The San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos are two of the names that send a special thrill through UK-based fans of American Football. Between them, the two teams have won seven Super Bowls, and both enjoyed high profiles when the sport first captured the imagination of the British public in the 1980s. So it is just as well that historical goodwill virtually guarantees an enthusiastic reception when they meet tonight in the fourth regular-season game to be played at Wembley. Because unfortunately, the 2010 versions are among the worst teams in the NFL.
The contrast between glorious past and disappointing present is more extreme in the case of the 49ers, who won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and '90s. The current team, coached by Mike Singletary, the legendary former Chicago Bears linebacker, were regarded as decent outsiders to follow famed predecessors such as Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Joe Montana and Steve Young to Super Bowl glory. But instead they arrived in London on Monday with an NFC-worst 1-6 won-lost record after a 23-20 defeat by the previously winless Carolina Panthers last Sunday.
Any team with an illustrious history finds comparisons cruel. Some coaches might want photos of past greats to be removed from the walls but not Singletary, who received a vote of confidence from the owners last week. "The tradition – what has been here and how it was, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice – that's something to be proud of, not put in a trunk," he said. "But I want our players not to try to rob from tradition, or be intimidated by it. Build your own, so one day you can stand alongside those guys as their peers. Respect tradition for what it is."
Easier said than done. Frank Gore, the running back, and Vernon Davis, the tight end with four touchdowns this season, can stand comparison with the greats. But there is no wide receiver to approach Rice, the all-time touchdown leader, and the contrast is worst at quarterback, where the 49ers have struggled to find a successor to Montana and Young. But then who wouldn't?
Some 49ers fans were almost glad when Alex Smith went down last Sunday with a separated shoulder, believing the quarterback was one of the main problems with the team. But his replacement, Troy Smith, the third choice, had not taken a single practice snap with the first team before last week and will work from a simplified emergency game plan.
The problem for a 49er quarterback is the giant shadow cast by Montana, three times the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl victories, and Young, holder of the highest quarterback rating in history. Alex Smith knows that all too well, and can give his namesake some advice on handling the pressure. "It's not like playing for the Cleveland Browns, who have never had a Hall of Fame quarterback," he said. "Four great quarterbacks have come through here: Y A Tittle, John Brodie, Joe Montana, Steve Young. Fans have an expectation level of what quarterback play should be.
"So the bar is set high, no question. That is the deal. You can look at it as a disadvantage, or a challenge, but at the same time it's an opportunity. You get to put on the same uniform as those guys, you get to try to live up to those guys. It's good and bad. This is the birthplace of the West Coast offense, and offense and good quarterback play are the expectation. You've got to be able to do it, and do it consistently. That's the aspiration, the goal."
The relative inexperience of Troy Smith may not matter. His main job could be to hand the ball to Gore against a Denver defense that gave up five rushing touchdowns last weekend in a humiliating 59-14 home defeat by the Oakland Raiders – the only team to lose to the 49ers.
The Broncos have lost 13 of their last 17 games. Kyle Orton, their quarterback, had been doing a passable impersonation of John Elway, the former Denver legend, but has struggled in the past two games. Elway and Rice will be honorary captains for today's coin toss. Spectators should enjoy the moment. It may be as close to NFL greatness as today's big occasion gets.
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