We are in the middle of Underdog Week at SB Nation!
Being a San Francisco 49ers fan means we have mostly been cheering for a juggernaut or a complete underdog over the last 50 years.
They looked to be on the cusp of winning of a Super Bowl in the early 1970s, but after being eliminated by the hated Dallas Cowboys in three straight postseasons, the franchise took a turn for the worse, missing out on the playoffs from 1973-1979.
What people didn’t know entering the 1980s, was that head coach and general manager Bill Walsh was revolutionizing football and building a juggernaut in the Bay Area. The first sign came late in the 1980 season. San Francisco was 5-8 going into a Week 14 matchup against the winless New Orleans Saints, and the game got off to an ugly start.
Saints QB Archie Manning threw three touchdowns in the first half, leading New Orleans to a 35-7 lead, and it looked like it was the same old Niners. San Francisco had a guy by the name of Joe Montana at quarterback, who was about to orchestrate the first fourth-quarter comeback of his career.
Montana threw for two touchdowns and ran one in as well, helping the 49ers tie the game at 35-35. In overtime, kicker Ray Wersching kicked a 36-yard field goal to win it for the Niners, and all-of-a-sudden there was hope around the team.
The following season, San Francisco emphatically announced its presence among the NFL elite. Walsh and Montana led the 49ers to a 13-3 record in 1981 and overcame the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game when Dwight Clark made “The Catch,” helping the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance., but there have been a few years that were different in-between.49ers
This started a remarkable run for the 49ers, who became the gold standard of the NFL. The team would win at least ten games in 17 out of the next 18 seasons and win five Super Bowls.
In each of those five Super Bowl matchups, the Niners were betting favorites. Here is how the lines looked:
1982: 49ers -1 over the Bengals. (win)
1985: 49ers -3.5 over the Dolphins (win)
1989: 49ers -7 over the Bengals (win)
1990: 49ers -12 over the Broncos (Walsh’s final championship)
1995: 49ers -18.5 over the Chargers (damn!)
After blowing out the Chargers, San Francisco went on to make the playoffs six out of the next eight seasons but fell upon hard times after 2002.
The 49ers wouldn’t make it back to the postseason for eight years until Jim Harbaugh was hired as head coach.
One of the things I remember most about the 2011 season is the media questioning the Niners 4-1 start going into a Week 6 matchup against the 5-0 Detroit Lions. The 49ers hung to win 25-19, which resulted in this gem.
Even after finishing the regular season 13-3, San Francisco didn’t get the respect a team that finishes with that good of a record should. Going into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, the 49ers were 4.5 underdogs in the Divisional Round matchup against the visiting Saints. That game was an emotional roller-coaster that delivered us the perfect ending. When Vernon Davis caught the winning touchdown from QB Alex Smith, with nine seconds left, it was one of the happiest moments I have had a sports fan. Winning that game was extra-special because no one expected the 49ers to be there in the first place.
Harbaugh and the Niners remained among the upper echelon for the next two years, but those seasons just felt different. By the end of the 2013 season, fans were more stressed about what would go wrong than just enjoying the ride.
Once Harbs was let go after going 8-8 in 2014, we fell back into the dark ages.
We waited patiently for hope, and we finally got some when current GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan took over in 2017. After a rough couple of seasons, the sentiment was that the 49ers would challenge for a playoff spot going into 2019. They blew the expectations out of the water, finishing 13-3 and walking through the NFC to a Super Bowl matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Although oddsmakers had it being close, the Chiefs were slightly favored, it seemed most pundits, and casual fans thought there was no way Patrick Mahomes would lose.
It got me thinking: Is it more fun to cheer for a team that is a favorite or an underdog?
Cheering for a team that is expected to win comes with a certain pressure. Every time your squad steps on the field, you have the feeling they’re going to win. One mistake, one bad play, and you find your butt starting to clench as the frustration boils.
Which brings me back to the 2011 season. I was just happy each week to see my team in the headlines, dominating the opposition, similar to how I felt last year. When your team goes into the season as an underdog, you’re just hoping to see a miracle happen, as I did after 49er blowouts in Week 1 of both the 2015 and 2016, seriously.
That doesn’t lessen the sting of a tough loss like we have felt four times in the playoffs this past decade, but it makes the journey getting there feel so different.
We have all been on both sides of the fence being fans of the 49ers. Let us know if you enjoyed cheering for a team that was either the favorite or the underdog?