The San Francisco 49ers are Mike Tyson. Oh, that may be an overstatement. So, let me be more subtle. They show signs of being Mike Tyson, and that should make them worry.
For a time, Tyson was a very good heavyweight. He was the most famous boxer in the world and he knocked out a lot of guys — no one great — just guys. In a list of the all-time great heavyweights I do not include Tyson. In a list of all-time great football teams, I do not include the current 49ers — but they have time to achieve greatness.
How are they like Tyson?
Both are bullies.
Tyson would scare opponents to death and he defeated them before they entered the ring. He couldn't scare Evander Holyfield to death. Holyfield stood up to him and knocked him out, and in the rematch Tyson took the coward's way out and got disqualified for the most famous ear chomp in sports history.
The Niners never bit an ear I know of, but their entire game depends on being bullies.
How are the 49ers bullies?
Their defense, especially their front seven, makes the opponent scared to run the ball — scared to death. The front seven have been the strength of the 49ers, although that strength isn't as strong as it was. How many times have you seen teams give up on the run from the opening play? It's like when Tyson TKO'd petrified Bruce Seldon in the first round. I'm not sure Tyson actually landed a punch. The mere thought of a punch was enough to put Seldon in a swoon.
Because teams were scared to run against the Niners, they reverted to passing, made themselves one dimensional. The Niners' defense could deal with a one-dimensional team that had capitulated on the run. Last season, the 49ers allowed just one back to run for 100 or more yards — in the next-to-last game, in Seattle. Marshawn Lynch ran for 107 yards, did it when Patrick Willis, the 49ers' best run stopper, did not play. That's it — just one 100-yard-plus rusher an entire season. The Niners were dominating.
Things are different this year. The league finally figured out what you do with a bully. You stand up to a bully. If the Niners depend on you to abandon the run, well, you run as hard as you can, just pound them on the ground. You intentionally go against the 49ers' strength and, if you're good and brave and a little lucky, you take their strength away from them and they become like everyone else.
Quick Bill Walsh note — Bill would tell me this all the time. "Lowell, if all you depend on is being tough, you will eventually meet a tougher team. What do you do then?"
I wish Bill could ask Jim Harbaugh this question. Bill always wanted something else in case toughness didn't work. On defense, Harbaugh does not have that something else.
Get this. In the last four games, the 49ers have allowed three backs to rush for more than 100 yards: Ahmad Bradshaw, 116 yards; Lynch, 103, Steven Jackson, 101. On one play on Sunday, Jackson knocked Willis backward. It was awe-inspiring to witness.
We're seeing a trend here: The bully is vulnerable. Next game, the Niners play the Chicago Bears, who have a super runner in Matt Forte. The bully needs to be careful.