Good Goes Bad, Bad Gets Worse.

"Oakland?  I gotta move to OAKLAND?"  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

“Oakland? I gotta move to OAKLAND?” (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Tomorrow is the last day of the 2014 NFL season. An elite few will be still be ballin’ hard as they try to make the playoffs. Everybody else is just getting this last meaningless game the hell out of the way, try not to get hurt (though some guys may try to hurt somebody else if only to take out their frustrations) and then clean out their lockers.

“What will happen, will happen,” Harbaugh told reporters when asked about his future coaching plans, “What will not happen, won’t happen.”

What will not happen is another season with James Harbaugh freaking out on the sidelines as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Four years ago, Harbaugh was The Man, the chosen One who would lead the 49ers out of the poverty of the Dennis Erickson/Mike Nolan/Mike Singletary years back to the Bill Walsh Super Bowl riches.  Didn’t turn out that way.   The history of how the good times turned bad have been detailed by reporter Tim Kawakami but suffice it to say, it’s not really a shock the 49ers and Harbaugh are about to break up badly.

To be a 49ers fan is to be shooting for the future while simultaneously shackled to the past. It’s not Jim Harbaugh’s fault he isn’t Bill Walsh (or even George Seifert). It’s not Colin Kapernick’s fault he isn’t Joe Montana or Steve Young (but he’s not Jeff Garcia or Alex Smith either).

When Harbaugh packs his bags to return to Michigan and a reported $8 million yearly check, he will be the highest paid coach in college football. This would be a nice pay raise from the $5 million the 49ers are paying him and would bump Harbaugh into the Sean Payton/Pete Carroll/Bill Belichick neighborhood without actually winning a Super Bowl like those guys. To put this in perspective the 32nd lowest paid NFL coach was the already whacked Dennis Allen of the Raiders.   Even a nobody like this was pulling down $3 million, so never feel sorry for a fired NFL coach. They’re all overpaid.

“Aw man! The singer forgot the lyrics of the National Anthem!”

 

 

In his wake the 49ers will either promote one of their defensive coaches, Jim Tomsula or Vic Fangio. If they decide to start fresh, look for the team to seek out an offensive coordinators such as Denver’s Adam Gase or New England’s Josh McDaniels in hopes someone can resurrect the 49ers DOA offense and if he isn’t traded, Kapernick’s career.

There are many reasons for Harbaugh and 49ers front office to part ways. A below .500 season after coming one completed pass from a second Super Bowl berth is an excellent one. Of all the disappointing underachievers in the NFL, nobody is as disappointing and underachieved more than the 2014 49ers.

Despite getting the Niners to the NFC Championship game three consecutive years, they only won it once and went on to lose a heartbreaker against brother John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens. Winners know how to close and Harbaugh never could. He repeatedly came up short in the biggest games. Coupled with an inability to win the arms race with arch-rival Seattle Seahawks, despite the impressive win-loss record, Harbaugh leaves San Francisco better than he found it, but still frustratingly distant from the Gold Standard days of Walsh and Montana.

If owner Jed York and general managerTrent Baalkie wanted to make the fans happen they would order Harbaugh to fire offensive coordinator Greg Roman, make him play out the last year of his contract and put down in writing a promise to make Harbaugh the highest paid coach in the NFL if he could (a) beat the Seahawks and (b) get to and win another NFC championship.

Hello, I must be going.

What Harbaugh wants as much as money is control. He wants to pick his own players, draft his own rookies, sign his own free agents. He wants to pick his own G.M. who will do all those things the way he’s instructed to do them and hammer out the messy and boring contract details. What Harbaugh wants most the 49ers won’t give him which leaves teams like the Raiders and Jets that might happily go along with Coach Khakis can do the kind of renovation job he did with the Niners with these two perennial bottom-feeders.

