Frank Gore

For 49ers, this week marked the end of an era

49ers Super Bowl team photo

It takes a long time to build a championship team. The 2012 San Francisco 49ers didn’t seize the opportunity to complete that journey. I was at that game, in the stands behind the end zone where Jacoby Jones scored those touchdowns and Colin Kaepernick threw those final three passes to Michael Crabtree, surrounded by Ravens fans chanting “Seven Nation Army.” The 49ers played most of that game as if they knew they’d get at least two more shots at it, and their post-blackout flurry wasn’t enough. Despite carrying a very strong team into the 2013 season, Seattle’s ascendance proved too much to overcome. The Seahawks gained homefield advantage that year, and slammed the 49ers’ oft-mentioned “championship window” shut.

The 49ers surprised the nation in January of 2012 when they edged the Saints in the Divisional round and took the Giants to overtime at Candlestick Park in one of the most frustrating NFC Championship Games for a franchise that has suffered more than its fair share.* But the feeling was so positive, even after Kyle Williams’ mistakes and all of those late three-and-outs, because we saw a different kind of greatness than in years past. This wasn’t a fluke. This was a team. A deep, punishing team that had just started to realize what it could achieve.

* The 49ers have lost nine conference title games, including four in an eight-year span in the 1990s.

This isn’t another article about decisions made by Jed York and Trent Baalke. This isn’t about coaches, either. This is about four men who were at the peak of their powers during that 2011 season.

Four Mighty Men

Frank Gore (2005): He wasn’t known for outrunning defensive backs in the open field, but he could do everything else. He had moves, vision, patience, leverage and toughness. He noticed and anticipated certain things during games that his coaches couldn’t hope to see or predict in real time, hours before they could watch the film when it would’ve been too late. He was short with bad knees, and at times he blocked as well as any tight end in the league. He was equal parts confidence and insecurity, with his brain carrying the names of the running backs drafted before him on speed dial.

Patrick Willis (2007): Such a weak, nondescript defense the 49ers had in the mid-2000s. They finished last in the NFL in points or yards allowed in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Willis won Defensive Rookie of the Year, and the team followed his lead with incremental defensive improvement in each season before becoming a top-five unit in 2011. Willis was around to wreak havoc, clean up teammates’ messes, and crush unaware receivers in the middle of the field. If a tailback was tackled within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Willis was either making the play or right there.

Justin Smith*** (2008): It seemed like the 49ers went a little overboard when they took Smith on a helicopter visit around The City during his recruiting visit. By 2011, it was clear that something clicked — Smith went from being a very good defensive lineman to the most disruptive defensive force that season. He was double-teamed with regularity, so maybe that’s why he made First-Team All-Pro as a defensive tackle and Second-Team All-Pro as a defensive end in the same season.

*** There’s still a chance Justin Smith will come back and play for the 49ers for one more year (or partial-year), but it’d probably be in a part-time role. He clearly wasn’t anywhere near his former self at the end of the 2014 season. 

Mike Iupati (2010): Don’t draft a guard that high, some said. Others noted how Iupati was enormous and seemed to knock defenders back with rare force. One scouting report said “once he gets his hands on opponents it’s pretty much all over.” Yep. It would’ve been something to see Smith and Iupati face each other during this period.

Harbaugh got an enormous amount of credit for molding this group into a winner without much in the way of an offseason, and he and his staff deserve their fair share. But football puts coaches on pedestals that can sometimes be too high — it also takes talented, smart players who are honest with themselves and each other to create a team strong, nimble, cohesive and fearless enough to survive and win games in a brutal league where parity is a constant.

Of the many cheesy phrases Harbaugh trotted out on a weekly/daily basis, one that truly hit the mark at that time was “Mighty Men.” This was indeed true of the team as a whole, and the four players listed above in particular. With Willis’ retirement, Iupati reporting this week that he played with a broken foot last season, the utter shock many observers display that Gore is still in the league at his age, and the missed practices and lengthy list of injuries sustained by Smith, that 2011 team seems like the end of an era for the sport. The NFL made a show of how they were going to start legislating certain types of violent acts out of the game more than ever around this time, but the 49ers had no such worries in 2011. They obliterated people and loved it. Alex Boone — not a 49ers figure on par with the four above, but a mauler in his own right — described the trend toward a “safer” kind of NFL quite well, and somewhat angrily, in a rant back in September. The 2011-12 teams were built for any era, except perhaps the one that immediately followed.

