Cold Hard Football Facts: The decline and fall of the 49ers empire

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The 49ers">49ers lorded over the known football world for nearly 20 years, a gleaming Eternal City of the gridiron and the paragon of pigskin civilization.

It was a remarkable reign, a period of greatness spanning some 20 percent of the entire 88-year history of the NFL.

Today the organization lays in ruins, reduced to smoldering rubble by invading waves of Goths (mismanagement), Visigoths (bad ownership) and Vandals (poor personnel decisions).

There's no indication that fortunes will change any time soon. Not after San Francisco coach Mike Nolan recently announced the most important job on the field would be handed to unknown J.T. O'Sullivan, a player who's truly put the "journey" in journeyman: the 49ers are his seventh team in seven NFL seasons.

Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, will be his backup.

It's an admission of defeat by the organization that they missed badly when they selected Smith with the top pick in the draft three years ago. Smith had sparkled running Urban Meyer's famed spread offense at Utah. But as we've since seen, a lot of quarterbacks sparkle in the revolutionary spread offense, including Tim Tebow, who runs Meyer's attack at Florida. As a freshman in 2006, Tebow helped guide the Gators (with fellow QB Chris Leak) to the BCS national title. Then last year he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy.

Perhaps Smith was nothing more than the dreaded "system quarterback" in college. We've seen little evidence to the contrary in the pros, where he's thrown 19 TDs and 31 INTs, while compiling a 63.5 career passer rating.

O'Sullivan, meanwhile, is entering his seventh utterly anonymous year in the NFL. His career stat line looks like this:

13 of 26 (50%), 148 yards, 5.7 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INT, 48.2 passer rating

O'Sullivan never threw an NFL pass until last year with Detroit, where he backed up Jon Kitna, and he has never started an NFL game. (Let history show that he did take a knee twice as a Brett Favre back-up with Green Bay in 2004).

Upon this dreadful résumé rest the hopes and dreams of a team desperate to find a ray of light here in the darkest days in the history of the organization. The 49ers have suffered five straight losing seasons, the longest streak of despair in the 62-year history of the franchise.

After all, quarterbacking is everything in the NFL. The right quarterback can instantly change the fortunes of an organization (see "Unitas, Johnny" and "Brady, Tom").

The random teams that do win it all without a great quarterback, meanwhile, usually benefit from steady postseason play at the position (see, "Dilfer, Trent") and extenuating circumstances elsewhere, such as a historically dominant defense. Dilfer's 2000 Ravens, for example, surrendered just 10.3 points per game, making them the greatest defense of the Live Ball Era (1978-present).

In other words, San Fran has virtually no hope of building upon its 5-11 2007 season unless:

• O'Sullivan turns into the second coming of Kurt Warner and produces a totally unexpected MVP-caliber season

• O'Sullivan proves a serviceable quarterback at the same time the San Fran defense suddenly transforms from one that surrendered 22.8 PPG last year to one that surrenders about 11.0 PPG this year.

Neither situation is likely to happen. So it begets the questions:

• Where did it all go wrong for the once majestic 49ers, an organization we recently ranked the fifth best in all of NFL history?

• And, even more importantly, is it ever going to get better for the organization?

We turned to the Edward Gibbon of the gridiron, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, for the answers, and for a brief, annotated outline of the decline and fall of the 49ers empire.

Tony and Victor Morabito were the Romulus and Remus of the 49ers organization (minus the whole "raised by wolves" thing). Interestingly, both died of heart attacks in the middle of the football season, a feeling thousands of San Fran fans can relate to in recent years.

Before their untimely deaths, the Morabito brothers were revolutionaries of American sport: the 49ers were the first major pro sports team founded on the West Coast when they latched on with the new AAFC in 1946. They were joined in the westward migration in 1946 by the NFL's Rams, who moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles that season. (The 49ers and Rams preceded baseball's move to the West Coast by 12 years; the Dodgers and Giants moved to California from New York City in 1958.)

The 49ers of the early years enjoyed a fair number of victories over the second-rate Etruscan city-states of the AAFC, posting a 38-14-2 (.722) record in the four years of the league's existence.

It was good enough to earn the organization a shot at the big time. The 49ers were one of three AAFC teams (with the Colts and Browns) invited to join the more established NFL in 1950.