The failure of the Niners was a team effort.   All-time rushing leader Frank Gore is a free agent who wants to stay put, but at 32 year old and a $6 million salary, he’s not coming back at that price. Anquan Bolden is 34 and Kapernick’s most reliable receiver and that’s a worrisome combination. Ray McDonald has already been whacked for his off the field problem and Aldon Smith is probably right behind him. Justin Smith is thinking retirement, Vernon Davis has vanished from the gameplan and former first rounder Michael Crabtree is too slow to stretch defenses and too unreliable to be a go-to receiver.

An offensive line full of highly-paid first rounders has become a sieve as Kapernick is the most sacked QB in the league.   Stud linebacker Navorro Bowman was injured in the NFC Championship loss to the Seahawks and never made it back to the field.   The talented troublemaker, Aldon Smith served an eight gamesuspension which sapped the defense’s pass rush capabilities and he may not be back.   Last year the Niners ended the season with one player on injured reserve.   This season the number jumped to 16.    “Next Man Up” is the ruling philosophy in the NFL and the 49ers are about to apply it to a winning, but difficult head coach.

“He’s my best coach. I didn’t enjoy here until we started winning. Since he’s been here, I’ve been winning.” That what Gore said about Harbaugh.  Crabtree added, “He’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever played for… He’s a player’s coach. He’s just a good dude. Everyone has their own opinion, but he’s been a good dude to me. And this team.”

Yet Harbaugh came up short on discipline as time and again a Niners player would show up on a police blotter.  Instead of cutting the bad actors loose, Harbaugh and Baaike would make excuses and extend second, third and fourth chances.  There isn’t space to list all the Niners who posed for mug shots during Harbaugh’s tenure,  but the handling of defensive end Ray McDonald is a signature moment of this whole shitty season.  McDonald was investigated by the police for striking his pregnant girlfriend but not charged.  Instead of suspending him the 49ers allowed McDonald to keep playing.   After sliding by for beating up a pregnant woman, McDonald rewarded the team’s trust by his name popping up in a sexual assault.  That was a bridge too far even for the lenient and lax 49ers brain trust and they cut McDonald the same day.

The blame for the team’s flame-out will fall primarily on Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman and both will be gone next season and veterans Gore, Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis all possibly decamping as free agents, salary cuts or retirement.   This will be a drastically changed 49ers team in 2015 and no matter who takes over its hard to see similar success forthcoming.

“Who’s Got It Better Than Us?” was the war cry Harbaugh rallied his players with when the Niners were one of the league’s best teams.   Now they’re not.   The answer to the question has become,  “Lots of other teams not named the San Francisco 49ers.”

Don’t worry for Jim Harbaugh.   He’ll do just fine wherever he lands.   It’s less certain the 49ers will do likewise.

 

Those khakis will be worn somewhere else next season.

 

Jonathan Martin’s Second Chance Comes in San Francisco

The next chapter in Jonathan Martin’s NFL career will take place in San Francisco after the 49ers traded a draft pick to the Miami Dolphins to reunite Martin with his college coach.

There are 32 teams in the NFL, but not every organization and certainly not every locker room are created equal. If Jonathan Martin can play (and making plays is how you get and keep a job in the NFL) then all this other crap will go away and he will be able to pick up the pieces of what was a once-promising career.

Will Martin hear his share of trash talk and possibly a few cheap shots when he’s on the field? You can bet on it because football is as much a mental as a physical game and if an opponent can bait the guy on the other side into making a mistake, they will do their best to get into Martin’s head. The meek will not inherit the earth or thrive in the brutally bottom-line world of pro football.

If Martin is mentally and emotionally weak, he won’t make it past the 49ers training camp and reasonably he shouldn’t. While he was the victim of a vicious hazing at the grubby hands of Richie Incognito and other Miami Dolphins players, Martin will still have to show he can take the punishment that will certainly be dished out at him.

