Old 49ers greats thrilled with team's resurgence

  • Discuss Comment, Blog about
  • Print Friendly and PDF

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Hall of Famer Jerry Rice wears the championship ring from San Francisco's Super Bowl victory after the 1989 season on his right middle finger for all to see. He smiles as he makes it known he also rotates in the other two rings he helped win for the franchise, in the 1988 and 1994 seasons.

There is a renewed sense of pride among the old 49ers stars this season. They are thrilled to watch this once-proud organization enjoy a resurgence at last under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. It stung for Rice, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and the rest of the former greats during an eight-year playoff drought, too.

Under Harbaugh, hired away from nearby Stanford last January on a $25 million, five-year deal to turn things around in short order, the NFC West champion Niners (13-3) have emerged as an unlikely NFC power. They are the conference's No. 2 seed and earned a first-round bye this weekend. For the banged-up roster, the extra week should help many players heal before their home game Jan. 14 at Candlestick Park.

What a dramatic change in culture for a club that hadn't reached the postseason or posted a winning record since 2002, and only longed for the glory days of Rice and others such as Steve Young and Dwight Clark.

"It's been very hard, but it's good to see the Niners working their way back," Rice said. "They're doing it defensively. The defense is awesome. Jim Harbaugh, he instilled an identity to this team. ... If they can get a little bit more consistent in the red zone, there's no telling how far this team can go."

As they've been much of this season, the 49ers are still largely considered an underdog as they return to the NFL's big stage. Harbaugh loves it that way. He thrives on being doubted, unappreciated and underestimated.

From his blue-collar worker mentality - Harbaugh untucks his shirt after a victory to signal a day's work - to his uncanny motivational tactics that have reached every corner of the locker room, the 49ers bought in from Day 1. They decided this would be their season and Harbaugh would lead them, a year after San Francisco was picked to win the division only to stumble to an embarrassing 0-5 start and a surprising 6-10 finish.

"What I appreciate is they stuck together through it, they persevered, they did it right," defensive line coach Jim Tomsula said. "The guys did it right."

Now, that "Who's got it better than us? No-body!" chant that Harbaugh learned it from his coaching father, Jack, and is such a rage that shirts were made. Players wear them around before and after practice.

Harbaugh has done it his way, unfazed by anyone who doesn't like him. Take that handshake flap and firm backslap on Lions coach Jim Schwartz at Detroit on Oct. 16.

"I think it was Harbaugh, but I think it came down to this team taking over, these players starting to believe in themselves," Rice said. "You see that on the football field right now. They believe when they step on that field they can win the football game. When Mike Singletary had this team, I didn't see that. I always talk about having that quality of play, knowing you have that confidence to go out there and do it."

San Francisco landed eight players in the Pro Bowl along with a cast of alternates. Both Pro Bowl-bound kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee set NFL records - Akers the single-season field goal mark with 44, and Lee the single-season net punting average of 44.0.

"One of the great things about this 2011 team is their ability to find ways to win and finish games," Harbaugh said. "And it's good to win in different ways - when you have a team that can win by scoring four touchdowns, or you can win with special teams, maybe different ways than had been our formula in other games we've won."

The 49ers' 10 turnovers matched the 2010 New England Patriots for least in the NFL since 1941. Alex Smith's five interceptions rank fewest in franchise history for a single season and tied for fewest in NFL history. San Francisco's 36-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher ended at Seattle in Week 16.

The defense allowed only three rushing touchdowns in 2011 - all in the final two games - to set an NFL record for fewest since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

"They have something very special," said Lott, a Hall of Fame defensive back. "They don't give up inches. They're the AFC version of the NFC. They have an AFC-type mentality of how they play their defense. It's funny because nobody has said they play a lot like the Ravens and a lot like the Steelers but they play a lot like those defenses. It bodes well because both those defenses have been in the championship game and Super Bowls. So you've got to like that identity leads to the championship. The other thing I would say is I like the way they tackle. I like the way they're able to get to the ball and they're able to not only get to the ball but the way they buy into making sure that everybody's taking care of their responsibility."

Harbaugh is a big reason for that: Everybody feels involved. Practice squad players make road trips, not often the case around the league.

From Smith to running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis to left tackle Joe Staley, to star linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Dashon Goldson of the NFL's top-ranked run defense, San Francisco has its share of playoff first-timers. In fact, long snapper Brian Jennings is the lone remaining member from the last playoff team in 2002 that stunned the New York Giants.

Any perceived inexperience among this group has been a non-factor so far.

"I feel like it's definitely important, not just for myself but for the veterans and the organization, knowing we're in the position that we're in," cornerback Chris Culliver said. "And that we want to go farther than we are right now. The guys don't talk about it, but I knew we hadn't been in the playoffs before this."

Harbaugh is credited for getting the most out of Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick out of Utah who figured to be gone in free agency. Instead, Harbaugh took a shot that he could turn Smith into a consistent winner, handed over his playbook before the lockout ended and then signed Smith to a $4.9 million, one-year deal. All those boos that Smith - playing for his seventh offensive coordinator in as many seasons - faced from the home fans in his first six NFL seasons have turned to cheers.

It was Smith who took the leadership initiative to gather the team together at San Jose State last summer for player-led workouts. The 49ers plan to bring him back in 2012.

Smith led five fourth-quarter comebacks, including four on the road - which matched Montana for most in franchise history. "Joe Cool" did it during that 1989 Super Bowl season.

"With Alex Smith, I always talk about that it factor," Rice said. "There are so many quarterbacks, but they don't have that it factor. I'm starting to see a lot more of that in him right now and it probably has a lot to do with Jim Harbaugh because he played that position."

Even the young players seem to sense the importance of this season's success to the big picture and future.

The 49ers hope to break ground this spring on a new $1 billion state-of-the-art stadium not far from team headquarters.

"This is new territory for all of us, but we're definitely putting ourselves in the best position to make a run at this thing, to have everybody with us, to have every tool that we've got," rookie wide receiver Kyle Williams said. "The whole cavalry, as people have been saying."

A cavalry that includes the likes of Rice, Lott and Montana rooting them on the whole way.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment