Volume 4, Number 2
Gather 'round, loyal readers, for as a cursory glance at the old calendar on the wall reveals, it's January and we all know what that means. Yes, the Niners have once again been bumped from the playoffs and so its time for our annual Demise of the Niners Report.
Yes, yes, I know. The downfall of the NFL's flagship franchise has been confidently predicted off and on ever since the opening round playoff loss to the Vikings in '87. Since then the Niners have survived the loss of stars Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark, John Taylor, etc, etc, etc despite all predictions to the contrary. The much-feared coaching transition from Bill Walsh to George Siefert was met with an immediate Super Bowl victory, then followed up with another four years later. Even the switch from Siefert to Boy Wonder-Steve Mariucci seems to have panned out rather well, with the Niners running up a 25-7 regular season mark over Mariucci's first two years at the helm.
So why the doom-and-gloom? If anything, shouldn't the "experts" have learned a thing or two from having written so many premature eulogies in the past?
Obviously, you know nothing about experts. We experts, you see, are not paid to learn, we are paid to teach. That being said, there are a number of reasons to take the current crop of doom-and-gloomers a bit more seriously than in the past.
First, despite the Niners' gaudy record during Mariucci's brief tenure, there has been a steady and appreciable drop in the quality of the football product being offered up to the Niner Faithful over the past two years. Just four years ago the Niners were the undisputed best team in the league. Two years ago they had slipped to number two behind the Packers, and just one year ago they could reasonably claim to be among the top three or four teams in the league. This year? Let's see, there's Minnesota, Atlanta, Denver, Green Bay, the Jets... You see where I'm headed? In just two years under Steve Mariucci the Niners have gone from one of the top two teams in the league to, at best one of the top six and quite possible only one of the top ten.
You disagree? Step into my archives and let's take a quick peek at the past season. One of the hallmarks of any truly strong team is that they win on the road. Of the Niners 12 wins, 8 came at home. This means (stick with me math nerds) that the Mighty Niners were only 4-4 on the road. Now, of those four road wins exactly zero were at the expense of a team with a winning record. That's right, zero. St. Louis, New Orleans, Carolina, and Washington. Not exactly a murderer's row of opponents.
Now let's take a look at that 8-0 home record. Again, three of the opponents were the Rams, Saints, and Panthers. Toss in the Colts, Lions, and Giants and all of a sudden six of those wins look a bit puny. Even the opening day overtime win over the Jets loses a bit of it's luster when it's pointed out that Glen Foley handled the quarter backing duties for the Jets that day and, well, to this day no one really knows what Bill Parcels was thinking.
But there is more going on here than simply W's and L's and strength of schedule. To accurately evaluate the Niners one needs to look not only at who they are beating, but how they are beating them.
Time was when the Niners would come out of the locker room with a game plan and proceed to execute it with precision. They took control of opponents from the opening whistle through the final gun. To beat the Niners you had to play flawlessly, because you knew they would, too.
Now, the current edition of the Niners turn the ball over at inopportune times. They commit stupid penalties. They miss blocking assignments. They arm tackle. They make mistakes. Against the hapless (and at that point winless) Colts, the Niners were down by three scores before they knew what hit them and needed so much help from the officials to get back into it that the league later apologized...publicly...for the blown calls. Both games against lowly Carolina came down to last-second field goals. And it took a last-second miracle grab by Terrell Owens to get past an injury-riddled Packer team in the Wild card game. A play which, it bears mentioning, replays showed should never even have been possible but for yet another blown call on a Jerry Rice fumble only seconds earlier.
So what does the future hold for the Niners, particularly the immediate future? Well, on the plus side, Steve Young and Jerry Rice have both indicated that they will return for at least one more year. With Young coming off a career year this bodes well for a team who, for the first time in nearly two decades, has no idea who will be taking snaps two years down the road. Plus, assuming his broken leg heals properly, Garrison Hearst's presence solidifies the running game for many years to come.
On the downside, the number on the lips of everyone in the Niner organization (those who are left, that is) is 25 million. That's how many dollars the Niners are over the salary cap heading into next season and they have exactly one month to trim that number down. That's a lot of contract negotiations for an organization that has lost two team presidents, a general manager, a director of player personnel and a team owner in just the past six months. Assuming they actually can pull it off, that still leaves precious little to resign their own free agents like Owens (restricted) and JJ Stokes (unrestricted), let alone pursue much needed free agent help for their increasingly patchwork offensive line and their rapidly-disintegrating secondary.
So how will the Niners fare in '99? The NFC West, long the personal property of the San Francisco 49ers, has nevertheless been won by non-Niner teams two of the past three seasons. The Niners will still no doubt pile up their customary six wins against the Rams, Panthers, and Saints, but looks to have bitten off more than they can chew with former doormat Atlanta, who beat them convincingly the last two times they met. It is not beyond the scope of possibility that the Niners could win ten games again, but it will likely be their last time. The Niners are, right now, an average team and within two seasons their record will reflect it. You heard it here first.