There’s nowhere to hide on a football field and while landing in San Francisco with Jim Harbaugh, his old college coach, may be the optimum best-case scenario for Jonathan Martin, it’s still largely on him to show he belongs.   If Harbaugh can’t rekindle Martin’s diminished competitive fires, nobody can.

Coach Harbaugh in a calm and reflective moment. (photo credit: Getty Images)

Sorry if that seems harsh, but what’s harsh is often also true.  Martin seems like a thoughtful young man who simply happened to get caught up in a bully’s brutal hazing but found no support from an unconcerned Dolphin coaching staff and front office.

“Because of my relationship recruiting Jonathan, and coached Jonathan for three years at Stanford, I’m confident he will be committed to the mission and the organization, and very excited about it,” Harbaugh said. “I believe everybody deserves an Etch-A-Sketch opportunity and an opportunity to start a new chapter.”

As a 49ers fan, nobody wants Martin to succeed more than I do, but nobody’s going to hand him a spot on the roster. He’s going to have to go out and earn it.

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A Gold Rush in the Big Easy

The Quest is nearly over.

When you’ve waited nearly two decades between Super Bowl appearances, my first instinct is just to be happy the San Francisco 49ers have the opportunity to play for the championship of professional football.

After happiness passes, what’s left is nervousness.   Fans get too worked up and involved in the fortunes of their favorite sports franchise.  It leads to alcoholism, needless anxiety, panic attacks and early baldness.

I think the 49ers will win, but I can’t say complete certainty.   That’s what an 18-year absence from the Super Bowl does for your confidence.  It makes you run scared.

Everybody’s got a guess.  The experts can go down a list of every player on both the 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens and tell you with total confidence this will be the contributing factor that tilts victory to one side or the other.  They’ve crunched the numbers.  They’ve watched the tape.  They’ve consulted with the wisest of wise men.

But all they’re doing is giving their best guess.   They know all the reasons why the Niners or the Ravens will win.   What they don’t know is who will.

My nature is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.    The Niners have a great defense, playmakers on both sides of the ball and in Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick I trust.   But everything the 49ers have, the Ravens have too including a Harbaugh of their own.   It’s hard to have any swagger when each team has it own share of Unmovable Objects and Irresistible Forces.

Make way for a new Lord of the Rings?

There have been some signs of the Niners not handling the media attention well.   Reserve cornerback Chris Culliver’s anti-gay remarks made him look dumb and revealed how poorly the 49ers front office prepped the players to deal with the extra attention.   The former Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange is no journalist and he baited Culliver with a leading question, but Culliver put his own feet in his mouth and swallowed.

There’s no undue pressure on either team.  This is the the second  Super Bowl appearance for the Ravens and the sixth for the Niners, but that doesn’t mean there’s no expectations for the 49ers.   They’re challenging the Pittsburgh Steelers for a sixth ring, but unlike the Steelers, the Niners have a perfect record:  They’ve won every Super Bowl they’ve been.

That’s where the heavy hand of history falls squarely on the shoulders of the 49ers.

In the big picture of the carnival that is Super Bowl week, the Culliver controversy isn’t all that big of a deal.  He isn’t going to be star of the game.   More likely it will be someone named Lewis, Willis, Flacco, Rice, Crabtree or Gore (and if you don’t know who those guys are, you’re better off watching The Puppy Bowl or the Lingerie Bowl).

I will tune in at 6:30 ready for three or four hours of hype, commercials, celebrities, and oh yeah, a football game.  I expect big hits, edge of the seat excitement, good company and hopefully—HOPEFULLY, a sixth ring for San Francisco.

And I’ll hope most of all it doesn’t come down to a last second field goal from David Akers because the only thing I’ve been able to depend on Akers’ kicking is that I can’t depend on it.

Since Super Bowl 47 is taking place in New Orleans:  Laissez les bons temps rouler, Geaux Niners.

Got the Hope, Looking For the Glory

Tebowing is so 2012. “Kaepernicking” is the rage.

The NFL’s  32 teams open their training camps in the heat of summer and finish the endurance test that is the regular season in the cold of winter with one team being declared the best as it hoists the Lombardi trophy for winning the Super Bowl.

All any faithful follower of a football franchise can ask for is if their team makes it to the league’s version of the Final Four.   Only one team can be declared the best of the best, but it’s a successful season if your team is involved in the conversation.

My team is, and no matter the outcome when the San Francisco 49ers meet the Atlanta Falcons for the right to challenge the Patriots or the Ravens for the ultimate in bragging rights, it has been a very successful season for the Niners.

For the 49ers to come this close to breaking the 18-year drought of Super Bowl appearances leaves me with both anticipation and dread.   Anticipation that the Niners will beat the Falcons and advance.   Dread that they will lose and fall short (again).    It’s cool to get to the NFC championship round, but it’s better to actually win it.

I always run scared when it comes to predicting how the 49ers will fare in a meaningful game, but between Jim Harbaugh’s coaching prowess, their nasty smash-you-in-your-mouth-and-step-on-your-throat defense, and now the wild card of Colin Kapernick at quarterback, I feel confident the Niners will show up and acquit themselves admirably.

Or I could say I really believe the Niners are going to put their foot up the ass of the Falcons, but playing on the road in a dome against a team looking for the respect they feel nobody’s given them all season is a recipe for possible disaster, so I’m not going to say anything like that.  But you can’t kill me for thinking it.

Win or lose (please win),  unless he plays like shit, Kaepernick will solidify his hold on the starting QB job as he provides a degree of leadership meshed with talent not seen in the Bay Area since (dare I say it?) the glory days of Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Down.  Out.  Finished.  Bye-bye.

Down. Out. Finished. Bye-bye.

Is that being a wee bit premature?   Not really, because after last week’s ridiculous  offensive explosion against the Green Bay Packers  where he accounted for 444 yards of offensive and four touchdowns (five, if  you count the interception he threw early in the game), the word is out.   This kid is not a fluke and not a one-trick pony.   Colin Kaepernick is good.  He is Real Good.  C.K. is money.   Runs like a gazelle.  Flings the ball around like it’s rocket-propelled.  Can make a mistake and not let it screw up his entire day.   These are qualities one rarely sees in a single player and Kaepernick (so far) has demonstrated all of them.

A little hyperbole isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Young was forced into early retirement by a concussion from a vicious hit by Arizona Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams (I was never mad at Williams for his hard, but legal hit on Young.  I’m not quite so ready to forgive Lawrence Phillips, the woman-beating, law-breaking asshole who missed the block on Williams).  What came next was nearly 20 seasons of has beens, warm bodies, and busted picks such as Jeff Garcia, Steve Stenstrom, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett,  Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, Chris Weinke, J. T. Sullivan, Troy Smith and finally Alex Smith, the overall Number One draft pick the Niners chose instead of Aaron “Discount Double Reality Check” Rodgers.

So you can understand if Niner fans go into tomorrow’s game with a hope in one hand and apprehension in the other.   We’ve been here before and last January it was the Giants and Kyle Williams’ bad luck that ended a great season one game too soon.

Fans tend to exaggerate their importance in how their team does in a big game.  We have no importance,   but all the same I’ll gear up, ready proper and necessary amounts of food to nourish and drink to steady myself during the particularly tense moments when fortune favors the other team as I yell like hell when something good happens and sit there sullenly as something bad follows.

Against the Saints last year,  Alex Smith played about as good as any elite QB in the league.   He shook the title of “game manager.”   He won’t be back with the 49ers next season, but he’ll be playing and starting for someone else.  With Smith you had a quarterback who made good and solid plays if not quite exceptional.   With Kapernick, how high his ceiling is remains to be seen.   He seems to be on the cusp of greatness, but he has to win two more games to achieve it.

The hope is there.   Whether the glory is as well remains to be seen.

A young man in a hurry to be great.

 

I Got 49 Problems But the Saints Ain’t One

Get outta my way! I’m trying to keep this job!

The 49ers went down to N’awlins and came back with a 31-21 victory over the Saints.

I hate the Saints.   I hate the Cowboys and some other teams too, but the hate I have for the Saints burns hot, high and bright.  Not like I want anything bad to happen to Drew Brees or anyone on the team, but I hate the way those swaggering, thuggish, roguish mofos act like they are they are the most formidable offense in the NFL.   Let’s get this straight.  The Saints are only as good as Brees is on any given Sunday.  If he’s having a bad game, there is no “Plan B” to fall back on.

The Saints running backs are Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram and all of them are given a chance to tote the rock.   Whenever a team uses a running back by committee approach it means they don’t have one that’s good enough to deserve the majority of the carries.   Marcus Colston is a fine wide receiver, but he doesn’t dominate the way a Calvin Johnson.   The only guy who dominates is tight end Jimmy Graham, but his four receptions for 33 yards made no difference on the game’s outcome.

It’s Crunchtime in the Big Easy.

As for the Saints defense, as good as the offense is, the defense is just as bad.   No wonder head coach Sean Payton and ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams instituted their bounty program.   The stiffs they dress up in those ugly black-on-black and gold-trimmed uniforms are among some of the most talentless losers in the league.  I wouldn’t trade the worst player on the 49ers “D” for the best one on the Saints (and I can’t think of whom their best player might be).

As a 49ers fan, there was NOBODY I wanted them to beat more this season than the Saints. After the whole Bountygate mess from the playoffs, it’s an established fact the Saints are a dirty football team. Beating their butts in their own house in front of their fans only makes the win all the sweeter. Playoffs? Not for you, suckers!

The story for the sportswriters coming out of the game is the supposed “quarterback controversy” between Kapernick and Alex Smith.  Look, no offense to Smith.  He’s a good quarterback.  He’s good enough to win more games than he loses and he’s good enough to make enough plays to get the Niners into the playoffs.   As he showed against the Saints last January, he’s good enough to use his arm and his legs to win a big game,

But here’s the thing.   After beating the Saints in the playoffs, the only thing standing between the Niners and a return to the Super Bowl was the New York Giants.   The two fumbles by wide receiver Kyle Williams gave the game away to the G-Men and Smith had a solid, if unspectacular game (12-26, 196 yards, two TD’s), but only completed one pass to a wide receiver.

The Niners knew they had to upgrade their receivers and went out and signed Mario Manningham away from the Giants as a free agent, lured Randy Moss out of retirement and drafted A.J. Jenkins with their first pick in the draft.   Manningham has only been okay, Moss has had flashes of former brilliance and Jenkins hasn’t played a single down (but may have to now that Williams is out for the season with a torn ACL).

None of that mattered when the Giants returned to San Francisco in Week 6 and rolled out with a 26-3 win that was never close and Smith was terrible throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns.

The Niners and the Giants look like they’re on a collision course to meet again in the playoffs.   The Giants have beaten them two out of the last three games.   Given another shot, Smith might be able to redeem himself from the beat down the Giants served up, but when the book on the 2012 season is written, that might have been the moment when head coach Jim Harbaugh realized how low Smith’s ceiling is.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses their job.

When Smith suffered a concussion against the Rams it opened the door for Kapernick to stroll through as the starter.   The unspoken rule in the NFL is a veteran isn’t supposed to lose his job due to injury.  But ask Drew Bledsoe how Tom Brady made the most of his shot and never let it go.

In pro football the next man up is always one play away from starting.   Maybe he’s only enjoying a few fleeting moments of glory before he crashes and burns but Kapernick is going to make the most of his chance.   I’m a little conflicted about how he got that chance, but after seven seasons I already know what Alex Smith has to bring to the party.    In Kapernick, the 49ers have a shiny new toy to play with.   I’m curious to see how he handles the pressure.

