MMQB - "The Emperor Has No Head!"

"Is that a flag or a towel?"

For the first time since bell-bottoms were in style and Foghat were selling millions of albums, the San Francisco 49ers were shut out in a game. Doug Farrar looks at the history of the team the Seahawks whomped today - where they were and how they lost their way.

Seattle Seahawks 34, San Francisco 49ers 0
Sunday, September 26, 2004
Qwest Field, Seattle, Washington


“Don’t look back – something might be gaining on you” – Satchel Paige

”These 49ers don't make things happen; things happen to them” – Skip Bayless

Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the San Francisco 49ers were exactly what they so often claimed to be - the class of the NFL. Brought into the modern age by Bill Walsh (who, as time goes on, may turn out to be the most influential coach in the league’s history), and owner Eddie DeBartolo, the Niners were once the physical embodiment of the Silicon Valley that surrounded them – inventive, technology-driven masterminds who used their genius and financial brawn to assemble a legacy of dominance almost unprecedented in any sport in its length and breadth. From 1979, when Walsh became the team’s coach, through the George Seifert era (1989-1996) and into the ascent of Steve Mariucci (1997-2002), the 49ers compiled a regular season record of 249-128…a .660 winning percentage over a 24-year period. In five separate seasons (1987, 1989 and 1992-1994), they held the NFL’s #1 offensive and defensive ranking. Five Super Bowl victories and an exhaustive list of Pro Bowlers and Hall-of-Famers insured the legacy of this franchise.

Three games into the 2004 season, however, the Niners have come to resemble the dot-com busts that typified the back end of the new technological revolution. They are 0-3. Their owner is despised in his own city. Their General Manager seems to have some really unusual personal issues with the salary cap (as evidenced by the $28 million in dead cap money the team is currently towing). Their coach is an unknown quantity after five full seasons in the NFL who was given a dead team with little hope of succeeding, and the team’s 7-12 record since the beginning of the 2003 season speaks to a very uncertain future. Like that crazy neighbor of yours who once was days away from a multi-million-dollar IPO with his idea to sell ice or cat food (or perhaps iced cat food!) over the internet and is now doing time behind the bar at Starbucks, the San Francisco 49ers lived in a mirage for many seasons and were completely unprepared for reality’s unveiling.

Eddie DeBartolo – Made In The Shade
The trouble started in 1997. DeBartolo was facing possible federal indictment on charges of fraud, racketeering and bribery. He wanted to acquire the last riverboat gambling license in Louisiana, and he turned to the state’s former governor (and longtime DeBartolo family friend) Edwin Edwards for help. Depending on which side you testified for down the road, the $400,000 fee paid to Edwards by DeBartolo was either a fee for services rendered, or a bribe. What DeBartolo didn’t know was that Edwards was under surveillance by the FBI for other alleged wrongdoings. The transaction, conducted at a restaurant in Burlingame, California, was caught on tape.

DeBartolo pled to the lesser charge of “Misprison of Felony” (defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “Concealment or nondisclosure of a crime by someone who did not participate in the crime"), telling the federal government that he was “duped” into giving Edwards the money. Two years’ probation and a $1 million fine was all DeBartolo received from the government. In the fallout of the plea, DeBartolo signed an agreement giving managing control of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. Eddie DeBartolo officially resigned as CEO of the 49ers on December 2, 1997.

During this time, the NFL was casting an increasingly jaundiced eye on DeBartolo’s dealings. In 1999, commissioner Paul Tagliabue suspended DeBartolo for one year, and approved the administrative transfer of the team. Although he has made occasional noises about returning to the team, it seems less and less likely as time passes. Eddie DeBartolo now resides in Florida, where he spends most of his time dealing in real estate and land holdings, as well as attending to the limited DeBartolo family holdings he still controls. He has been recently quoted as saying that he has no interest in returning to the NFL.

