The first step is to realize that we are no longer rooting and hoping for our idealized version of football — that being the 1980’s 49ers. No, my friends, we are rooting for the 1980’s Bears. And really, isn’t that almost better in a sense?
There is no way any team the 49ers could have created could copy the West Coast offense Bill Walsh perfected as well as the teams Walsh coached. Can’t do it. We’d just be setting ourselves up for disappointment, much like when the first of the Star Wars prequels came out or when Jay-Z came back from “retirement” with Kingdom Come.
But if I ever had any twinges of NFL jealousy as a Niner fan in the ’80’s, it was whenever they faced a superior Bears or New York Giants team. Teams that weren’t as beautiful to watch offensively as the 49ers with either Joe Montana or Steve Young at the helm (but especially Montana), but on those occasions when they’d wear the 49ers’ offense down with unrelenting pass rushers and psychotic linebackers completely focused on inflicting pain, we might not have admitted it to ourselves, but everyone was a little envious.
In an age of few sporting gifts, realizing today that we’re getting to watch the reincarnation of the mid-1980’s Bears/Giants (but especially the Bears) on defense is one of the best presents we’ve received in the past five years, along with Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval (whose late-inning dugout-flip-catch/opposite-field-440-ft-homer this afternoon was the best two plays from one person I’ve ever seen in one half hour of baseball), Ant Randolph and Al Davis’ overhead projector.
Mike Singletary’s hype-train wasn’t derailed last week after Brett Favre’s real-life Wranglers commercial, but it was delayed at the station. Now it’s full steam ahead.
(Too many train metaphors? I guess I’ll leave that one out about the Rams establishing again that they’re the “caboose” of the NFC West.)
But just like Mike Ditka was able to share the spotlight with Singletary, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall, Otis Wilson, Steve McMichael, Fridge, Dave Duerson and (damn, there were a lot of stars on the 1985 Bears) Gary Fencik, the national love soon to shower upon Coach Sing better also sprinkle generously on Patrick Willis, Nate Clements, Justin Smith, Takeo Spikes, Ray McDonald, Manny Lawson, Dre Bly, Michael Lewis, Shawntae Spencer, Parys Haralson and Dashon Goldson (but especially Willis).
They say the clothes make the man, but Willis is making the 49ers new old threads look even more intimidating to opponents than when they were worn by Ronnie Lott. Lott may have been the best safety ever, but he was like a grenade — he didn’t blow people up extremely often, but when he did there was carnage. Willis blows people up on every play.
Stepping in front of that Kyle Boller pass and taking it to the house will get most of the attention, but what about the play in the fourth quarter where he leaped a blocker and Superman’d Boller for the sack (one of Willis’ 2.5 sacks on the day). If Willis doesn’t win the NFL Defensive MVP this year, he probably will in 2010.
When an NFL team shuts out any NFL team (even the 2009 Rams), one player can’t be the entire reason. Willis is this defense’s transcendent star, but Clements and Smith are different men this season. Maybe it was the verbal and physical punishment they distributed to the Raiders in the infamous preseason scrimmage in Napa, maybe it was a continuation of what Singletary started last season; whatever it is, Clements has become the best run-stopping corner in the league and Smith isn’t just pressuring the quarterback and getting sacks this season, he’s putting on a clinic on how to hit the quarterback after he throws without getting called for a penalty.
Maybe Smith has mastered the art of the almost-late-hit, or perhaps the refs are seeing what we see — a defensive unit that has earned the right to be feared and respected at the same time. A defense that makes conservative play-calling on offense look intelligent (after the game, anyway). A defense that makes the fans of other teams envious, like we all were, just a little, 20+ years ago.
The Rams aren’t good, and the 49ers couldn’t stop the Vikings in the last minute a week ago. Still, the only team that has given up fewer points than the Niners this season is the Denver Broncos (whose defense is coordinated by — gasp — Mike Nolan). With Singletary playing the role of Ditka and Willis playing the role of Sing, the 49ers’ defense looks awful Bears-like this season. I think I speak for many in say I’m open to watching a new template for excellence, one we’ve watched from afar before.