Saving the Best for Last: The 49ers Shock the Saints

"I am a 49er. Hear me roar!"

The hero of the day in the San Francisco 49ers victory over the New Orleans Saints was tight end Vernon Davis who caught the game winning score from much maligned quarterback Alex Smith.  The 36-32 downing of the high-octane Saints gave the 49ers their first playoff win in nine years and punched their ticket for an appearance in the NFC Championship.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh and the front office deserve all the credit for making the 49ers this year’s most unlikely Super Bowl contender.  Some credit should go to Mike Singletary, the man Harbaugh replaced for being responsible for getting Davis to drop the diva act and tap into his incredible potential.

For a while Davis looked to be just another in long list of first round failures for the Niners.  Nobody questioned if Davis had the talent.  The question was whether he would ever pull his head out of his ass and tap into it..  Singletary was not a good coach.  What he was was an excellent motivator.  Davis was motivated by Singletary and Harbaugh coached him up.

While Smith-to-Davis isn’t a moment as iconic as Montana-to-Clark, give them time.  They had to endure a lot of crap to get to this moment of glory.

My wife and I are 49ers fans going back to “The Catch” which occurred 30 years ago this weekend.

Today we witnessed “The Catch II” or “The Grab” as some have dubbed Smith’s TD pass to Davis. Whatever the hell you want to call it after nearly nine years or wandering in the NFL wilderness, it feels really good to return to being a relevant team again..

I respect the Saints and I’m not going to lie: I expected them to win.  I felt the Niners had a chance to throw some blows and go toe-to-toe with the Saints’ explosive offense.  Drew Brees is crazy good, but I also thought if the Niners had to deal with the Saints, that was fine.  They had to deal with us too.

If this had been in the Superdome, I’m not sure the Niners would have won.  They worked hard to secure that home field advantage over the Saints and it paid off in full.

The cherry on top is how satisfying it is that this the Saints/49ers was merely supposed to be the opening act for the main event of Tom Brady vs. Tim “Touched By An Angel.”  Tebow in primetime.   Nobody pimped this game harder than ESPN. They have been riding Tebow’s dick even more than they were Brett Favre.  I didn’t think that was possible, but ESPN’s saturation coverage and endless hero worship proved it was.

Joke’s on you, ESPN.  There was only one football game that was Must See TV and it wasn’t in Foxboro.  Brady demolished Denver and sent Tebow packing until he can plan his resurrection next September.

I have nothing against Tim Tebow personally.  He seems like an earnest young man who loves playing football and giving the glory to Jesus Christ, but I watch football because I enjoy the sport.  I don’t want anyone’s religious beliefs up in my face.

Anyone remember Reggie White? He was religious, very conservative and after the game he would gather with players from both teams and pray. But White didn’t make a show of his faith. Tebow does and that’s annoying as hell.

It only took seven years for Alex Smith to get San Francisco to fall in love with him.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Reggie White was one of the greatest of all time at his position and a Hall of Famer. The only way Tebow gets in the Hall of Fame is if he waits in line and buys a ticket.

Enough about losers that are not longer relevant.  The Niners are moving on and the Saints and Broncos are cleaning out their lockers.  For the past nine years it’s been the other way around.   I don’t know who the Niners will match up against next Sunday, but I know they’re playing and that is something I haven’t been able to say since they were rolling up Super Bowl wins.

These 49ers are not the 49ers teams of Montana and Young.  They lean on playing stout defense, capitalizing on the other team’s mistakes while minimizing their own turnovers.   Frank Gore pounding the rock between the tackles is how Harbaugh prefers it instead of Alex Smith strafing secondaries with his arm.   It’s not glamorous and it sure ain’t sexy.  Sometimes it’s even a little bit boring.

