws can shovel in.

I’ve also found that opening games are just more memorable. They don’t necessarily define the season ahead, but you always remember how the year started. They carry the extra weight of being your first look at that year’s team, especially as the expectations for the team rise, so they set the tone for your opinion of the team. Also, you don’t confuse opening games with other weeks. For instance, I couldn’t tell you what week the Fail Mary happened in, but I know the Hail Stokely happened on Opening Sunday.

We all watch Opening Sunday with clear eyes and full hearts, but despite what Coach Taylor taught us, we can lose. Opening Sunday is a party, but unfortunately for some, it’s a blanket party. Dreams can be dashed before you find a comfortable spot on the couch.

Two extreme — and eerily similar — examples happened to the Eagles in 1991 and the Patriots in 2008. Both had Super Bowl hopes. Both had the reigning NFL MVP at quarterback — Randall Cunningham and Tom Brady. Both lost them in the first quarter of their first game to torn ACL’s. Though both still managed double-digit victories, they each missed the playoffs due to tiebreakers (more on that later). You could argue they had remarkably good seasons, but they had the weight of high expectations. The Eagles were coming off three straight playoff losses (including the Fog Bowl) and were determined to take the next step. The Patriots had just gone 18-0 before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Fans of both teams had to know after less than a quarter of football, there would be no redemption coming at year’s end.

Unlike the last few seasons, excitement is high for the 49ers — though certainly been tempered by the Jerick McKinnon bombshell. Luckily, Jimmy Garoppolo has lots of experience navigating bombshells. It’s great to go into a season with high hopes, but as expectations rise so does the potential for disappointment. Looking back at recent history, when 49ers fans have dreamed big heading into a season, there are a few different directions the opening game can go.

The “New Phone Book” opener

Take a lesson from Navin R. Johnson seeing his name in the new phone book: Just because you think this is the start of something great doesn’t mean you won’t have to dodge a few bullets at the outset. But if you can survive it, you can still be a success.

The 49ers opened the 1986 season by clobbering the Buccaneers, 31-7, and forcing former 49er quarterback Steve DeBerg (starting over future 49er quarterback Steve Young) into seven interceptions. All seemed right with the world, until... After the game, everyone was stunned to hear Joe Montana, who’d thrown for 356 yards in the win, needed back surgery. The season was suddenly in jeopardy -- not to mention Montana’s career. Montana would miss half the season, but the solid play of backup Jeff Kemp would keep the 49ers afloat until he could return to lead the team to a division title. Though they would get blown out in the playoffs by the Giants, the season was an improvement on the previous year, and a stepping stone to championship season in 1988 and 1989.

One of the most memorable Opening Sundays I can recall was the 1997 opener at Tampa Bay — and not in a good way. The young and hungry Buccaneers came out and stunned the veteran 49ers, beating them, and beating them up. The Bucs knocked out both of the Niners biggest stars, Steve Young (concussion) and Jerry Rice (torn ACL and MCL). It was a tremendous gut punch. Young would miss just one game, but Rice would miss 14 of the final 15 games. But despite having a rookie coach in Steve Mariuuci, the 49ers rebounded remarkably to go 13-3 and hosted the NFC Championship Game. They lost to the Packers for the third straight postseason, but played the best of the three.

The “Tommy Gets Made” opener

Nobody enjoys having their optimism shaken, but if you can recover it might be a good thing. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Keep in mind Nietzsche died of syphilis (or maybe not), so apparently that doesn’t make you stronger. The point is, some bullets can’t be dodged -- like one to back of the head. That’s no way to start a party (NSFW unless you work for the mob).

In 1991, the Steve Young era officially started on Monday night, at the world champion Giants. The 49ers were fresh off New York ending their shot a three-peat and knocking Montana out for what would be two seasons. They wanted revenge. But Young was shaky, and the Giants eeked out yet another defensive battle on a Matt Bahr field goal. While we may not have realized it at the time, a fatal flaw had been revealed: The team wouldn’t gel around Young seamlessly. The offense was inconsistent as the 49ers sunk to 4-6, before catching fire and winning their last six — ending with a 52-7 beatdown of the playoff-bound Bears, costing them a division title. Young led the league in QB rating for the first time, but the 10-6 49ers would miss the playoffs — as the aforementioned Eagles did — due to a very strong NFC field. Ironically, the league had added two extra wild cards the previous year, and an 8-8 team made it in. The next year, a 9-7 team did. 1991 was just the wrong year to go 10-6.

