There has never been a louder crowd in San Francisco 49ers history than the one that filled Candlestick Park on Saturday. Seismic inspectors probably need to head over there and check the foundation to make sure it’s safe for future games after how the place shook. I’ve been to about 12-15 Niners games over the years, and this was different — and not just because it was my first playoff game.
I’m awfully proud of the way the 49ers fought against the New Orleans Saints, who gained more of my respect yesterday than they did throughout their Super Bowl run or at any time this season. The Niners started the game as high as the planes towing signs around the stadium all morning long, and the Saints didn’t lose sight of their own offensive greatness … even after falling behind 17-0. They were as advertised. Explosive, with two of the most difficult players to defend in the NFL — Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham — who both scored dagger touchdowns late in the fourth quarter.
I’m almost as proud of the fans that surrounded me at The Stick yesterday. Over the years and decades, it wasn’t just the 49ers who were (often inaccurately) classified as a “finesse” team. Their fans were known as “white wine sippers,” a stereotype fueled in part by San Francisco’s proximity to Napa and Sonoma Counties and their appreciation of Bill Walsh’s nuanced offense that flew in the face of the smashmouth template that supposedly represented real football in the 1980s.
Sometimes the stereotype was warranted. Fans used to complain when the 49ers didn’t win by enough points, both in terms of scoring margin and style. When I had season tickets in 2001 (the people who originally owned them took them back the next year), my buddy Mac and I called the guy sitting next to me “Negative Nancy,” because the Niners could have a 2-touchdown lead and he’d complain that Jeff Garcia was throwing too many jump passes.
The Niners had great defenses, but the team was all about offense in terms of image and the fans reacted in kind. It used to be that when the defense was out there, the fans cheered pretty loudly but were mostly looking forward to touchdown passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young. Now, 49ers crowds love their defense as much as any group of fans ever has.
In Jim Harbaugh’s last game coaching the Cardinal, his team blew out Virginia Tech with a mix of line shifts and tight end wizardry, with a quarterback that possesses some of the qualities of both Joe Montana and Steve Young, only bigger. But Harbaugh’s 49ers aren’t about trickeration and imaginative offensive schemes. There’s a little of that, but mainly Harbaugh and his staff have built the toughest, scariest team in the league.
The fans have seized upon this very image … and made it their own.
Props to the Saints for not losing their composure. I don’t know how they held it together, with the 49ers swarming the field and Donte Whitner taking years off Pierre Thomas’ lifespan (sounds ugly, but it’s probably true). Lesser teams would’ve given up early and spent the last three quarters avoiding further injury.
Unanimity: a sight to behold
Saints fans? I saw about 30 of them all day. It took us forever to get through the gates and into the stadium, but as we sat down and Huey Lewis and the News started the anthem a few minutes later, I couldn’t believe it. 99% of the fans were in their seats. Everyone was wearing red and white. I could barely hear the anthem because everyone was singing along.
The fans were into the entire game, especially on defense.
(Well, except for the young woman sitting four seats to our right who spent the second and third quarters throwing up — my favorite moment was when her friends brought her a huge order of french fries, with copious amounts of MUSTARD. Here, pukey! These fried potatoes drenched in French’s will make you right as rain!)
No waves or excessive noise from the fans when the Niners had the ball, and throat-scorching screams on every defensive play, not just third downs. I high-fived more strangers yesterday, both during and after the game, than anytime in my whole life — and I’m an equal-opportunity high-fiver. Today my voice sounds like a cross between Super Dave Osborne, Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone and Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, and I couldn’t be happier. It was easily worth the money, partly because I have doubts that the Saints would’ve lost a playoff game against any other team, in any other stadium.
The 49ers are a defensive team, although the offense came through and saved the day in the end with Alex Smith leading the team on two drives totaling 165 yards with less than 4 minutes remaining in this instant-classic. After the post pass to Vernon Davis that sealed the victory, the crowd yelled as fiercely as they had all afternoon for the defense, only this time half the crowd had tears welling up in their eyes.
Sports aren’t supposed to mean anything, really. “Just a game,” right? If so, then why do I keep getting the chills every time I think about yesterday’s events, from the pregame tailgate with people yelling “WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US?” followed by everyone around yelling “NO-BODY!!!” … to the reactions after that garbage pass interference call on Whitner, Whitner’s hit on Thomas that negated the officiating buffoonery from minutes earlier, Dashon Goldson’s interception and return, Vernon Davis’ first touchdown, Tarell Brown’s acrobatic INT, sacks by Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks, Michael Crabtree’s touchdown, Alex calmly leading the 49ers down the field, the 49ers jumping and celebrating as they ran off the field … with the night ending in a jubilant parking lot with people still yelling “WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US?”
To be able to share this moment with my wife, my dad and the rest of my family is something I’ll never forget, regardless of how this season ends. And sharing it with a group of supremely passionate fans, living vicariously through guys like Justin and Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and others — simply amazing. The rest of the nation didn’t think the 49ers or their fans had this kind of physicality — both in the field or in the stands — in them, and I’m so glad they were wrong.