Why the NFL should never expand its regular season

Three straight long playoff runs would’ve taken a physical toll, even if all three years ended in a championship. But the cumulative anguish from those losses can’t run too far behind. The “Vernon post” win over New Orleans was Smith’s first playoff victory (he was a Bengals rookie in 2001). Gore and Willis worked so hard to bring the franchise out of post-Mariucci despair. Iupati probably felt like he stepped onto the ground floor of a future dynasty and hopped into an elevator on its way up, just as the doors were closing.

It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion than this was the part of a championship core — also including Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Anthony Davis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald (sorry, but he was a part of this defense’s greatness) — that fell a quarterback short of ultimate glory. Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have their strengths. Smith is a man who’s born to fit in with just about any group, and he ran an offense with an eye toward how he could help his team’s incredible defense on just about every play (translation: don’t take risks, punt whenever necessary). Kaepernick had a built-in advantage in 2012, since the league had no idea how to defend him, and his athletic gifts took the 49ers to the brink. But no team is stacked at every position. The 49ers had good quarterbacks, not great, and very average receivers while the rest of the roster was overflowing with smart, strong, motivated and unyielding talent.

Cause for celebration

The NFL is not a league for softies. Loyalty? Ha. Fairness? C’mon. Continuity? Only for the owners and officials, pal.

Just like one can’t seriously complain that the 49ers didn’t end up with Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers during that era, it’s ridiculous to mourn this era to the point of pretending it wasn’t completely awesome in certain respects. We may never see a better run defense wear red and gold than that 2011 squad. For those who love the NFL because it’s brutal and dangerous, that year was the time when athletic prowess and the NFL’s apathy toward concussions met at its highest point. It’s awful to admit such a thing, but not one 49ers fan, reporter or employee mourned the effects of Donte Whitner’s hit on Pierre Thomas at the time.

Beyond the visceral pleasure these teams created — especially relative to how soft and weak the 49ers appeared during the Dennis Erickson years and at the beginning of Mike Nolan’s tenure — these were players who demanded respect for what they did on the field.

“Here I stand, not as a perfect man, but as a honest man.” 

That’s what Willis told the world with teary eyes during Tuesday’s press conference. The words could also be stated by the other three men on this list and be equally true. We don’t know these players as people, or what they do when they aren’t in workouts, meetings, practices and games. But when Willis, Gore, Smith and Iupati prepared and played, they did it honestly. They weren’t putting anybody on when they spoke with the media, either. The feelings I got from talking to these players:

  • Willis was the hard-working realist who knew his time on the field was limited by the game itself and the way he played.
  • Gore was the passionate one whose feelings on football hadn’t changed since childhood.
  • Iupati was the quiet giant, an observer waiting to make a joke about what he saw to his brothers on the o-line.
  • Smith was the no-BS guy, the one who thought everything outside of football was a little silly and frivolous and not worth worrying about, while humoring us and our questions just the same.

On the field, it was all about kicking ass … intelligently. That’s how I feel like Smith would describe it … maybe he wouldn’t bring up the “intelligently” part, although it most certainly holds true for all four players. No dumb penalties and very few forgotten assignments from this bunch.

In an offseason clouded by egos, “class,” arrogance, money and pain, the way to take solace isn’t to “move on.” That’ll come in September, and only if the roster and the new “teachers” mold something special. It’s OK to feel badly that this group of 49ers never got to share in the glory of a big silver trophy and a parade, like the teams from two and three decades prior.

But it’s also OK to remember the physical sacrifices these players made. And the emotional drive it took to pull this team out of mediocrity and back to relevancy, tugging the fans who grew accustomed to incompetence back to the feelings of pride and superiority they experienced so many years before. And the entertainment. Each player did it in his own style, but there was a common thread. Iupati, paving lanes and smiling after another pancake. Gore, chirping to anyone who’d listen that the ball should be his and immediately proving why. Smith, pushing two 315-pound men backward and into their quarterback. Willis, chasing down a running back from behind like a tiger before the gazelle could turn the corner and escape.

This group didn’t win a championship, but they were championship players. And they will be replaced by players of similar stature, and, someday, similar talent (the 49ers hope so, anyway). But the feeling that Gore, Willis, Smith and Iupati brought to the field when they were all at their best won’t be forgotten.