The 49ers were a nice little club for their first 25 years of NFL play, a competitive little republic of pigskin playing by the Golden Gate on the outskirts of the known football world.

They never won a championship, but they boasted their fair share of victories over competing Carthaginians in the Punic Wars of pigskin. Led by Hall of Famers such as Y.A. Tittle, Hugh "The King" McElhenny, Joe Perry and Bob St. Clair, San Francisco suffered just six losing seasons from its NFL debut in 1950 through 1972.

Things turned sour in 1973, as the 49ers went through what had been, until the 21st century, the worst period in franchise history. But the organization's greatest leaders were waiting in the wings, a two-headed Julius Caesar about to transform this plucky little republic into the empire that would rule the football world for two decades.

Caesars Bill Walsh and Joe Montana led the 49ers across the gridiron Rubicon in 1981, when they toppled the Dallas dynasty in the NFC title game and went on to win the first of five Super Bowls.

There was no turning back: Walsh and Montana established what would become perhaps the greatest empire in pro football history.

Almost every modern football fan knows the story: the 49ers were a threat to win the Super Bowl almost every year for an amazing two consecutive decades.

The talented San Francisco legions marched to victory from coast to coast, with just one losing campaign in the 18 seasons of battle from 1981 to 1998. If we include the entire Steve Mariucci Era (1997-2002), the 49ers suffered just three losing campaigns in 22 seasons (1981-2002).

They boasted 10 or more victories an awe-inspiring 16 straight seasons -- eight with Montana at QB, and eight with Steve Young at QB. To put that into perspective, the mighty 21st-century Patriots have won 10 or more games for five consecutive seasons.

The 49ers won Super Bowls in 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989 and 1994. They won Super Bowls with two different head coaches, and won Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks (both of whom are in the Hall of Fame today). The 49ers rewrote the rules of football and established offensive styles and football terminology that -- like the legacies of Latin and toga parties which the Romans left to the modern world -- continue to influence the game today.

It seemed, in the 1990s, the sun would never set on the San Francisco empire.

Edward Gibbon wrote that external forces (barbarian invaders) and internal forces (Christianity) conspired to bring down the Roman Empire and send Western Civilization into the Dark Ages.

In pro football, external forces are always on the attack. Thirty-one other teams are constantly chiseling away at the walls of the dominant NFL powers of the day.

But the 49ers empire was also attacked from within.

If you want to pinpoint the day it all fell apart, point to May 23, 2000. It's the day ownership was transferred from Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York and her husband, John York. They are the Romulus Augustus in the story of the 49ers empire, ineffective leaders who watched the organization crumble during their brief reign. (The great site, seems, sadly, to no longer be updated.)

In a sport where management means everything, they've destroyed the organization through a series of personnel mistakes.

The Yorks made their first critical error when they fired Steve Mariucci after a 10-6 season in 2002 (he went 12-4 in 2001). Mariucci's 49ers had suffered losing seasons in 1999 and 2000, but he had compiled a 57-39 (.594) record in six years at the helm. San Fran fans can only wish they had it so good today.

The Yorks made their second critical mistake when they replaced Mariucci with Dennis Erickson, a guy who had never enjoyed a winning season in his four years as head coach in Seattle. The Erickson decision, like almost every other made in the Reign of York, was a disaster. He went 9-23 (.281) and was gone after two years.

The Yorks made their third critical mistake when they replaced Erickson in 2005 not with a proven coach, but with legacy coach Mike Nolan (his dad coached the 49ers from 1968-75). Young Nolan has now compiled a 16-32 (.333) record in three years.

It's easy to point to the struggles Bill Walsh suffered early in his head coaching career, including an 8-24 record in his first two years (1979 and 1980). But the first major decision Walsh's 49ers made in 1979 was to take a kid named Joe Montana in the third round of the draft. The two won a Super Bowl in 1981, their third year together.

The first major decision of the Nolan Era was also critical mistake No. 4 of the York Era: the decision to take Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Like Walsh and Montana, Nolan and Smith have now had three years to rebuild the organization. Instead, the 49ers are 16-32 in those three years, and 11-19 (.367) in games in which Smith has started.

Now even Nolan has admitted Smith isn't up to the task. The former No. 1 is about to become a bona fide NFL bust, while the O'Sullivan Era is about to begin.

The Dark Ages in San Francisco, it seems, show no end in sight.