Not your father’s 49ers – or are they?

Exactly thirty years ago this week, I became a member of the “49er Faithful.”

San Francisco 49ers 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
San Francisco 49ers 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Exactly thirty years ago this week, I became a member of the “49er Faithful.”
I was two weeks short of my tenth birthday and the whole family had gathered in front of the television in northern California to watch a very important game pitting the perennial Super Bowl-favorite Dallas Cowboys against the upstart San Francisco 49ers.
Only later would I understand that it was the NFC Championship Game and that the winner would head to Super Bowl XVI.
The 49ers trailed Dallas by six points with a minute to go when Joe Montana dropped back and lofted a pass to the back of the end zone where a leaping Dwight Clark made “The Catch” for a touchdown and history was made.
Fast forward thirty years, to last Saturday night here in Israel.
My brother and I huddled in my parent’s basement (because they have cable) in the wee hours of the night as my parents and the rest of the neighborhood slept.
It has been a long drought for us “Faithful,” nine long years since a playoff game featuring San Francisco, a span I never would have dreamed of growing up.
I was lucky enough to grow up in Palo Alto, California, an hour’s drive south of San Francisco during the Golden Age of 49er football. I had a Joe Montana poster on my wall until I was eighteen.
My younger brother continued the tradition by sporting a Steve Young jersey at any occasion possible. In retrospect, the five Super Bowl titles and countless 49er playoff games between the two decades from 1981- 2001 were taken for granted.
But a harsh reality set in at the start of the new millennium. A revolving door of quarterbacks and head coaches led to a decade of mediocrity at best and downright terrible football at times. Ownership changed hands, albeit within the same family, but the 49er’s glory years had most certainly come to a close.
But as I sat on the edge of my seat watching the playoff game against the Saints on Saturday night, I reflected on how different this 49ers team was from the great teams of the 1980’s and 90’s that I grew up on.
Those teams won with offense: Montana to Clark, Young to Rice, etc.
This year’s team wins with a punishing defense and excellent special teams play.
In fact, Saturday’s Divisional Round playoff game went the way it was supposed to – at the start. The 49ers’ defense caused New Orleans to turn the ball over several times and San Francisco took an early 17-0 lead.
But the Saints charged back behind quarterback Drew Brees and regained the lead late in the game. The 49ers surged ahead, but Brees threw another touchdown which left the 49ers trailing by three points with just over a minute to go.
I turned to my brother and reasoned that San Francisco would settle for a field goal to tie and send the game into overtime.
With an excellent kicker like David Akers, this seemed like the obvious thing to do. After all, these 49ers don’t score touchdowns at will like the teams of my youth.
But when quarterback Alex Smith hit tight end Vernon Davis with the game winning touchdown in the final seconds to advance the 49ers to next Sunday’s NFC Championship game (which will be against the New York Giants in San Francisco), a sense of nostalgia washed over me.
Granted, Coach Jim Harbaugh is no Bill Walsh, and Smith-to-Davis is not the same as Montana-to-Clark, but who knows? To the ten-year-old boy inside of me – it kind of is.