It feels weird to say it now, but there was a lot of optimism during the Mike Singletary era, especially entering 2010. He took over a 2-5 team midway through 2008, and went 5-4 down the stretch, losing three heart-breakers to playoff teams. In 2009, they went 8-8. He had turned around the culture of the team (HE WANTED WINNERS!). The talent level was rapidly improving. Many believed a breakthrough was around the corner. The 49ers opened against the Seahawks, who had just gone 4-12 and 5-11, in Pete Carroll’s first game as coach. Most 49er fans had it in the win column. I had it in a survivor pool. The 49ers flubbed two golden opportunities in the red zone, but led 6-0 with 2:30 left in the first half. There was hope. Then the Seahawks scored three TD’s in 3:30 of game time. The 49ers lost 31-6. It was ugly. It was also the revelation of that team’s fatal flaw: The 49ers would routinely show up for games less prepared than their opponent. Despite acquiring the core talent of a future Super Bowl team, they would go 6-10 and Singletary wouldn’t last the season.

The ”A+++” opener

We spend all offseason daydreaming of everything going right. Usually, once the season starts reality sets in. But sometimes all those fantasies come true.

Entering 1994, the 49ers were coming off back-to-back NFC Championship Game losses to the Cowboys. They spent the off-season overhauling their defense, drafting defensive lineman Bryant Young and linebacker Lee Woodall, stealing linebacker Ken Norton Jr. away from the Cowboys, and signing a ton of aging Pro Bowl pass rushers — Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent, Charles Mann, Tim Harris. If there was ever a Super Bowl or bust team, this was it. They opened the season at home on Monday night and mauled the Raiders, 44-14. The new look defense allowed less than 200 passing yards and just 34 yards rushing. Young threw for four touchdowns. But the highlight was Rice’s third touchdown of the night, which broke Jim Brown’s career record. It was a party at Candlestick, and the whole country was invited. Though the 49ers would struggle over the next few weeks, they would go 13-3, finally topple Dallas, and win the Super Bowl.

A year after the devastating gut punch in Tampa to open 1997, the 49ers enjoyed an exciting and climactic Opening Sunday shootout at Candlestick in 1998, punctuated enthusiastically by Garrison Hearst, who ripped off the longest run in franchise history to win it in overtime.

In a matter of 10 seconds flat, I went from fearing a game-ending safety to ecstatic over one of the most thrilling endings I’ve ever seen. Though they would go 12-4, the season wouldn’t end well — for the 49ers or Hearst. He would break his leg on the first offensive series of a divisional playoff loss to the Falcons, meaning the 1998 Niners would actually fall a game short of where the 1997 49ers got — proving openers are not necessarily indicative of a team’s fate. But they did accomplish one thing the 1997 Niners couldn’t: Finally beating Green Bay in the playoffs, seconds before what would’ve been their fourth straight playoff loss to the Packers, on an ending even more thrilling than Heart’s run.

Because the 49ers open at the Vikings, as tough an assignment as they’ve had in some time, they don’t need a blowout win or last play heroics to qualify as a dream come true. A simple victory would suffice, no style points required. And with the McKinnon injury, coupled with Reuben Foster’s suspension, I think most fans would even take a close, hard-fought loss in Minnesota as a growth opportunity. Because the alternative is a blowout. The kind of wake up call loss that forces you to question any optimism you previously had. But I would argue there’s even room for that, if followed by a competent Week 2 win. At 1-1, any road loss to the Vikings — possibly the most talented roster top to bottom in the NFL — could be rationalized as growing pains.

So what will it be this year?

Poll

How do you see the 49ers opener going?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    Niners win! What could be better than that?
    (71 votes)
  • 48%
    A win on the road vs. the Vikings is too much to ask, but they’ll be fine.
    (96 votes)
  • 7%
    The 49ers don’t just lose, they reveal themselves to be fatally flawed. Let the rebuild continue.
    (14 votes)
  • 8%
    JERICK MCKINNON WAS OUR FUTURE! DAMN ACL MAFIA! 6-10 HERE WE COME!
    (17 votes)
198 votes total Vote Now