I’m not much of a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. Sure, I followed them avidly during their long, long run of great and good teams. Hey, two of the best quarterbacks and the best receiver in league history were doing their thing just across the bay, and the organization had solved a mystery most franchises never do by fielding very good squads around the superstars. There was the fun, too, in seeing a team that was one of the worst in the league in the late 1970s turn around and win the Super Bowl at the dawn of the ’80s; I drove a cab in Oakland during that 1981-82 season and the playoff run that followed, and those games made the Sunday afternoons, spent mostly doing grocery store trips and neighborhood trips to and from the local BART station, go a lot faster.
That’s all ancient history. The management that made the team great is either dead or long gone, and the 49ers have been bad for years. In our TV-less house this evening, I turned on the radio to listen to tonight’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. It was a doubly masochistic exercise in that Joe Starkey, the vapid man behind the mike for the University of California games, also does play by play for the Niners. But listening turned out to be fascinating in a dark way because the game was such a debacle. The Seahawks trampled the 49ers so badly, and the 49ers’ offense proved so feeble the few times that the defense was able to set it up with an opportunity — that Starkey and analyst Gary Plummer spent the entire fourth quarter talking about how horrible the team looked. The final score: 24-0; it was San Francisco’s seventh loss in a row.
After the game, Starkey and Plummer talked to Mike Nolan, the head coach. Nolan’s father, Dick, who coached the 49ers in the late ’60s and early ’70s, died yesterday. So that was probably part of the reason the announcers sounded apologetic asking about the game. But you had the feeling there was more to it than that. They were interviewing a guy whose ship is going down, and neither he nor they have a clue about what might be done to right the situation. Nolan sounded hoarse and spent. Plummer at one point said he saw some positives for the 49ers: their rushing game had been OK before they had to give up on the run, and the offensive line had allowed “only” three sacks of the increasingly bewildered young millionaire quarterback, Alex Smith. Nolan actually thanked Plummer for finding something to be positive about, but he didn’t sound convinced.
In the end, Nolan is just part of an entertainment enterprise that’s failing to entertain. The Niners are like a Broadway show that has bombed, finally and definitively. I suppose that the brutal and merciful thing about a Broadway show failing is that it simply dies. Unless it’s in the hands of a particularly insistent investor or producer, it just goes away. The sad thing listening to Nolan is that that’s not how it works in professional sports. It might be better for everyone to just hang up a banner at the ballpark saying future performances have been canceled because the production stinks. But in pro football, there’s always an audience. And for Nolan — you could hear it in his voice as he talked about how badly tonight’s game went — there’s no easy way out for anyone lashed to his wreck of a team. The show must drag on.