The Battle For The Heart Of California
On September 12, 2016, the crowd at Levis Stadium could be heard celebrating the renewal of a rivalry. “Beat LA! Beat LA! Beat LA!” could be heard far from the stadium. During the 28-0 blowout, it didn’t matter both the 49ers and Rams would suffer through a dreadful season. All that mattered was that the Rams were back in Los Angeles for the first time since 1994 and a natural rivalry could resume.
I worked that game as a security guard and was blown away by how passionate the fans are about the rivalry. It was very clear to me that this was not merely 49ers vs Rams. This was San Francisco vs Los Angeles. Start-ups vs Hollywood. Tech empires vs glitz and glamour. This is not just a rivalry between two teams but between two cultures. This is the battle for the heart of California
After that disastrous season, both teams fired their head coaches and got new coaches. Both coaches, Sean McVay (Rams) and Kyle Shanahan (49ers) are considered to be offensive minded and their offenses have not disappointed. The Rams lead the league in points scored and the 49ers just scored 44 points on the NFL’s top defense. The first game between both coaches ended in a 39-41 Rams victory.
For the 49ers, that was two quarterbacks ago as Brian Hoyer started that game, C.J. Beathard started a few games in the middle of the season, and Jimmy Garoppolo has started the past 4 games. Under Garoppolo the 49ers have a new identity, an identity they have been searching for all season.
There is a reason to believe that in the 67-year rivalry, this might be the most heated period between the two teams. Both have offensive-minded coaches, both are finding their identity, both are looking really good for years to come. Both offenses have been exploding in recent weeks and the quarterbacks are showing their ability to carry their respective franchises. To truly understand the significance of this rivalry we need to go back to 1950 when it all began.
The 49ers started in the AAFC before coming into the NFL in 1950. At that time the Rams were an offensive powerhouse with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin. The 49ers were not favored in either game and lost the first game 35-14. The second game the Rams were on a roll having put up 70 and 65 points in the previous two weeks. The 49ers played a physical game and only lost 28-21. The 49ers were still trying to find their groove in the NFL at the time and usually lost to the Rams.
By 1954 the 49ers built the Million Dollar Backfield with quarterback Y.A. Tittle, fullback Joe Perry, and halfbacks Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson. They became more competitive but that did not result in many more wins. In three years with the Million Dollar Backfield, the 49ers only won 1 game against the Rams, a 33-30 shootout in 1956. By the end of the decade, the Rams had a 12-7-1 lead in the rivalry.
It was during the 1950s that California was going through a major culture shift with the rise of television. As a result, Hollywood had to adapt by reaching to a younger generation. Movies became edgier and focused more on rebellion. Stars such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Marylyn Monroe were introduced to society. In many ways, the Rams of the 1950s were a perfect representation of Hollywood with all of the glitz and glamour which often comes with a high scoring offense.
Just as Hollywood was making historic changes to its identity, making darker plotlines sexy, so too were the Rams. While the forward pass was legal it was only a sparsely used tool. The Rams were decades ahead of their time and made the pass attractive before anyone could understand the impact of what they were seeing.
While all of this was going on in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area was going through changes which would not be realized until decades later. While Hewlett-Packard was founded in 1939 it was still a relatively small company at the time which dealt mainly with oscillators and such. The computer was still very much in its infancy. Like the 49ers Silicon Valley was always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
As the 1960’s began, San Francisco began to change into a counter-cultural movement. It is somewhat ironic that Kezar Stadium, home to the 49ers, was located by the corner of Haight and Ashbury. This was the center of the hippie movement and in no time people started to view San Francisco not as a nice place to live but as a place of rebellion and counter-culture. This is a stigma which still stands today.
While all of this was going on the 49ers started to make a comeback against the Rams. It was as if they felt a sense of duty to San Francisco to announce to the world that not all San Franciscans are hippies. People such as coach Dick Nolan and quarterback John Brodie were the face of the franchise as they came out of the cellar in the late sixties and made a serious push for the Super Bowl in the early seventies.
The Rams were led by the Fearsome Foursome which was comprised of defensive tackles Merlin Olsen and Rosey Grier along with defensive ends Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones in the sixties and this was a large reason why the 49ers only won 9 out of 20 contests against their hated rivals in the decade.
Typically when a team is led by a dominant defense people tend to think of them as thugs and the team tends to play more with an edge. This personified the film industry at the time which was still making a huge profit from darker films such as Psycho, the Dirty Dozen, and the James Bond films. These films became symbols of the times and instant classics.
As the 1960’s rolled into the 1970’s, some interesting developments were happening in Silicon Valley which would shape the course of history. Apple was born and with it an idea to put a computer in the home of every family in America. Before this development, computers were only used in businesses and were the size of an entire room. They were not fit for a typical family yet Apple turned the world upside down by introducing the Apple II. This was just the beginning of the start-up age and Silicon Valley has been growing ever since.
While Apple was just getting started, the 49ers started to decline drastically. It all started when Edward J. Debartalo Sr. bought the team for his son, Eddie, and his daughter, Denise. They found a general manager in Joe Thomas who immediately gutted the franchise of quality players and coaches. Before long they were the laughingstock of the league.