Yorktown – The New Regime
As Denise DeBartolo and her husband John York assumed control of the team in the late 1990s, it was York’s influence that became paramount. Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma and raised in Little Rock Arkansas, York made his way to Notre Dame, where he graduated magna cum laude despite having to work odd jobs to pay for school. It was at Notre Dame that he met his future wife. York’s first endeavor after medical school was a medical laboratory that he convinced his father in law, Edward DeBartolo, Sr. to invest in. York turned DeYor Laboratories into a successful business (later selling it for a large profit) just as he was running through the last of the $2 million the elder DeBartolo had invested. York became a pivotal and trusted member of the DeBartolo Empire, but what the 49ers have become under his leadership is a typical example of what happens when the corporate logjam – the “mentality of the minutiae” – trumps the competitive culture and the need to bear down and win (Seattle Mariners fans will read the next few paragraphs with a resigned sigh of recognition…).

After longtime Team President Carmen Policy read the writing on the wall and headed off to Cleveland in 1998, Team Avatar Bill Walsh handpicked longtime UCLA steward Terry Donahue and groomed him in the role of General Manager. Walsh, over the next few years, became in his consultant capacity what the Seattle Times once described as “hover(ing) over the team from his own Olympus, taking credit for all that's good and disappearing as things go bad."

Add to that the fact that the team was struggling with their first round of cap unload, going 4-12 in 1999 and 6-10 in 2000, the first consecutive losing seasons in San Francisco since Walsh’s first two years. Clearly, anyone with no prior experience as an NFL head coach, a distended and bloated front office above him, and a team on the decline in front of him would have precious little chance to turn the team around…

Steve Mariucci – The Fall Guy
A funny thing happened on the way to the franchise’s competitive death – Steve Mariucci, yet another product of Mike Holmgren’s system in Green Bay, came on board. The 49ers went 13-3 in Mooch’s first year (1997) and 12-4 in his second. What Mariucci accomplished then is something he still really hasn’t been given credit for. After the two years of salary purge, Mariucci rebuilt the team with the help of Walsh and Donahue, going 12-4 in 2001 and 2002. The team looked to be on the verge of another long competitive run, led by CFL veteran QB Jeff Garcia and the redoubtable Terrell Owens.

Unfortunately, John York wasn’t happy with Mariucci’s “attitude”. After the 2002 season, York thought he heard Mariucci’s agent, Gary O'Hagan, tell him that it was time for the successful coach to have a larger hand in the decision-making process.

"It's a very emotional and unpleasant situation for both of them,'' general manager Donahue said at the time of York and Mariucci. "Dr. York has a very strong idea about how he wants the 49ers structured…This is a philosophical split between what John wanted to do and what Steve wanted.” Donahue reiterated the team’s stance that Mariucci was released because he wanted a bigger role in the 49ers' football decisions, including the position of vice president of football operations. But O'Hagan, in a reply that put egg on a lot of faces, said that Mariucci never made those demands, and he desperately wanted to return. The 49ers fired Mariucci with a year left on his contract, getting no compensation for the loss. Fans and journalists assumed that with the hot button being pushed so quickly, the team obviously had a replacement in mind.

Would that this had been true. After making some opaque noises about Mike Holmgren and Dennis Green, being turned down flat by Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and dancing around with since-exiled Washington Husky coach Rick Neuheisel, the 49ers passed on defensive coordinator Jim Mora, Jr. (who currently has the Falcons on a 3-0 start in his first year as a head coach) and Jets offensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. In a move that surprised many and thrilled very few, San Francisco hired Dennis Erickson, the former Seahawks coach who had been cooling his heels at Oregon State. It was well known that Erickson had a tremendous desire to return to the professional ranks, and it was intimated by the team at the time that he harbored no ambition to rise any higher in the organization. In other words, he’d be a good soldier, a good fit, and a willing player in what had become the 49ers’ own version of “The Peter Principle – The Home Game”.

Where Are They Now?
In Erickson’s first year and three games, the record speaks for itself. The defining factors of the Erickson Era have been the departures of Garcia, Owens, Garrison Hearst, Mora, and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (who joined Mora in Atlanta). Even Walsh has hoofed it back to Stanford. And now, there doesn’t seem to be any real organization beyond the flow charts that York so values – no discipline beyond the mandate that York is in charge. No plan for the future beyond Donahue’s bitterness towards the salary cap as an entity, and no promises kept beyond the team’s acknowledgement that it’ll be “a long haul” back to the top.

Well, at least they got that one right.

And to add insult to injury, the Seattle Seahawks decided to show the 49ers the first 2004 taste of a team firing on nearly every cylinder. While the offense looked strong, it was once again Seattle’s DEFENSE (yes!) that made the difference. The 49ers hadn’t been shut out in a game since October 8, 1977 – an incredible 420-game streak that was broken decisively, with an almost unsparing cruelty. Put simply, the Seahawks were bullies today, and they kept the pressure on for sixty full minutes.

Handouts To The Standouts: The crowd (a Qwest Field/Seahawks Stadium-record 66,709 in attendance), who seemed to approach Kingdome-worthy noise levels at times…Mike Holmgren, for going for it on 4th and 1 with his team up 31-0 (funny how that kind of thing is only sportsmanlike when your team’s coach is doing it…)…Shaun Alexander, for his second 3-touchdown game of the young season…Matt Hasselbeck, who overcame some doubts about his efficiency in Tampa Bay by leading the 49er defense on a string all day…Ken Lucas, for his impressive interception and several incredible pass defenses…Grant Wistrom, for once again displaying that he has a gear that wasn’t built into most people…Ken Hamlin, for preserving the shutout…Ray Rhodes, for showing an outstanding set of blitzes, coverages and schemes…and the defense as a whole, for devouring every bit of Rhodes’ gameplan and just beating the 49ers over the head with it.

Things That Made Me Go, “Blech!”: Well, the continuation of the drops that plague our receivers wasn’t much fun – the Patriots will eat that stuff up, guys! And there was some confusion as to what Shaun Alexander was doing in the game in the second half after twisting his ankle and the game completely out of reach. Other than that, this was the kind of game a Seahawks fan dreams of…beating the living whozits out of a hated division opponent is always good for a happier Monday!

Offense (First half – A, Second half – B): What must have been frightening to the 49er defense was the fact that, although far more effective and efficient than it had been in Tampa Bay, the Offense Of Doom that Seahawk fans are used to seeing really hasn’t made an appearance this year. Again, even when they’re not at their best, Seattle can outshoot most teams.

Matt Hasselbeck must have been pretty sick and tired of the questions related to the offense, and he answered back with a marvelous performance. In this game, Hass was more of a field general than a statistical marvel, although he did complete 21 of 30 for 254 yards and 2 TDs. What was most impressive is how he shook off the early drops and took control of the team. Throwing into tight coverage when it presented itself with the touch of a master and deflecting the San Francisco blitz like Bruce Lee shaking off Pee Wee Herman, Hasselbeck showed once again that he now possesses all the “grit intangibles” that result in the lionization of marquee quarterbacks.

Shaun Alexander? Well, all he does is score touchdowns! 3, to be exact. The 49ers stacked the line and held Shaun to only 52 yards on 19 carries, but once again, the stats don’t tell the whole story. Ask the San Francisco defense who beat them today…they’ll tell you. Maurice Morris added 42 yards on 8 carries, although his activity happened primarily toward the end of the game, when the Niners were playing prevent and just waiting to get on the plane and get the heck out of here. The bad news from the team’s RB corps was that Mack Strong suffered a sprained right knee. Hopefully, he’ll be ready after the bye week.

Maybe it was the flu. Maybe it was the visor. Perhaps he didn’t get his Wheaties. Whatever it was, Koren Robinson, for all his incredible talent, continued his difficulties when it came to holding on the funny-shaped brown leather thing. The Seahawks lost their juice on the first drive of the game when K-Rob whiffed yet another Hass Pass. On the game’s second drive, with excellent field position set up by Lucas’ interception, Darrell Jackson had Ahmed Plummer beat and just missed a TD pass. That pass was a bit tougher, but not completely out of his reach.

Mike Holmgren had had enough. On the game’s third drive, he sent four receivers wide on first down, which blew up the San Francisco secondary. Result? A 60-yard completion to the uber-reliable Bobby Engram, which set up Alexander’s first rushing TD. From then on, it was smooth sailing as the Seahawks racked up 17 points in the first quarter alone. And given the way the defense was performing, 17 points would have been enough for the next few games.

