Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Glory

I mention here and there about the fact that I'm a San Francisco 49ers Fan, and how it makes little sense being that I'm a native New Yorker. But stranger things happen in life. And with the NFL season kicking off, and the 49ers starting their season in Green Bay on Sunday (and the Mets not really generating tons of headlines), I thought it best to say a few things about my other favorite team.

I first came into the 49ers while they were in the midst of an unparalleled run of success. Between 1981 and 1998, the 49ers won at least 10 games every season except for one (a strike-shortened 1982 season). They made the playoffs every year except 2 (the aforementioned '82 season, and 1991). They played in 10 Conference Championship games and won 5 Super Bowls. Along the way, they provided glorious players, consummate team efforts and memories that last forever.

But, in recent years, that luster was gone. Players retired, or moved on, and the team was forced to rebuild. Inconsistency in the front office became the norm, and dysfunction ruled. Starting in 2003, the 49ers endured a string of 8 consecutive losing seasons. Part of the problem was the coaching system, always a strength, had dissolved into a muddled mess. Bearing the brunt of these problems was Quarterback Alex Smith. Drafted #1 overall in 2005 (several spots ahead of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers), Smith had to endure a different Offensive Coordinator every season, along with a pair of severe, season ending injuries that left his career and his ability in question. Smith lost his starting job altogether in 2008, but regained it in 2009 and showed a smattering of promise amidst another lost 49ers season. But in 2010, Smith regressed. Fans called for his head. He was in and out of the starting role multiple times. But perhaps the corner turned for Smith when his current coach, Jim Harbaugh, was brought in prior to the 2011 season. Smith, a Free Agent, could have left San Francisco and all the bad memories. But Harbaugh believed in Smith. Harbaugh wanted Smith to be his Quarterback. So Smith stayed, for one more year. Perhaps, his last chance at some kind of redemption.

Lack of Talent wasn't the 49ers problem recently, either. Their poor finishes led to a string of high draft choices that procured a bit of outstanding talent, among them Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Dashon Goldson, NaVorro Bowman and, their unquestioned leader, Patrick Willis. With Harbaugh leading a tough-minded, team-first approach, the 49ers slowly, unexpectedly began to jell. Not expected to find much success in a weak NFC West, the 49ers dismissed prevailing wisdom. After starting the season 1-1, the 49ers would embark on a winning streak that would show the rest of the NFL what they were made of. The Defense was opportunistic, often keeping the opponents off the scoreboard and creating turnovers with an incredible frequency. The offense, often maligned and sometimes slow to develop, engineered a number of come-from-behind victories. As the wins mounted, so did the impressive nature of their victories. First, a 21-point comeback in Philadelphia. 2 weeks later, a last-minute victory against a high-flying Lions team. Later on, hard-fought victories against the Giants and Steelers showed everyone that these Niners meant business on both sides of the ball. They were the first team to wrap up a Division Title, doing so in a Week 13 victory over the Rams. They had gone from 5-11, to now 13-3 and Division Champions for the first time in 9 seasons. The glory was back.

The ferocity of the Defense was unquestioned. They had gone almost the entire season without allowing a Rushing Touchdown. Teams simply could not run against their defense. Their secondary had a knack for bending, but never breaking, and coming up with an interception when it was needed most. The offense still took their lumps. They were predicated mostly by an outstanding running game, led by All-World running back Frank "The Inconvenient Truth" Gore, and Rookie Kendall Hunter. And then, there was Alex Smith.

Alex Smith had easily the best season of his career on all fronts in 2011. Working under Harbaugh's tutelage, Smith finally had a system that played into his strengths and wouldn't allow him to make the same mistakes he would have made earlier in his career. The result was that while the game plan might have seemed bland, it was still effective, and Smith was making the plays he needed to make when he had to make them. Given all the problems Smith had early in his career, certainly people were right to be skeptical. But Alex Smith would ultimately have the final word on one memorable Saturday afternoon in January.

The 49ers were matched up with the High-Powered New Orleans Saints (and their bounties), who not only matched their 13 victories, but did it in record-setting fashion, with Drew Brees shredding all sorts of passing records and an offense that boasted more weapons than the 49ers had seen all season long. But the 49ers went out and matched them, hit for hit, punch for punch. Their Defense forced turnovers early and often, and the 49ers jumped out to a 17-0 lead before New Orleans could catch their breath. But when they did catch their breath, they caught up with the Niners as well. The lead was 17-14 by halftime, and when Brees threw a long Touchdown pass to Darren Sproles with 4:02 to play in the 4th Quarter, the lead was gone. And all the progress, and the good vibes generated by this breakout season appeared to go by the wayside.

Someone forgot to tell that to Alex Smith. With the season on the line, all Alex Smith did was whip a quick pass in to Hunter, and then throw a long strike to Vernon Davis, immediately putting the 49ers right back in striking distance. A pair of plays later, the 49ers faced a long 3rd down. Smith took a handoff and simply took off. Before anyone could react, his linemen had steamrolled all the Saint defenders in his way, and Smith coasted in for a 28-yard Touchdown to give the 49ers the lead right back with 2:11 to go.

Things, however, were far from over. The Saints, finally kicking their offense into the high gear it had been in all season, responded in a flash. It took all of 4 plays before Drew Brees hit a leaping Jimmy Graham, who had managed to get behind Patrick Willis. Willis was caught dead as Graham sprinted away from him for the counter-miracle, a 66-yard Touchdown with 1:37 left that put the Saints ahead once again 32-29.

The 49ers had now twice watched the Saints rip down the field for a go-ahead score in the final 4+ minutes of the game. They were now left with 1:32 to go 85 yards to win the game. Alex Smith once again was left with the entire season in his hand. And, undaunted, he led the 49ers on their march. A pair of short passes to Frank Gore kicked things off. And just as he did on the previous drive, Smith once again hit Davis on a crossing route over the middle of the Field, and Davis outran several defenders all the way down to the Saints 20-yard line. 20 yards from victory. Time now was no longer an issue. With :31 seconds, the 49ers could have kept conservative, and tried for the tying Field Goal. But who wanted to give the Saints and Brees another opportunity? No, given their last chance, the 49ers kept marching. Frank Gore gained 6 yards on the following play before Alex Smith spiked the ball to stop the clock with :14 seconds.

The following play would vault into the rarefied air of Great 49ers Moments. In 1981, there was Montana to Clark. In 1998, there was Young to Owens. In January of 2012, there came Smith to Davis.

With that 14-yard throw, Smith not only carried the 49ers into their first NFC Championship game since 1997, he also erased 6 years of frustration, of injuries, of being labeled a failure and a guy who would never live up to the lofty status of a #1 Draft Pick. For Smith, it was Redemption.

For Davis, it was shedding the label of a me-first player who cared about himself more than the team. It was shedding the memory of being thrown off the bench by his own coach after slapping an opponent. It was the culmination of hard work and determination to make himself better, and make his team better along with it. For Davis, it was Redemption.
And for the 49ers and their fans, it was a glimpse of that old Glory of the '80s and the '90s. That glory that had brought 5 Super Bowl Championships to San Francisco. It might not have come that day, and it might not come that year. But with this group, it was possible. We all believed it. And from that day, the 49ers left us all believing that there's better things to come. From Smith, from Davis, from Willis, from Harbaugh and from everyone, from the Starters to the Special Teamers. They kick off the 2012 season not as an afterthought, but now as a favorite. And it's been a long time since they've been able to say that.

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