At the same time the 49ers were being gutted, San Francisco was thrown into chaos when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated. To top all of this off, the Rams made it to the Super Bowl to close out the decade. This was an incredibly dark time for the City by the Bay and it appeared that Los Angeles had finally had the last laugh. That is until a savior came for San Francisco.
The Rise of a Dynasty:
In 1979, the 49ers hired Bill Walsh as their new head coach and fired general manager Joe Thomas. In the previous two years, Thomas had gutted the franchise to the point of resembling an expansion team. Walsh even acknowledged the state his new team in later years as he had previous experience coaching an expansion team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Both the 49ers and the city of San Francisco needed a revival and Walsh was just the man for the job. Players such as Joe Montana and Dwight Clark were soon drafted to form the nucleus of a revival for the team and the city. In 1981, they did the unimaginable and won the Super Bowl just two years removed from back to back 2-14 seasons. Suddenly, the city and the team were revitalized.
With that came a sense of pride in the Bay Area which had not been felt in years. Companies such as Apple and HP started to skyrocket. Jobs were being created. Real estate went up. All because of the pride the 49ers exhibited for the Bay Area.
At the center of this was Bill Walsh who was being regarded as a genius. This was fitting because Silicon Valley is full of geniuses. Popular belief is that Walsh was the first. His West Coast offense was a direct reflection of Silicon Valley. Similar to the Rams of the 1950s it preferred the pass. Unlike the Rams, they did not rely on razzle-dazzle kind of plays.
They were a precision machine with short, timed passes. This was often viewed as finesse but with players such as Ronnie Lott and Tom Rathman, there is no way that those teams of the 1980s would have won as much as they did without a lot of hitting. The entire philosophy behind the West Coast offense is to beat the other man to the punch, just like in boxing.
The Rams of the 1980s were competitive; reaching the NFC Championship game twice, yet never won it all. This was arguably the best decade in sports for Los Angeles as both the Lakers and Dodgers won multiple championships. The Rams had lost their hold over their city. People were more interested in baseball and basketball than football in LA.
Despite their struggles, this was the most heated of the decades in the rivalry with the 49ers. The 49ers had a 13-8 edge in the 1980s over the Rams including a 30-3 drubbing in the 1989 NFC Championship game. While the 49ers had a pass-happy offense, the Rams had a ground game led by Eric Dickerson and Jackie Slater. It was truly a clash of styles.
The 49ers kept on rolling out victories, going to 4 out of 5 NFC Championship games to start the 1990s. They transitioned beautifully from Joe Montana to Steve Young, both Hall of Fame quarterbacks, calling to mind the Rams of the 1950s. The Bay Area was soon to become the start-up capital of the world with the invention of the internet to come right when the Rams left Los Angeles. It seemed that the 49ers and the Bay Area could do no wrong.
The Rams of the 1990s were a disaster until 1999 when they won the Super Bowl. By the time they left LA in 1994 they were 1-9 to the 49ers for the decade. At that time the O.J. Simpson trial was going on which caused all kinds of social unrest. Orange County was also going through a recession due to layoffs. This led to the Rams being unable to secure funding for their own stadium.
After the 1994 season, the Rams left for Saint Louis, Missouri ending a historic rivalry with the 49ers. The 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl that season. They had the last laugh and Northern California had the final victory, for the time being.
Rebirth of the Rivalry:
After 21 years the Rams returned to Los Angeles. The rivalry had not been the same in all of those years. They were no longer the natural rival for the 49ers. Instead, it was whoever was giving them trouble such as the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Packers. However, these rivalries were only football related, never more.
The rivalry with the Rams had always been a clash of cultures. 2016 was the first year of the revitalized rivalry and both teams were not any good.
2017 brought about a different energy and there is a reason to believe that the rivalry is about to become the very best it has ever been. It might even be a blend of all it has ever been. The 49ers have a defensive line unit that might rival the Fearsome Foursome in another year. The members of that unit include Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas.
The Rams are led by offensive stars such as Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Robert Woods, and Sammy Watkins. The high flying Hollywood style offense has come back to Los Angeles and the city is starting to believe in their team. The 49ers have a franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and have a solid running game with Carlos Hyde, Matt Breida, and Kyle Juszczyk. Playmaking receivers such as Trent Taylor and Marquise Goodwin lead a weak core of receivers but after another draft, this unit can be special. The Bay Area is starting to believe in their team and it shows in the attendance and the energy on game days.
Both cities are doing better than ever. The entertainment industry is booming with more genres and media platforms than before the Rams moved. The lights have become even brighter in Hollywood.
Silicon Valley is also booming with start-ups being created all the time. This means jobs are being created at a rapid pace and real estate is going through the roof. Just as both Los Angeles and Silicon Valley are growing at a rapid pace, so are the Rams and 49ers. High flying offenses, hard-hitting defenses, revitalized cities are just some of the reasons why this rivalry is bound for historical greatness. The Battle For The Heart Of California is about to become as intense as it has ever been and I cannot wait.