Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fare Thee Well

Rumblings on Monday led to a pair of painful announcements relating to the 49ers this afternoon, breaking up the general monotony of Spring Training baseball where no news tends to be good news. One item was expected. The other, a shocker that's kind of left everyone feeling numb.

The surprise retirement of Patrick Willis came mostly out of nowhere. Willis, the unquestioned leader of a defense that has been among the NFL's best the past 4 seasons, hadn't given much in the way of indication that he wouldn't be back from the toe injury that shelved him for a majority of the 2014 season. But as a sign that you can never really know what's in the head of an athlete, Willis instead announced today that he planned to retire to pursue a more philanthropic career. It's noble, and certainly speaks to the character Willis displayed throughout his career, but that doesn't make it any less shocking.

Willis' career has been nothing but one accolade on top of another. Drafted by the 49ers in the 1st round in 2007, Willis was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, a first-team All Pro multiple times and voted to the Pro Bowl every year of his 8 year career except this past season. Willis was a leader in every sense; not so much that he set an example for his teammates both on and off the field, but for the fact that he made everyone around him better. NaVorro Bowman, who from everything I can gather like a little brother to Willis, was hardly heralded as a prospect when he entered the league in 2010, but after playing next to Willis became a force just as strong and together, the tandem helped the 49ers become great again. Bowman will be back, though nobody knows just how strong he will be after his knee injury now over a year ago, and certainly everyone had to think Willis would be there alongside him. But he won't.

Whether it was the wear and tear of playing at the level of ferocity he usually displayed or a religious awakening that became so prevalent across his social media pages, Willis decided now was the time for him to move on. It seems shocking and premature but the best way to look at it is to reflect on the 8 seasons he played and remember what a force he was.

Less surprising, but not less upsetting was the word that Frank Gore was also departing the 49ers after 10 sterling seasons as the team's Running Back. Gore, a Free Agent, wanted to be back and the 49ers certainly indicated they wanted to have him back at the end of the season, but the way things unfolded that seemed to dissolve, because I'm not sure the 49ers ever made him an offer. Over the weekend, it seemed like the hot word was that Gore was headed to the Eagles, but he ended up shunning Philly for an offer from the Indianapolis Colts.

With Gore, the answer of whether to bring him back or not seemed less cut and dry. Gore's 32-year old legs covered a lot of ground over his 10 seasons and at times he certainly didn't have the same juice he did when he was younger. But just when you figured he was through, he'd come out and rip off a 120+ yard game and score 2 Touchdowns and you'd remember that he was still the same Frank Gore who was always going to get the job done. Gore, the 49ers all-time leading rusher and a 5-time Pro Bowler, always ran tough and angry, but accomplished his job humbly, so much so that sometimes it was easy to overlook him. But he was always there in the end to grind out tough yards when the 49ers needed it most.

Most importantly, Gore and Willis were the two key cogs on the 49ers through the latter half of the dark era of 49ers football in the mid to late 00s that toiled through a lot of lean years before finally getting a taste of success in the past few seasons. When the 49ers re-emerged in the Jim Harbaugh era, it was Gore and Willis who stood front and center as the team's leaders and nobody questioned that. These were two players that clearly appreciated every ounce of the winning they got to experience. But as Harbaugh has departed, and now Gore and Willis have left as well, it seems that the window on this era has closed for the 49ers. The 49ers do have the depth and pieces on their roster now to replace these large holes, but will they? It's not the time now to focus on how or why this has happened here, or to start knocking owner Jed York, or whatever. For now, you tip your cap to Patrick Willis and Frank Gore, a pair of great players who always made me proud to root for the 49ers.

No comments: