As we concluded our Tuesday morning interview with the chipper, intelligent and energetic George Kittle on the show, the conclusion was becoming inescapable.
This is the most likable 49ers team since maybe as far back as 1981, and it has similar magic qualities.
This is not a Jock Blog to denigrate other 49ers teams. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you tend to ride or die with them every year. Hence, “Faithful”, right?
But in the past few weeks, as we’ve witnessed undrafted Raheem Mostert “swim-out” and surf in the end zone after carving out a career from the margins; as we’ve witnessed anonymous offensive linemen like Justin Skule, Daniel Brunskill and Ben Garland, and anonymous defensive linemen like DJ Jones and Damontre Moore step into monstrous situations and perform like stalwarts; and as we’ve witnessed blue-collar quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo never once lash back at critics, instead only winning game after game after game . . . you come to realize the 2019 San Francisco 49ers are a sum far larger than their parts.
In fact, I asked Kittle when they came to that realization. He gave a few reasons why, then added: “Oh, and drafting Nick Bosa didn’t hurt.”
Yeah, that, too.
So what’s the difference between the vibe and energy of this team and the last batch of winning 49ers teams?
Well, to be fair, 2011 was a pretty darn likable team, too. It was Jim Harbaugh’s first year. The team went from 6-10 under Mike Singletary to 13-3 and NFC West champs. The squad featured Justin Smith’s forced fumble in Philadelphia and Alex-to-Vernon on ‘The Vernon Post’ in the NFC divisional playoffs. But by the next year, when the 49ers made the switch to Colin Kaepernick, the fan base was divided between QB loyalties. And Harbaugh’s brusque nature with the media turned some fans off. By 2013, you had Aldon Smith getting arrested for DUI and playing on the very next Sunday, turning more fans off.
Mind, it was an amazing run — three consecutive NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl appearance. The 2019 49ers haven’t even won a playoff game. So to call this squad more likable and endearing could seem a stretch.
But Kyle Shanahan gives off zero Harbaugh-esque sentiments in dealing with other human beings, and so far, and there is no QB controversy to divide anyone. There’s only Jimmy G with his hands over his earholes in New Orleans, barking out plays in the huddle of a maniacal 48-46 win in the ear-splitting Superdome.
And, thankfully, the 2019 team’s arrest ledger is spotless. Knock on wood.
So why 1981 as the comp?
I mean, 1984 and 1988 and the epic 1989 team sure were special — Super Bowl champs, all. Yes, and near and dear to any 49er fan’s heart. But by then, the standard had been set and there was a bit of a burden of expectation.
And the 1994 team, with Deion Sanders and Steve Young and Jerry Rice all in the same locker room, was historic. But again, this team was under crippling pressure to win it all.
The 2019 team is the first since 1981 (and 2011) to not enter a year with the weighty heat of having to meet a championship standard. Like 1981, it’s a team that has pulled off surprising wins to create organic energy. In 1981, October wins over the mighty Cowboys (45-14 at Candlestick Park!) and the NFC West emperors the Rams (20-17 at Candlestick a week after the Rolling Stones played the ‘Stick!) let the NFL world and, more important, the Bay Area know that Bill Walsh and Joe Montana were on to something.
For the 2019 team, the signature games came a bit later — a Sunday Night walloping of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and last Sunday’s Biblical epic in the Crescent City — but still meant the world to the fan base.
Thirty-eight years after the 49ers traded for Fred Dean mid-season to boost an unlikely year, John Lynch went and traded for Emmanuel Sanders. Thirty-eight years after a late-round receiver named Dwight Clark became a Bay icon, a fifth-round tight end from Iowa is doing the same.
And hey, both the 1981 and 2019 QBs are Italian-Americans. That’s got to count for something in a town that counts North Beach among its most treasured neighborhoods.
It’s all happening, sports fans. Five years after the acrimonious departure from Harbaugh, six years after the controversial move to Santa Clara, the 49ers have found their biorhythms again.
Now all we need is for George Kittle to find a fur coat for any possible Super Bowl parade. He’s the kind of guy who could make that happen. Fake fur, of course. This is the Bay Area in 2019, after all.