81 Comments

Leave a Reply

81 Comments on "For 49ers, this week marked the end of an era"

Notify of
avatar
 
smilegrinwinkmrgreenneutraltwistedarrowshockunamusedcooleviloopsrazzrollcryeeklolmadsadexclamationquestionideahmmbegwhewchucklesillyenvyshutmouth
Photo and Image Files
 
 
 
Audio and Video Files
 
 
 
Other File Types
 
 
 
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
realGaryParks
Guest
Member
realGaryParks

BASportsGuy NinersNation Brilliant piece, the Whitner hit on Thomas is my defining memory of that team. No quarter given.

mpena43
Guest
Member
mpena43

BASportsGuy NinersNation Candellstick being demolished as we speak just cements the end of an era to me.

ishwr
Guest
Member
ishwr

BASportsGuy well written

Mosquedaway
Guest
Member
Mosquedaway

BASportsGuy NinersNation goldson whitner laying wood, kendall dixon gore, delanie and vern 49ers TaylorPrice

BASportsGuy
Guest
Member
BASportsGuy

ishwr Thanks!

BASportsGuy
Guest
Member
BASportsGuy

realGaryParks NinersNation Thanks – I’ll never forget the ferocity of that defense during those two playoff games in Jan 2012.

BASportsGuy
Guest
Member
BASportsGuy

Mosquedaway NinersNation 49ers TaylorPrice All good adds – traits were seen team-wide, I just wanted to focus on the departing players

BASportsGuy
Guest
Member
BASportsGuy

mpena43 NinersNation Very true. Those teams and the Stick were a great fit. Definitely a new era in that respect as well.

realGaryParks
Guest
Member
realGaryParks

BASportsGuy NinersNation absolutely, the Giants game was the most punishing display I’ve ever seen. Smith dominated with sheer force.

willypallen
Guest
Member
willypallen

BASportsGuy Great job. I’ve shed so many man tears this week, so why not add a few more?

oldmanengel
Guest
Member
oldmanengel

BASportsGuy NinersNation Really great read

BASportsGuy
Guest
Member
BASportsGuy

oldmanengel NinersNation Thanks!

Tee_Ah_Go
Guest
Member
Tee_Ah_Go

BASportsGuy No future Super Bowl victory will be as satisfying. That 2011 group deserved to win. They were there for the bad times.

280_Drew
Guest
Member
280_Drew

BASportsGuy Excellent, excellent article!

BASportsGuy
Guest
Member
BASportsGuy

280_Drew Thank you, Mr. Shula.

deselled
Guest
Member
deselled

@BASportsGuy Steve I think when Justin Smith grabbed Brees’ shoulder and dragged him down while he was being held/blocked was when I felt that that group had become something special. What a bad ass. I always felt the 2011 group was the one that deserved that championship the most. Truly ‘blue collar’ hard working guys.

Bay Area Sports Guy
Guest
Member

deselled That play you’re talking about was absolutely ludicrous. Smith was held more than anyone I’ve ever seen during that season, and it usually didn’t work.

Tivo_Sensitivo
Guest
Member
Tivo_Sensitivo

BASportsGuy this perfectly counters the petulant “SB or bust” mentality… we as fans were being treated to greatness, trophy or no trophy

Mosquedaway
Guest
Member
Mosquedaway

BASportsGuy NinersNation 49ers TaylorPrice GREAT piece, always excited for april September! lets go Kaepernick7 !!!!

Jake
Guest
Member
Jake

I’d much rather read something like this, well-said and positive, then that crap Damon Bruce is spewing out. It’s been an incredible run and I’ve always felt that even if you don’t win the SB ever year, it’s nice to know your team can compete for it. The thrill is in the buildup to the postseason.

Sunset Boy
Guest
Member
Sunset Boy
Well done! Though I got spoiled growing up watching the Montana and Young era, the 2011 season was maybe the most enjoyable I had as a niners fan, even if it ended so brutally — it was so much fun watching a downtrodden team with so much potential suddenly put it all together. Harbaugh came in on his white horse and could do no wrong, everything he touched turned to red and gold (sorry.) The Championship game was an incredible gut punch, but there was optimism — it was as if they were just scratching the surface of what they… Read more »
Ivette Ricco
Guest
Member
Ivette Ricco

I agree wholeheartedly. The team was arguably the best team in the league in 2011 and 2012, and only Seattle was better, but not by much in 2013. The opportunity was there but it didn’t happen. York and Baalke would have us believe we are reloading but in this league it’s about talent and opportunity.
I love my Niners, but I abhor the reality of where this team has been and where it will be in 2015.

