As the final seconds ticked off the clock Sunday afternoon, the crowd at Levi’s Stadium erupted in a low gut-level yell – for the Dallas Cowboys.
The fans in blue accounted for at least 40 percent of the total crowd, maybe more, and they took over the 3-year-old home of the San Francisco 49ers. Beyond the home team’s 24-17 loss, it had to live with the fact the Cowboys swiped the mojo that used to belong only to the 49ers.
My thoughts turned to 49ers owner Jed York. I wondered, “Is this what he had in mind by leaving Candlestick Park and parking the team in the South Bay? That visiting fans would dominate the decibel level? That they would in part negate the home-team advantage so pivotal in the NFL?”
Full disclosure: The 49er Faithful all but seized residence of Jerry World, the Cowboys’ splashy home, during the 2014 season opener, a 28-17 win for San Francisco. Back then, the 49ers – still flying high after reaching the NFC championship game the season before – were Super Bowl favorites.
They’re no longer favorites. They’re 1-3, a year after they stumbled to 5-11. They’re pack-runners again, sometimes with nearly as many enemies as friends at home.
“They were very loud,” 49ers veteran tackle Joe Staley admitted. “We have to do our end, do our job. Make sure our fans come out for us. That’s all that we can control.”
He’s right. Back at Candlestick Park, Cowboys fans always were well-represented, as they are at all NFL venues. But they never virtually stamped the blue star on the turf like Sunday. Candlestick, for all its warts and wind-blown charm, belonged to the 49ers. They owned the place, and visitors knew it. They don’t own Levi’s the same way.
More disclosure: Levi’s is off to a good start – last year’s Super Bowl won’t be the only time the Roman-numeraled game happens here – and it continues to be a cash cow for the 49ers. But right now, it can be compromised by hordes of invading fans.
Sunday’s game exposed the cushy-soft 49ers fan base post-Jim Harbaugh. Any visiting-team fan can obtain a ticket at Levi’s and root-root-root for the 49ers’ opponent. And, in most cases these days, they’ll walk away with a smile.
The game also provided more exposure of the 49ers’ lack of depth and marginal talent. They started with a well-deserved 14-0 lead but were overtaken with room to spare. The momentum switched on a few iffy penalty calls and the potentially devastating injury loss of linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Bowman’s importance, especially on a roster devoid of elite talent, can’t be underemphasized. Even three years ago, his major injury changed the course of the NFC title game at Seattle. Today, his absence tumbles the 49ers from so-so to oh-no.
The 49ers led 17-14 in the third quarter when Bowman grabbed his left leg in pain, a non-contact injury that effectively ended his team’s chances for victory. When he exited, the Cowboys did everything but throw a party. No offense to Nick Bellore, Bowman’s replacement, but there were legitimate reasons why Zeke Elliott found running lanes the size of Interstate 880 late in the game.
“It (the loss of Bowman) stinks. It’s really, really bad,” Staley said. “NaVorro is a captain for us, one of our team leaders. ... You can’t really replace a guy like NaVorro.”
The 49ers also were stung by a personal foul on Jaquiski Tartt as Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott fought for yardage. It was probably a 50-50 call on a third-down play while the 49ers led 14-0. Dallas drove and scored.
All this proves, however, is that the 49ers lack the overall quality to overcome the usual game-day barriers – injuries, calls, etc. Good teams grind through them. The 49ers are victimized by them.
There is an easy solution: Get better. Build the roster that can tee it up each week, rather than once every other week. Fans will return, they’ll wear red and they’ll banish opposing fans to the cheap seats rather than midfield.
It does not start with the people who buy the tickets. It starts with the guys in helmets and shoulder pads and a competent front office.