Monday, October 18, 2010

Bay Area Blues

There was a time when the San Francisco Bay area was synonymous with football excellence. For twenty years, from 1976 through 1995, the Raiders and 49ers excelled on the gridiron, winning a combined eight Super Bowls and challenging for several others.

Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders started on their road to success in 1968 when, as the AFL representatives, they lost Super Bowl II 33-14 in Miami to Vince Lombardi’s powerhouse Green Bay Packers. After the AFL merged into the NFL in 1970, the Raiders remained a perennial contender, reaching the playoffs eight consecutive years before coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler led the team to a 32-14 Super Bowl XI victory in Pasadena over Bud Grant’s favored Minnesota Vikings.

The Raiders’ years of success continued after Madden’s retirement in 1978. In 1981, coach Tom Flores and quarterback Jim Plunkett, who had been deemed a failure and discarded a few years earlier by the New England Patriots, led the Raiders to a 27-10 Super Bowl XV victory in New Orleans over the Philadelphia Eagles. Flores and Plunkett repeated their success three years later when, as the Los Angeles Raiders (the team spent 13 years in Los Angeles before returning to Oakland in 1995), they won Super Bowl XVIII 38-9 over the Washington Redskins in Tampa.

During their years of success, the Raiders were feared more than respected. The team developed a reputation for aggressive (many would say dirty) play intended to intimidate opponents. One of the most lasting images of the Raiders’ years of success was safety Jack Tatum’s vicious August 12, 1978 blow to the head of New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley during a pre-season game, a hit that rendered Stingley a quadriplegic and came to symbolize the unfettered violence associated with the sport during the Seventies and Eighties.

The San Francisco 49ers took a very different path to success. For more than three decades, commencing in 1946, the team played, but rarely competed, in the NFL. It was not until the 1979 hiring of coach Bill Walsh, who had earned a reputation as an offensive guru during his college coaching days at Berkeley and Stanford, that the franchise’s turnaround began.

In 1982, Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana became surprising champions, winning Super Bowl XVI (the year after the Raiders won Super Bowl XV) 38-16 over the Cincinnati Bengals in Detroit. Walsh and Montana would team up for two additional championships, winning Super Bowl XIX in 1985 38-16 over the Miami Dolphins in the Dolphins’ home city, and again besting the Bengals in 1989 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII, again in Miami.

After the team’s third Super Bowl win, Walsh retired and turned the coaching reigns over to his offensive coordinator and disciple, George Seifert. While Seifert never achieved the same level of success as his hall-of-fame predecessor, he and Montana won Super Bowl XXIV 55-10 over the Denver Broncos and John Elway in 1990, Seifert’s first year as coach, in New Orleans. After Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs late in his career, Seifert teamed up with quarterback Steve Young to win a fifth championship, taking Super Bowl XXIX in 1995 over the San Diego Chargers, again in Miami, the 49ers’ seemingly favorite city. I attended that game and remember the awe with which the crowd witnessed San Francisco’s dismantling of the Chargers. They were at the very top of their game and it appeared likely that they would go on contending for many more years.

But something happened after 1995. While both teams would reach the playoffs several more years, and the Raiders would make one additional trip to the Super Bowl in 2003, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Raiders’ former head coach, John Gruden, 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, neither team ever approached the level of success achieved during what is now labeled their glory years.

The past several seasons have been particularly difficult for the Bay Area teams, with both squads going through several coaches and quarterbacks. From 2003 through 2009 the two teams had a combined record of 69-155, a “winning” percentage of .308. Neither team made the playoffs during those years.

This season began with much hope. The Raiders felt that they had finally found their new quarterback in Jason Campbell, formerly of the Washington Redskins, who brought a reputation for a big, if often inaccurate, arm. The 49ers were confident that coach Mike Singletary, a venerable leader of the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl XX champions in 1986, would quickly turn things around.

Despite the teams’ lofty expectations, however, little has changed. The Raiders won only two of their first five games and quickly faded from playoff contention. As a result of the team’s poor start, this past weekend a rumor circulated that all of the team’s players would be put on the trading block before the NFL trading deadline.

The 49ers have been even worse. They lost all five of their initial games and featured an anemic offense that led to the summary dismissal of the team’s offensive coordinator.

This past weekend the two teams squared off in San Francisco. Presumably, someone had to win, and the 49ers did, 17-9, behind the strong running of Frank Gore, a former University of Miami product, and one of the few bright spots on the San Francisco roster. Not surprisingly, there was little interest in the game outside of the Bay Area.

Poor management and personnel decisions have created disarray in what were once proud and respected franchises. There appear to be no easy solutions, and the teams’ problems are expected to continue into the coming years.

Fans in the Bay Area can take solace in the fact that even the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers went through a down period before resurging as champions in 2006. Because success in sports is often cyclical, there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if no one can see it. Unless drastic changes are made in both franchises, however, it appears unlikely that Bay Area fans will ever see a period of dominance and success such as they witnessed from 1976 through 1995. Those were truly memorable years for the Raiders and 49ers, yet the memory of past successes fades with each new Bay Area loss.

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