MonotoneBrian
Guest
Member
MonotoneBrian

CamInman BASportsGuy this broke my heart even more

mbflash80
Guest
Member
mbflash80

CamInman BASportsGuy absolutely great read…stirs all the emotions that team brought to longtime fans..none more than the redemption

Ben5hore
Guest
Member
Ben5hore

CamInman BASportsGuy oh this is much too tough to read right now.

MonotoneBrian
Guest
Member
MonotoneBrian

CamInman BASportsGuy rnog02 read this article fuckkkk the feels bro <|3

Lotstosay
Guest
Member
Lotstosay

Sorry but the mighty men of that 2011 team has to include Alex Smith. Would they have gotten as far as they did that year without camp Alex? And Joe Staley was a major force as well.

Bay Area Sports Guy
Guest
Member

Lotstosay This story was about the four “Mighty Men” who either called it quits (or reportedly might possibly retire, in Justin Smith’s case) or signed free agent deals with other teams this week.

Lotstosay
Guest
Member
Lotstosay

Bay Area Sports Guy Lotstosay I was replying to – it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion than this was the part of a championship core — also including Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Anthony Davis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald (sorry, but he was a part of this defense’s greatness) — that fell a quarterback short of ultimate glory.

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

Ivette Ricco Why will they be so awful in 2015? Dockett was a nice signing to replace an ancient Justin Smith. Torrey Smith is a great signing and going younger at RB is a good idea.

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

Sunset Boy wow what a “faithful” fan. Why are you so sure its turned to shit? Anybody who thinks the disappointing 2011 season was more enjoyable then the 1982 or 1984 Superbowl champion years must not have been alive back then.

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

The “Close but no cigar” era of 49er football coming to an end. I’m sorry I don’t remember it as fondly as some of you others do

Bay Area Sports Guy
Guest
Member

Lotstosay My opinion of Alex Smith followed that passage you quoted. The 49ers went 1-of-13 on third down in an NFC Championship Game that I spent hundreds of dollars to watch in person, so it’ll be tough to convince me to write about how great he was in a story about these four players. 
Alex had a great 2011 season … up until that third down TD pass to Vernon. After that, he came up short. The 49ers defense kept making stops, the Giants stacked the box, and Alex and the receivers couldn’t produce.

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

Bay Area Sports Guy Lotstosay The inability to stay healthy was also a staple of this era of 49ers football. Of the starting 4 WR’s at the beginning of the 2011 season only one was on the field in the playoffs. Josh Morgan was having a very good season when he went down with a season ending injury. Ginn got injured late in the year and Bryant flamed out after being hurt all year. Other then Crabtree then ended up having to play guys like Ziegler and Williams

Sunset Boy
Guest
Member
Sunset Boy
Thomas_Bird67 Tommy, I was 6 during the 1982 Superbowl season, which was historical and probably the most amazing season of 49er football ever, but forgive me if I wasn’t following it as closely as in 2011. I was concentrating on finger painting in school. 1984 was awesome, but the niners had established excellence at that point and went 15-1. They were as dominant as any team in history, and the super bowl was expected, not a surprise. What was so fun about 2011 was that it seemed to come out of nowhere. Strike shortened offseason, new and unproven coach, practically 10… Read more »
TIM______
Guest
Member
TIM______

BASportsGuy NinersNation New era is starting & who knows, might be better than the last 4 yrs. Most likely a lot better than last season!

Lotstosay
Guest
Member
Lotstosay
I guess all those great o line players you’re touting (and don’t misunderstand me, I too think they were great) had nothing to do with the non-production in that NFC Championship game, as well as the depleted receiver staff! Just don’t care for the way you find ways to dish a certain QB every chance you can work it in. The article about the four outgoing players was great but that paragraph you threw in about this championship core of 2011 players praising many, but singling out Alex Smith as not one of them is where my comments come from.
Daleeoo
Guest
Member
Daleeoo

Great article BASG. You summed up how I’ve been feeling in the past months.

spicybacon
Guest
Member
spicybacon

Yes it will be a long long time before the niners ever get to the playoffs. They had it and something broke it up. Perhaps York wants to build the team to win a superbowl 10 years from now but the odds are heavily against them. Why York couldn’t work on everyone’s positive and build a winning classy team is beside most people. He’s in over his head! You don’t throw away playoff and superbowl material ftom coaches to players you fix the legacys you have and build upon it.

spicybacon
Guest
Member
spicybacon

Might is really stretching it pretty far! Realistically niners will be on the bottom 4 next season. It’s inevitable! Even the season ticket holders know this and their selling their tickets for thousands of dollars less!