I also enjoyed the pass interference call on San Francisco cornerback Jimmy Williams as the first half was winding down, considering it was called on a pass that flew about 10 feet over Darrel Jackson’s head! Dumb call, but it’s apparently inevitable for dumb calls to rule the modern NFL, and it’s way past time for the Seahawks to get a few of those in their favor…

Defense (First half – A+. Second half – A+): Apparently, with the inexperienced Ken Dorsey at quarterback, the 49er game plan (if there was one) was to bust the Seahawks inside with Kevan Barlow and base the passing game off the run.

Bad idea. First of all, the Seattle run defense was completely dominant, limiting Barlow to 22 yards on 10 carries and the 49ers to 48 rushing yards overall. Second, Ken Dorsey had no chance in the pocket – when he did have time to get passes off, the Seahawk secondary seemed to be reading his mind all day. And before the naysayers get on board and begin complaining that the Seahawks’ D just whomped a decimated team, it should be noted that the 49ers came into today scoring more points per game than the Chiefs, and had lost close games to Atlanta and New Orleans. Common perception was that they could just as easily have been 2-0 as 0-2.

But very few teams were going to show much against this Seahawk defense and the way it played today.

Starting with the line. Ever since Grant Wistrom came on board, the Seahawk defensive line has ramped things up to an entirely new level. With Wistrom setting the pace, Chike Okeafor free to wreak havoc on the left end, and the rotation of Rashad Moore, Cedric Woodard, Marcus Tubbs and Rocky Bernard providing stellar support up the middle, the line has established itself early on as one of the better units in the NFL. From the first possession, Ken Dorsey and Kevan Barlow heard footsteps all day. Both Okeafor and Woodard caused Dorsey fumbles in the game, and Woodard landed the “sack, forced fumble, recovery” trifecta.

What we see with Wistrom is that not only can he bring tremendous pressure, but that in Ray Rhodes’ zone blitz packages, he can drop back into coverage and match wide receivers cut for cut. Folks, this is a special athlete.

Isaiah Kacyvenski and Niko Koutouvides both had good games today (Gentlemen in the press box, start your spell-checkers!), but if the linebackers were relatively quiet, it was only because the line brought it so hard…and their efforts may have been exceeded by the secondary.

They swarm like hornets, hit like rhinos, and pick off enemy strikes like Green Berets. Seahawk faithful, THIS IS YOUR SECONDARY!

(Sorry…I went a little John Facenda for a moment there.)

OK, let’s not mince words – the Seahawks’ secondary is the strength of this team right now, and it was the team’s best defensive back who stood out. Not only did Ken Lucas bag an INT on the Niners’ second drive of the first quarter, he also provided the play of the game – an unbelievable pass defense in the second quarter. With Dorsey starting to display some measure of effectiveness on a drive that ended in a Todd Peterson 46-yard “DOINK” field goal miss off the crossbar (the closest San Francisco would come to scoring), Lucas leaped up to match Curtis Conway on the first play of the next drive, timed it absolutely perfectly, and batted the ball away at the last minute. Drive – over. Momentum – over. Oh, yeah…Lucas can tackle, too. Get ready for Hawaii, my son…

Special Teams: What’s with the squib kicks, Josh? Some strange kickoffs, and more leakage on kickoff return coverage that you’d like to see (perhaps explaining said squib kicks). Tom Rouen continued his excellent season (congratulations to Tom for deservedly nabbing the NFC Special Teams Performer Of the Week Award after his virtuoso 10-punt performance in the Tampa Bay game) with 5 punts, a 40.6 average, and two within the San Francisco 20-yard line.

Summary: Sometimes, in the season of a dominant team, after key victories, an inferior opponent will show itself. These are what the experts call “trap games”, when an inevitable letdown will allow the lesser team to rise up and surprise.

To repeat something you’re starting to hear more and more, that was last year. The Seahawks saw blood, converged in the water, and came away with a literally historic win, breaking the 27-year scoring streak of a team who used to be the best and now can’t find its way. The Seahawks can take the upcoming bye week and ruminate over two facts – first, that these are three entirely well-deserved wins, showing the toughness and resolve that has marked this special season.

And second, what the Seahawks must remember is that with the Rams and Patriots on the road ahead, the tests have only begun.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.

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