I ain’t no joke, I use to let the mic smoke
Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke

Eric B. & Rakim – 1987

Last year, every Monday I published a recap of NFL Sunday. That’s not what we’re doing on Popblerd this year. We may get a little team focused. We may change directions from time to time. Who knows?

But for the first football post of the season, I’m writing about the team I’ve been watching since 1983, the San Francisco 49ers. Last year, the team of the 80s had their first winning season since 2002, going 13-3 and taking the eventual Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants, to the absolute limit in the NFC title game.

The 49ers were a turnover creating machine, stayed fairly healthy all year long, and because of that, there were a lot of folks who thought that they were a one-year wonder. Creating turnovers is partly based on luck, as is staying healthy. And, the 49ers had a fairly easy schedule last year in one of the lesser divisions in the NFL. That argument made a lot of sense.

But you couldn’t tell that to 49ers fans who have been yearning for a winner again. Even though the franchise has five Super Bowl victories and were the standard bearer for NFL franchises from the mid-80s until the mid-90s, it has been a long, windy road of pathetic front office decisions, mis-managing, and awful on-field play for much of the last ten years. In the late 90s, the team was successful but no longer the favorites in the NFC. By then, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers had passed them by. Jeff Garcia to Terrell Owens (before he went bat-shit crazy) gave fans thrills, but the team wasn’t nearly good enough to compete with the elite of the NFL.

They hit rock bottom in 2004 earning (and yes, I purposely used that word) the worst record in the NFL, going 2-14. In the 2005 draft, they had the first pick and chose a spread QB out of Utah over a pro style QB out of their own backyard who wore a Joe Montana shirt underneath his jersey. New head coach Mike Nolan, supposedly not enamored with Aaron Rodgers because of his unwillingness to do drills that he didn’t think made sense, instead drafted Alex Smith to be the new face of the franchise. We all know Rodgers’ story. He sat behind Brett Favre for a few years and is now one of (if not) the best QBs in football.

Only thing worth rooting for were the cheerleaders

As for Smith, he was thrown into the mix when he wasn’t ready, faltered, got hurt, had a decent season with Norv Turner coaching him up, got hurt again, was thrown under the bus by not only Mike Nolan, but also his replacement, Mike Singletary. Heading into 2011, his 7th NFL season, he was looked at as damaged goods. Jim Harbaugh, who came over from Stanford before the 2011 season, saw a willingness in Smith to work and to redeem himself (as well as take a huge pay cut), and the 49ers resigned him. What Smith also did was run his own camp while the NFL lockout was going on. Harbaugh couldn’t talk to his players or set up any sort of practices until the lockout was finalized and it was Smith who got his teammates together during that time. It was the first real sign of leadership that Smith showed in all of his years as a 49er.

The 49ers went on to win the NFC West in 2011 and beat the New Orleans Saints in their first playoff game in 9 years. It was also one of the most exciting football games I’ve ever seen in my life. Both teams went back and forth, playing a game of whoever has the ball last wins. With just 2:18 minutes left in the game and the Saints up by one, Alex Smith ran a sweep left for 28 yards and a touchdown. The Saints answered back in just four plays, sending Jimmy Graham over the top of the 49ers defense for a sixty-six yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees, making it 32-29 in their favor. The 49ers had just 1:14 to go down the field and kick a game-tying field goal, or try for the go-ahead touchdown. Alex Smith played catch with Frank Gore twice before hitting Vernon Davis for forty-seven yards, putting them in great position to win the game. Two plays later, Smith fired a seed to Davis in the end zone, and pandemonium ensued.

They would go on to lose an absolute heartbreaker to the Giants in the NFC title game. The NFL schedule makers decided to test the 2012 version of the team immediately by having the 49ers face last year’s best regular season team, the offensive machine known as the Green Bay Packers. Even I, a long-time 49ers fan wasn’t sure how good they’d be this year, as evidenced by my NFL Preview Podcast last week (where I picked the Packers to go to the Super Bowl).

The 49ers had a few things going in their favor that could lead you to believe that maybe they were for real. They brought back all 11 of their defensive starters from last year’s killer unit. Head coach Jim Harbaugh made a huge difference in the team’s identity last year and this year, he’d have a full off-season and training camp with the team. Grantland writer Bill Simmons thinks NFL head coaches can quickly add wins to the previous season if they are clearly better than their predecessors. He calls this stat WARM, in honor of Raheem Morris (wins above Raheem Morris). Harbaugh’s WARM was 7 last year. They also added new weapons for QB Alex Smith in future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham, and drafted two speeders, AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James.

It took all of twenty minutes for the 49ers to get Football America’s attention yesterday. After kicking a field goal in the first quarter to take a 3-0 lead, Alex Smith threw a 14-yard dart to Randy Moss to take a 10-0 lead, which turned into 10-7, 13-7, and 16-7 at half time after David Akers kicked a 63-yard field goal at the end of the half. It was six yards further than any previous career long field goal for Akers. He kicked it so well that I joked that he was going to get tested for PEDs today. The 49ers stuffed the Packers on their first drive of the second half and Alex Smith drove the team all the way down field and threw his second touchdown pass of the day, this time to Vernon Davis. Davis must’ve been exhausted as he tried to dunk the football over the cross bar and the cross bar Dikembe Mutombo’d him.

Green Bay was given a gift on their next score. Andy Lee boomed a 61-yard punt that sent Randall Cobb back to his 25-yard line. Cobb caught the punt and went right, down the sideline and all the way into the end zone for a Packers’ score. Two 49ers were blocked from behind (though one may have been barely clean). A flag was thrown and anyone with half a football brain knew what was to happen. Cobb’s touchdown was coming back. However, the referees decided that they would pick up the flag and there was no penalty. The touchdown would count. After numerous replays, it was clear that the referees originally got the call right. What possible vantage point could any official have that would’ve changed the call? It allowed Green Bay to get back into it and that’s all that Aaron Rodgers needed. (You can see what Harbaugh thought about the officials all-game long on the right.)

(The only reason I bring up that call is because it had a direct effect on the score of the game. But these replacement referees are abysmal. It’s not only in the bad calls. Regular referees are bad at times. But it’s in the lack of organization of their calls, the lateness in their calls which leads the fans to believe they are second guessing themselves, and their lack of confidence when making the calls. They just look like they know they’re doing something wrong. The Packers got their share of bad calls too. Joe Staley false started at least once and maybe twice, and neither was called. This was a game-wide problem, not just with the punt return.)

Rodgers started to look like Rodgers in the fourth quarter. The 49ers had done a good job all game long of containing him (because really, you can only contain him). But he came alive, even after the 49ers answered the punt return for a touchdown with a Gore running touchdown (after NaVarro Bowman picked off Rodgers). He continually hooked up with James Jones and Randall Cobb and hit Jones in the end zone to cut the deficit down to 30-22. With just over three minutes left in the game, he took over again and ran out of downs. The 49ers played a bend but don’t break defensive style late in the game (and it was frustrating to watch even though it worked). A fourth down heave was batted away by 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver (photo-right) and the ball game was over.

It’s just one game out of sixteen. The 49ers could lose several key players over the next few weeks. But on this day, they showed that last year was no joke. They played with the best of the NFC and pushed them around for four quarters. They still have games against New England, the New York Jets, the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears and the Giants and Saints again. Their easy schedule last season is this year’s tough schedule. But for today, Jim Harbaugh can be like the great Rakim. Feel free to slam down your mic, Jim.

Photo of 49ers cheerleaders by jdlasica and shared via creative commons

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