CrystalReed
Guest
Member
CrystalReed

I must agree with u lotstosay. Alex smith must be included in the mighty men. I believe he was the heart and soul of the team and that they traded the wrong player, but I always felt that way about it.

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67
Sunset Boy Thomas_Bird67 So I was right you weren’t even alive back then. You obviously enjoyed the ugly offensive football of the Harbaugh 49ers alot more then I did. 1984 was the most enjoyable 49er season EVER. The Niners had already established excellence in 1984? They only had 1 Superbowl ring at that point and had suffered a disappointing loss in the playoffs the year before. Going 15-1 wasn’t a given and beating Dan Marino in the Superbowl wasn’t a given either. If you think watching the league’s 30th ranked passing game was more entertaining then watching that then you have… Read more »
Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

spicybacon So bringing back the awful Harbaugh/Roman offense and some aging veterans for another year somehow was going to produce a championship? Hilarious. The team is better off today then it was a year ago. And after the draft it will be vastly better. Promise to stay off the bandwagon forever when the team is winning again? Go root for Michigan loser

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

spicybacon You want to put money on that? The team is better now then it was a year ago. Sorry, but those kind of fairweather fan season ticket holders didn’t deserve the seats in the first place. Good riddance.

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

@Tee_Ah_Go BASportsGuy A Superbowl victory will be less satisfying then choking in the playoffs? Pathetic. Speak for yourself dude. This close but no cigar era of 49er football will be forgotten as soon as they win another Superbowl.

Thomas_Bird67
Guest
Member
Thomas_Bird67

@Tivo_Sensitivo BASportsGuy Glad to know you enjoying losing so much. We were “treated” to a team and a coach who choked in the post season every year. Not sure how you get “greatness” out of that.

spicybacon
Guest
Member
spicybacon
First you have to be in denial that the niners have a serious serious confidence problem. Comparing Montanas offense to current shows your overly emotional logic. It’s not on too of the agenda. As we speak season holders are selling their seats for thousands less. Bird people don’t do that if it’s a better Harbaugh era. The guy n players become repeated division champs and 1 superbowl appearances on 4 yes 4 years . Either you don’t get it or your braindead. Niners have lost their confidence and thats deadly so don’t bull shit people on how much better it… Read more »
spicybacon
Guest
Member
spicybacon

@Bird You don’t get it. They will forget all of this when that’s when they win a superbowl but unfortunately it will not be in your lifetime. Seriously get real. It’s over way over 5 years minimum they will not have winning season. Bottom 4 next season and I doubt Tomsula and Cap will be playing for the niners in the future!

spicybacon
Guest
Member
spicybacon
@Bird It’s more hilarious to read someone write on how great they are. First they have Bumbling Sula with a defunct Cap that’s lost his groove and the majority of the NFL players n coaches that are really great are now avoided the niners.Words out that you don’t make money in San Fran as coach or player. And the list goes on and on. Personally I don’t know any season ticketholders that want to keep their tickets. Most of them say if they can sell their tickets theyd do it. Most niners fans are pretty disgusted with the few delusional… Read more »
chickenfried234
Guest
Member
chickenfried234

they were entertaining teams that won more than they lost. If that’s how badly you feel about the Harbaugh teams, you’re not going to like what’s coming next.

wpDiscuz
What is Bay Area Sports Guy?

It is the top independent sports site covering the teams that play in the best sports region in the United States. BASG is not an ordinary fan blog. It is a place where sports news is broken and analyzed by writers with access who are not afraid to question the status quo, writers who also produce original content in the form of videos, photographs and podcasts.

Questions/Comments? Email basg@bayareasportsguy.com
Fill out my online form.

Copyright © 2017 - Bay Area Sports Guy. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy Terms of Use and BASG Shop Terms

To Top