Every so often, the 49ers recognize a past hero at halftime who sends the fans hearkening back to better days. On Sunday, the contrast between now and then will be unavoidable.
Not only will former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. be presented with his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring at the half, the true heirs to DeBartolo’s 49ers dynasty will be taking the field before and after the ceremony. And they won’t be wearing red and gold.
The New England Patriots, whose owners consulted with and were influenced by DeBartolo when they took over the then-moribund franchise in 1994, are amid their 16th consecutive winning season and have won four Super Bowls, one fewer than the 49ers when DeBartolo presided over them.
Their ascent has been similar to the one that led to the 49ers’ banner years, which began when DeBartolo hired a masterful head coach, Bill Walsh, in 1979 and drafted a quarterback, Joe Montana, the same year.
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The Patriots, meanwhile, brought in Bill Belichick in 2000 and drafted quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round later that year. Brady, who idolized Montana and worked out for his hometown 49ers before the draft, initially bristled when they passed him over for Giovanni Carmazzi that year.
But he’s come to realize the magic blend the 49ers had in the 1980s and 90s has migrated 3,000 miles to the east.
“I’m very happy where I ended up,” he said during the run-up to the game. “And I think I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”
Patriots owner Robert Kraft reciprocated the largesse DeBartolo had shown him when John and Denise York took over the 49ers from DeBartolo in 2000. They met with Kraft, whose team had at one time been last in revenue and played in a badly outdated stadium, and they liked what they saw.
Especially appealing was the family atmosphere in Foxborough, Mass. All of Kraft’s children were involved with the franchise, and he had recently turned over day-to-day control to his son, Jonathan, a move the Yorks envisioned duplicating with their eldest son, Jed, who was only 19 at the time.
In a 2005 interview, Jed York pointed to New England as a model.
“What I want is to have sustained success, like the New England Patriots or what the 49ers had in the 1980s,” he said. “It’s not about what happens next year. It’s about building it toward the future.”
The Yorks built a new stadium the way the Krafts did, and they have gone from being one the league’s lowest revenue-generating teams to one of its most productive. But finding the right coach-quarterback dynamic has been elusive. While the Patriots have had one head coach over the last 16 years, the 49ers are on their eighth.
With the latest, Chip Kelly, CEO Jed York may have been seeking someone with Belichick-ian qualities.
The two coaches certainly share a mutual admiration that began when Kelly was an assistant at the University of New Hampshire and would attend Patriots training camp practices.
When the Eagles fired Kelly after three seasons last year, Belichick called the move “really disappointing.”
“I mean Chip Kelly to me is a really good football coach,” he said. “I think he does a great job.”
After Kelly was hired in San Francisco, Belichick recommended he look at one of his former players, Mike Vrabel, for the 49ers’ vacancy at defensive coordinator. Vrabel ultimately decided to stay in Houston, where he is an assistant.
Kelly and Belichick never shared Xs and Os information during Kelly’s visits, which continued when he began coaching at Oregon and again when the Eagles and Patriots held joint practices during training camp. Instead, both have a fascination with trying to find advantages in any way possible, whether it’s the way a practice routine is structured or a play is called.
“We had a good opportunity to exchange some ideas, thoughts about a lot of things,” Belichick said. “I think Chip has got a lot of great ideas. I think his overall organization of whether it’s an offensive system, practice schedule, training, so forth, we talked about a lot of those things, and I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Said Kelly: “You’re always just trying to find an advantage because everything is so close. So how can you maximize what you have for your players, and how can you try to gain a yard here or a play here in certain situations?”