This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
Getting to the top is a long hard climb. Crashing to the bottom is a fast painful fall. The San Francisco 49ers have experienced both in their franchise history. Everybody knows about the climb. The 1970s were difficult times for the 49ers. Terrible teams and terrible management plagued the 49ers during the disco decade. Then along came Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. The 49ers rose from the rubble, and dominated the 1980s. After 5 Super Bowls and some of the greatest players to ever participate in the sport, the 49ers were due for a crash. 2004 was the year of the crash.
The 49ers were simply dreadful in 2004, finishing with a 2-14 record, the worst in the NFL that season. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers would have gone 0-16. But thanks to two overtime wins over the division rivals from the desert, the 49ers avoided the ignominy that the Detroit Lions suffered 4 years later.
This wasn’t the glorious 49er teams of yesteryear. Instead of Joe Montana at quarterback, the 2004 team had the likes of Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey behind centre. Instead of Jerry Rice catching passes, it was Brandon Lloyd and Curtis Conway dropping passes in 2004. Instead of Roger Craig bursting up the middle with his high knee sprint, it was Kevan Barlow gaining minimal yards from scrimmage. Instead of Bill Walsh manning the sidelines, it was Dennis Erickson who was more famous for his college teams behaving badly. In other words, the 2004 San Francisco 49ers were forgettable.
Rattay and Dorsey split time at quarterback throughout 2004. Not exactly Montana and Steve Young. Rattay did put up slightly better numbers, as he did complete 60.9% of his passes for 2,169 yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, for a QB rating of 78.1 in his 9 starts. Dorsey started 7 games, throwing for 1,231 yards, 6 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, for a QB rating of 62.4. Neither quarterback provided leadership and confidence in the huddle and both are now out of football.
Barlow rushed for 822 yards and 7 touchdowns for the 49ers in 2004. He averaged a mere 54.8 yards per game. Not good enough to be a featured back in an offence that was geared to run the football. Barlow just couldn’t hit the holes fast enough and had difficulty handling the pressure of being the featured back. Barlow is better suited to be a secondary or third down back.
Tight end Eric Johnson was the leading receiver for the 49ers, as he grabbed 82 passes for 825 yards and 2 touchdowns. Johnson was a solid tight end, but there is no way he should be your leading receiver. In fact the biggest catch Johnson ever had in his career was marrying Jessica Simpson. And the dude went to Yale. She can’t even spell Yale.
Lloyd and Conway had problems with the art of catching the football, which is somewhat important if you want to be a wide receiver in professional football. Cedrick Wilson and Arnaz Battle were also used as receivers, but they weren’t bringing back memories of Rice, John Taylor and Dwight Clark anytime soon.
Yet, the biggest problem for the 49ers in 2004 was their defence. The 49ers gave up the most points in the NFL, as they surrendered an average of 28.2 points per game. For the season, the 49ers allowed 452 points in 2004. They got lit up more often than Keith Richards in his prime. It didn’t help matters that Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson only played 5 games, until he went down to a season ending achilles injury. However, the rest of the team failed to step up when their teammate went down. The secondary, once a strength of the 49ers was a weakness in 2004. Shawnte Spencer, Ahmed Plummer, Tony Parrish and Ronnie Heard were not the second coming of Ronnie Lott. In fact, only Spencer remains in the NFL as he is currently fighting for a roster spot with the 49ers.
It used to be the 49ers would blow out opponents. In 2004, the 49ers were on the opposite end of blowouts. On 3 occasions, it got real ugly. The 49ers were dismantled 34-0 by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3. In Week 11, the 49ers were trounced 35-3 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And in their second last game of the season, the 49ers were walloped 41-7 by the Buffalo Bills. The game against Buffalo was particularly embarrassing as the 49ers suffered their worst home loss in 37 years.
Heads did roll in the offseason. Erickson was fired as head coach, and replaced with Mike Nolan. The 49ers used the first overall pick in the draft to select quarterback Alex Smith, who had an outstanding college career at Utah. In the third round, the Niners selected running back Frank Gore from the University of Miami. Gore has developed into a premier running back, making the Pro Bowl on 3 separate occasions.
Today the 49ers are climbing to the top of the ladder again. Led by a crushing defence, the 49ers are Super Bowl contenders yet again. They hope the long climb up is followed by a fast fall down. No one in the Bay Area wants to experience 2004 ever again.
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