What they got instead was a prolific and ageless wonder who added to his legend and chart-topping numbers with a season that continued to distinguish Bruce as one of the NFL's all-time great receivers.
At age 36, after spending his first 14 NFL seasons with the rival St. Louis Rams, Bruce gracefully emerged as San Francisco's most productive and consistent threat at wide receiver since Terrell Owens left town after the 2003 season.
Bruce led the 49ers with 61 receptions for 835 yards and seven touchdowns – each the best a San Francisco wideout has produced in a season since Owens led the 49ers in all three categories during his final season with the team.
But it wasn't just the numbers that Bruce put it up, which might seem modest compared to top receivers on several teams but were at least 13 receptions, 102 yards and two touchdowns better than any San Francisco wideout had produced since 2003.
It was Bruce's comportment and the way he carried himself around the team that made him stand out even more. Eager to stand up as a mentor and role model for the team's younger receivers, Bruce's laconic style was something of an enigma for the media, but it obviously spoke volumes to his teammates that voted Bruce – in his first season as a 49er – as the winner of the Len Eshmont Award, the team's most prestigious individual honor as voted upon by 49ers players.
As San Francisco's second-oldest player, Bruce led by example and had an undeniable impact on the team while producing six games of five or more receptions and two 100-yard games – the first by a San Francisco wideout since you-know-who was still around.
Bruce finished the season with 35 catches for 402 yards and three scores in San Francisco's final five games, ranking fifth in the NFL in receptions over that season-ending span.
While accomplishing those feats, Bruce also moved into second place on the NFL's all-time leading receiving yards list and became the fifth player in league history to record 1,000 career receptions. