"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
The opening line of Charles Dicken's classic about the happenings in London and Paris during the French Revolution is a perfect summary for how a sports fan in San Francisco felt as they tuned in to the pain and joy that was Sunday.
To start the day, the 49ers had an early 10am PT kick-off against the Falcons and raced out to an early lead off a Vernon Davis TD snag and a ridiculously awesome blocked punt recovery in the end zone by former USC star Taylor Mays. Then the Niners did what they've done all season by squandering their talent and hype, losing 16-14 on the heels of a basically worthless offense and another mental mistake by Nate Clements as he fumbled away a 4th quarter pick that should have won the game. After an off-season in San Francisco spent discussing how dominant the Niners defense was expected to be, the plethora of weapons Alex Smith would now have at his disposal, and how weak the NFC West competition would be - the team is off to an 0-4 start and seems to be regressing.
Just as the Niners were putting the final touches on another maddening loss in Atlanta, the Giants were taking the field at home for the last game of the regular season - with everything on the line against the Padres. Going into their weekend series with San Diego, the Giants were up 3 games in the NL West, simply needing to win one to ensure a division title and playoff berth. On Friday and Saturday the Giant's offense appeared to take a page out of the Niners playbook, meaning they needed to avoid the sweep Sunday to ensure they would be in the post-season. Luckily for San Francisco sports fans, who were on the verge of taking a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge, Jonathan Sanchez pitched a clutch gem as the Giants shut out the Padres and began popping champagne in the locker room after their most important 3-0 win of the season.
The Giants will make their first appearance in the play-offs since 2003, having rebuilt the team after the end of the 'Barry Bonds Era'. This new look Giants squad is built around a deep starting rotation and a scrappy line-up, created from a solid base of young draft picks and well developed talent - including 2008 first rounder and likely 2010 Rookie of the Year catcher Buster Posey. While Barry Zito hasn't been worth anywhere near the $100mil+ the Giants paid for him, the team has done a great job building around their starters, with solid coaching and decision making that has led them back to the post-season.
At the same time the Niners are staring down yet another losing season, having gone since 2002 without reaching the play-offs, failing to effectively rebuild since the 'Terell Owens Era'. Despite what seems like a great batch of young talent from solid draft picks - Frank Gore,Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Patrick Willis, etc - the Niners have failed to turn the corner and it seems like the teams biggest issues can be traced back to coaching and the 2005 draft.
In that year the Niners took Utah QB Alex Smith with the first overal pick, overlooking local boy and Cal QB Aaron Rodgers, then spent the next five years failing to develop the player by throwing him into new systems and coaching staffs every off-season. Also in 2005 the Giants used their first round pick on a long-haired starting pitcher from Washington named Tim Lincecum. Unlike Smith, Lincecum was given time to effectively mature as a player, spending 2 years in the minors before a partial season stint in 2007, where the team intentionally shut him down in September to save his young arm. Clearly that proved to be a good decision, as Lincecum won both NL Cy Young awards since then and now is the ace on a team that will be hosting a play-off series later this week.
Much like London and Paris coming out of the Renaissance, It's amazing just how similar the paths of the two most high-profile Bay Area sports franchisees has been. While the Giants appear to be well positioned to continue to be highly competitive for the next few years, it seems that the Niners need to look to their basbeall counterpart to get a sense for what needs to be done to right the ship across town - so that San Francisco fans can get back to feeling the joy of being in the mix during the full sports fall season (we've given up hope on the Warriors and the spring).