We are witnessing the re-rise of the 49ers. Re-rise is a made-up word, but you know what it means. I will get to the re-rise in a moment.
The 49ers initially rose in 1981, that miracle season when they went from being nobodies to winning the Super Bowl.
One of the key games in the initial rise took place Nov.1, 1981. I had been covering the Yankees-Dodgers World Series and when the Series ended on a Wednesday night in New York — the Dodgers won — my editor told me not to fly home right away. First, he wanted me in Pittsburgh where the 49ers were playing the Steelers on Sunday.
The Niners had lost two of their first three games, but now, amazingly, they were on a five-game winning streak and they were newsworthy. So, I ended up in Pittsburgh for what some people still call the Carlton Williamson Game. Singlehandedly, Williamson, the strong safety, took out most of the Steelers' receivers and this was a big deal because in 1978 the Steelers had come to Candlestick and walloped the Niners, just beat them up, the Steelers winning 24-7.
Mike Shumann told me the 49ers had been intimidated in the 1978 game. Shumann is the sports anchor at Channel7 and he played wide receiver for San Francisco back then, and when he and the others saw Williamson in action in that rematch in 1981, and when the Niners knocked off the Steelers 17-14 that day, Shumann knew something had changed.
"That was the first time we thought, &‘Maybe we can get to the playoffs,' he said. "The Super Bowl never crossed our minds."
I stood outside the 49ers' victorious locker room after that game and I heard the cheer go up, and the 49ers sounded like a college team. The Niners had beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh and they cheered and cheered like kids.
And that leads to the re-rise. Until this season, the 49ers had been wandering in the desert a long time. You know that. Jim Harbaugh has led the 49ers to a record of 6-1. It may interest you to know this: the season before the Niners rose under Bill Walsh, their record was 6-10. Last season, the Niners' record was 6-10.
The 49ers have the second-best record in the entire league, and this means they almost certainly are an excellent team. And this means, in the culture of the Bay Area, they are once again beginning to take their rightful place as the preeminent sports franchise. They may be taking their rightful place as a preeminent franchise in American sports. Remember when they were just that, among the preeminent outfits in the country?
All this Harbaugh is doing.
But what exactly is he doing?
Come back to Walsh, a football visionary if there ever was one. Walsh took over the 49ers in a specific football era. Teams, for the most part, emphasized the run game and the long-pass game. Walsh turned that on its head. If defenses were built to stop the run, he would pass. He would set up runs by passing. What a brilliant counterpoint to the prevailing style. And it worked.
In a sense, Harbaugh is doing the same thing. His inherited football world — today's world — is a pass-first league. It is a pass-happy league. All defenses, by necessity, are constructed to stop the pass. Harbaugh is seizing his moment, as Walsh seized his, by going against the trend.