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Posted: Monday September 1, 2008 11:24AM; Updated: Monday September 1, 2008 11:33AM

Cold Hard Football Facts: The decline and fall of the 49ers empire

Story Highlights
  • The Niners hit a new low by naming J.T. O'Sullivan its starting QB
  • Bill Walsh and Joe Montana started arguably the greatest NFL dynasty
  • An ownership change marked the beginning of the end in S.F.
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In an umatched run of NFL supremacy started by Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, the 49ers had at least 10 wins for 16 straight seasons.
In an umatched run of NFL supremacy started by Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, the 49ers had at least 10 wins for 16 straight seasons.
File/SI

By Kerry J. Byrne, Special to SI.com, ColdHardFootballFacts.com

The 49ers lorded over the known football world for nearly 20 years, a gleaming Eternal City of the gridiron and the paragon of pigskin civilization.

It was a remarkable reign, a period of greatness spanning some 20 percent of the entire 88-year history of the NFL.

Today the organization lays in ruins, reduced to smoldering rubble by invading waves of Goths (mismanagement), Visigoths (bad ownership) and Vandals (poor personnel decisions).

There's no indication that fortunes will change any time soon. Not after San Francisco coach Mike Nolan recently announced the most important job on the field would be handed to unknown J.T. O'Sullivan, a player who's truly put the "journey" in journeyman: the 49ers are his seventh team in seven NFL seasons.

Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, will be his backup.

It's an admission of defeat by the organization that they missed badly when they selected Smith with the top pick in the draft three years ago. Smith had sparkled running Urban Meyer's famed spread offense at Utah. But as we've since seen, a lot of quarterbacks sparkle in the revolutionary spread offense, including Tim Tebow, who runs Meyer's attack at Florida. As a freshman in 2006, Tebow helped guide the Gators (with fellow QB Chris Leak) to the BCS national title. Then last year he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy.

Perhaps Smith was nothing more than the dreaded "system quarterback" in college. We've seen little evidence to the contrary in the pros, where he's thrown 19 TDs and 31 INTs, while compiling a 63.5 career passer rating.

O'Sullivan, meanwhile, is entering his seventh utterly anonymous year in the NFL. His career stat line looks like this:

13 of 26 (50%), 148 yards, 5.7 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INT, 48.2 passer rating

O'Sullivan never threw an NFL pass until last year with Detroit, where he backed up Jon Kitna, and he has never started an NFL game. (Let history show that he did take a knee twice as a Brett Favre back-up with Green Bay in 2004).

Upon this dreadful résumé rest the hopes and dreams of a team desperate to find a ray of light here in the darkest days in the history of the organization. The 49ers have suffered five straight losing seasons, the longest streak of despair in the 62-year history of the franchise.

After all, quarterbacking is everything in the NFL. The right quarterback can instantly change the fortunes of an organization (see "Unitas, Johnny" and "Brady, Tom").

The random teams that do win it all without a great quarterback, meanwhile, usually benefit from steady postseason play at the position (see, "Dilfer, Trent") and extenuating circumstances elsewhere, such as a historically dominant defense. Dilfer's 2000 Ravens, for example, surrendered just 10.3 points per game, making them the greatest defense of the Live Ball Era (1978-present).

In other words, San Fran has virtually no hope of building upon its 5-11 2007 season unless:

• O'Sullivan turns into the second coming of Kurt Warner and produces a totally unexpected MVP-caliber season

• O'Sullivan proves a serviceable quarterback at the same time the San Fran defense suddenly transforms from one that surrendered 22.8 PPG last year to one that surrenders about 11.0 PPG this year.

Neither situation is likely to happen. So it begets the questions:

• Where did it all go wrong for the once majestic 49ers, an organization we recently ranked the fifth best in all of NFL history?

• And, even more importantly, is it ever going to get better for the organization?

We turned to the Edward Gibbon of the gridiron, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, for the answers, and for a brief, annotated outline of the decline and fall of the 49ers empire.

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