By Sam McPherson
As the San Francisco 49ers prepare to take on the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, their struggle this season are taking longtime 49ers fans and observers back to some very bleak days in their history. The “4-9ers” have been outscored this season by 127 points, and that’s a number the San Francisco franchise hasn’t seen on its scoring ledger since the 2004-07 seasons.
Even as the team climbed out of that cellar last decade, it took a few more seasons—and a more coaching changes—to firmly right the ship and create a contending NFL team again. The 49ers and their fans do not want to wait that long to become a relevant NFL team, of course, so there are lessons to be learned from the past for those that choose to remember it.
San Francisco posted a 2-14 record for the first time since 1979, the first year Bill Walsh coached the team. The only two wins came in overtime against the Arizona Cardinals, so the 49ers were very close to becoming the first NFL team to go 0-16. Someone named Kevan Barlow led the team in rushing, while two quarterbacks with impressive college careers—Orinda’s Ken Dorsey and Tim Rattay—struggled to find NFL success.
Defensively, John Engelberger led the team with six sacks, and you’re not alone if you have no idea who that is. Head Coach Dennis Erickson had posted a 7-9 record in 2003, taking over from Steve Mariucci, but the bottom fell out in 2004. The reward was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, where the 49ers decided against taking Cal’s Aaron Rodgers. That alone probably doomed them for years to come.
The 49ers improved two games under first-year coach Mike Nolan and rookie QB Alex Smith. Of course, Smith wasn’t Rodgers, and he struggled with injuries and coaching changes for most of his S.F. tenure. Dorsey and Rattay both started games in 2005; in fact, the 49ers used four different starting QBs during this 4-12 season. Remember Cody Pickett? One bright spot was rookie running back Frank Gore, who led the team in rushing with 608 yards despite starting just one game.
Old-timer Bryant Young led the team in sacks with eight, while second-year punter Andy Lee led the NFL in total punts and yardage. However, the defense was still 30th in the NFL, giving up 26.8 points per game. The 49ers did win their final two games in 2005, though, giving some hope to the following season.
That hope was realized with a 7-9 team that represented the apex of Nolan’s head-coaching career with the 49ers. Smith started all 16 games at QB and played decently enough under the circumstances, although he was hardly spectacular. Gore ran for 1,685 yards and eight TDs, while also catching a team-leading 61 passes and another TD through the air. The young duo gave the San Francisco offense hope for the future, even though Smith had next to no one to throw to downfield.
Defensively, a bunch of no-name guys gave up the most points in the NFL at 25.8 per game. The 49ers lost three games by less than a touchdown each, and there was optimism that Nolan had the team headed in the right direction. All the S.F. organization was one more draft to make things work again, the way the fans had gotten used to from 1981 to 2002 with 18 postseason playoff appearances and five Super Bowl wins.
It wasn’t to be, however. The season started off great, as the 49ers won their first two games over division rivals by a combined four points. The corner had been turned, perhaps. But eight straight losses—three of them by a combined 10 points—dashed those dreams in a hurry as San Francisco regressed to 5-11 for the season. Smith was hurt again, and once more, the 49ers had to start four different QBs to get through the season: Smith, 35-year-old Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill and former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke.
Gore managed just 1,102 yards without a stable situation at QB, and even though the defense improved drastically with the arrival of rookie linebacker Patrick Willis—he made a whopping 174 tackles in 2007—the offensive problems cost the San Francisco franchise dearly in 2007. Nolan would be fired after a 2-5 start in 2008, and Mike Singletary showed brief flashes of being able to lead the team. But he too was canned eventually (2010), opening the door for Jim Harbaugh and the great revival of the 49ers organization.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.