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Eddie DeBartolo keeps a close eye on 49ers, from far away

From San Francisco — One of the San Francisco 49ers’ biggest supporters, a cornerstone during the club’s finest years, wouldn’t dare set foot inside Candlestick Park on Saturday. By his estimate, he has turned down dozens of invitations to watch the 49ers play host to New Orleans in a divisional playoff game.

But he’s staying put at his ranch in Montana, rooting from afar.

“I’ll be perched by myself, right here with my dogs, watching the game,” said Eddie DeBartolo, whose teams won five Super Bowls during his 23 years as owner, from 1977-2000.

DeBartolo said he opted not to attend the game because “it would be doing a very large disservice” to his sister, Denise DeBartolo-York, and nephew, Jed York, who currently own the team.

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“It would also be a disservice to the fans,” continued DeBartolo, who this week was named among 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “This is their game. This is important. This hasn’t happened for a long time.”

After serving a one-year suspension imposed by the NFL for his involvement in a Louisiana casino-licensing scandal, he traded his half of the team to her for her stake in the family’s real estate holdings. He has flirted with the idea of returning to team ownership but has never acted on it.

Now, he stays in touch but not closely connected to the franchise. He spoke to Jim Harbaugh before he was hired as coach last January, and he frequently talks to his nephew, occasionally dispensing ownership advice.

“Jed’s done a great job. He’s a young man, and he’s learned well,” he said. “I’ve given him some advice and he’s taken some of it and not taken some of it. I think he’s done a remarkable job. He’s stayed back, hired the right people now, and he’s given them the autonomy they need to go and run that franchise with him in the background. Truthfully, you can’t ask for anything more.”

The 49ers, in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, have done a remarkable about-face from their 6-10 finish last season and the many disappointing seasons preceding that. The team has an elite defense and outstanding running game, and quarterback Alex Smith — long branded a bust — has had 17 touchdown passes and only five passes intercepted.

Smith set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), passing yards (3,144) and passer rating (90.7), but is quick to point out the playoffs are an entirely fresh start.

“I had a great season up to this point,” he said. “But [that] just got us a ticket to the dance like everybody else.”

A formidable challenge comes Saturday, as the Drew Brees-led Saints are rich with postseason experience. They have won four of their past five postseason games, averaging 37.6 points in those victories. They are 0-4 in road playoff games, however, not counting their neutral-site Super Bowl win, and last season were stunned in a first-round loss at Seattle.

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The 49ers were 7-1 at home this season, giving up a paltry 10.9 points a game at Candlestick Park.

That has at least one interested observer encouraged — and a bit surprised the Saints are favored by 3 1/2 points.

“They have a great team,” DeBartolo said of the 49ers. “I think the wrong team’s favored, although I’m biased.”

Just as any proud parent would be.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATTimesfarmer


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