But it’s damn efficient even if it runs counter to how the Packers, Patriots and the Saints do things.  Those teams were supposed to be contending for a Super Bowl ring.  The 49ers were supposed to be happy if they finished with a .500 record.  Nobody could have predicted this kind of success and nobody did.

Anyone who tell you they saw it coming is lying their ass off.

The 49ers Rush Back to Relevance.

Who's got it better than the 49ers? Well, there's the Packers...

It rained the day after the San Francisco 49ers clinched the NFC West to return to the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, but for this particular long-suffering fan it felt like sunshine and rainbows.

The 49ers have won the NFC West and are back in the playoffs. Reunited and it feels so good! What a difference a real coach makes. Jim Harbaugh has taken Mike Singletary’s leftovers and turned it into fine cuisine.  It’s raining outside but it feels like sunshine and flowers.

It’s not easy being a 49ers fan east of the Mississippi River.   Why, just the other day, some kid was absolutely incredulous that someone could live in Ohio and be a fan of a football team in California.   Out of the mouths of babes.  They just don’t get it.  Geography has nothing to do with being a fan.

There was a point in the lost years of Dennis Erickson/Mike Nolan/Mike Singletary running the Niners into the ground where I just gave up.  Every bit of 49ers memorabilia, the T-shirts, the refrigerator magnets, the banners, the flag, the bumper stickers that were never placed on a bumper,  the Joe Montana and Jerry Rice action figures, all of that crap went into a bag and banished to a dark corner of the basement.

That’s the way love goes.  You can only have your heart ripped out and stomped on so many times before you stop caring or bleed to death.

Patrick Willis talks about whatever he wants.

The 49ers winning a division with stiffs like the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams is no reason to thump your chest and throwing how bad they are in your face.   Considering the Seahawks “won” the NFC West last  year with a 7-9 record, hell yeah, the 49ers deserve to have a bit of swag in their step.

Opening up a can of whup-ass on the Rams was sad, but it was necessary.  They were standing in the way of the Niners clinching the division, so they had to be moved out of the way.   Blanking them 26-0 was just the cherry on top.

I’m happy for Frank Gore who became the 49ers all-time rushing leader and I’m happy for Alex Smith, the first round pick who will always be in the shadow of Aaron Rodgers.   I’m happy for Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree who are finally justifying their high draft pick status.  I’m happy for Patrick Willis, the best linebacker in the NFL, though he did suffer a hamstring injury that will sideline him for a few games.  I’m happy for obscure players like Larry Grant and Kevin Williams who have emerged in 2011.  I’m happy for Jim Harbaugh, who has been the coach the Niners have been looking for since Bill Walsh left the building.

Most of all, I’m very happy for Aldon Smith, the team’s top draft pick this year who has completely justified his rep as a relentless pass rusher.   Smith put a bull rush on Rams tackle Adam Goldberg where he put him on his butt and dumped back-up quarterback A.J. Feely, giving him his eighth sack of the year.

It was Smith’s ninth sack that topped the eighth one.   On fourth down, Smith sacked Feely again, but instead of breaking out into a bad dance routine, pumping his fist and screaming like he hit the lottery, Smith jumped up, ran off the field, brushed past his teammates, removed his helmet, and sat on the bench with his hands folded in his lap looking like a dutiful student.

It was classy and classic at the same time.  That it was funny was an added bonus.

Class is something the 49ers have in abundance like championships.  Is it like the days when Montana, Craig, Rice, Young, Lott and Walsh were crushing the competition and hoisting five Super Bowl trophies?  No, but winning the division is a step on a road to bigger and better things.

Nobody’s talking about the 49ers return to respectability.  They’re talking about the Packers having a perfect season and Tim Tebow as the Second Coming.   Fine.  Let them ignore the 49ers. I’m good with flying under the radar for now.

The 49ers are finally relevant again.  If it’s not a complete return to glory, relevance isn’t bad as it goes.

Something to get excited about