The days of shoddy quarterback play, overmatched coaches, wasted draft picks and free agency blunders appear to be over in the Bay Area.
For eight years, the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders had far more than their share of each of those to contribute to a playoff drought in what had for decades been one of the NFL’s most successful regions.
Led by energetic first-year coaches in San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh and Oakland’s Hue Jackson, the 49ers and Raiders finally appear ready to escape a nearly decade-long stretch of losing and compete for championships, which used to be so routine around here.
The 49ers (5-1) have been the surprise of the NFL with a fast start that has included three wins in the Eastern time zone and a 2 1/2 -game lead in the NFC West.
The Raiders (4-2) are in the thick of the race in the AFC West with quality wins over the Jets and Houston and now have a potential big-time quarterback in the fold after trading for Carson Palmer.
“There’s an excitement that the Raiders and 49ers are back,” said NFL Network analyst and former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, who still lives in the Bay Area. “I hear more of that now. There should be an excitement. It’s well deserved. This is good for the entire league and obviously it’s good for the Bay Area because the Bay Area loves its football.”
There was plenty to love in the past, from the dominant teams of the 1960s and `70s that Al Davis built in Oakland to the 1980s dynasty started in San Francisco by Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.
In a 19-year period starting in 1976, the Raiders and Niners combined for eight Super Bowl titles, including one for the Raiders in Los Angeles; 16 division championships; 22 playoff berths and 33 postseason wins.
But since both teams made it to the playoffs in 2001 and `02, with the Raiders winning the AFC title that second season, there has only been failure.
The teams combined for an 83-173 record the past eight years, with Oakland ranking 31st in the league with 37 wins and San Francisco only slightly better at 29th with 46 victories.
Neither team posted a winning record in that stretch and there were four seasons where the teams combined for nine or fewer wins—a total already reached before the halfway point this season.
“Well, we’re both off to good starts,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how much it means right now. … We’ll look up in December, see how many we have and see how many we need.”
For most of this stretch of losing, the only time the national spotlight shined on the Bay Area was for ridicule: bizarre news conferences in Oakland to fire old coaches; sideline fights between players and coaches in San Francisco; coaching and personnel decisions that bordered on the ridiculous.
Both teams made their share of big personnel mistakes that led to this losing, from the Raiders using the No. 1 overall pick to draft JaMarcus Russell in 2007, trading for DeAngelo Hall and then cutting him after eight games, and signing Javon Walker to a $55 million contract.
The Niners were unable to lure prominent free agents to San Francisco, a major change from the days when Eddie DeBartolo could get almost any player he wanted. When San Francisco did sign a free agent it was often a bad move, from the $80 million deal for Nate Clements to the $36 million deal for Jonas Jennings, who played 23 games in four years, to Ashley Lelie. San Francisco also wasted draft picks on players like Rashaun Woods and Kwame Harris.
Both teams were guilty of questionable coach hirings, with the Raiders bringing Art Shell back more than a decade after his stint in the NFL and hiring Lane Kiffin long before he was ready and the Niners giving the job to coaches like Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, who were unable to develop an NFL offense.
While many of the moves that have keyed this turnaround have happened over the last few years, two of the most important came in January when San Francisco hired Harbaugh and Oakland hired Jackson.
“They both have an old-school mentality,” Mariucci said. “They haven’t gone to the finesse trend that we’re seeing in football, not only in pro football but college and high school with the spread offenses and this fancy, finesse game. I’m enjoying the fact that they still want to play physical football and pound it at you.”
The 49ers have done it with perhaps the league’s best run defense led by linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, a running game led by Frank Gore and surprisingly efficient quarterback play from former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, whose career has been revived.
The Raiders have done it with big plays on the ground from Darren McFadden, speedy wide receivers capable of home-run plays and a defense that has been more aggressive than ever the past two weeks.
“I’m happy for the Raiders to have that going,” Niners defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “It’s a great buzz. Now everybody’s coming out to the games. It’s just a plus for the Bay Area to see both teams winning. Now you’re going to see more fans into it.”
While there is plenty of mutual respect between the two franchises, for some the recent renewal has sparked a rivalry that didn’t have much to get either side fired up for most of the past decade.
The teams played twice the last eight years and took a combined 3-14 record into those two early season meetings won by San Francisco in 2006 and `10.
Now being the best in the Bay Area will actually mean something.
“It could be because I’m a hater, but I never want the Niners to do good. Ever,” Raiders safety Mike Mitchell said. “I want us to be the only team that’s good so there’s no doubt who the top football team is around here. You see those guys out and they’re doing good, too. You want to be the top dog. You want to have bragging rights. When you’re both going 6-10, what’s there to brag about?”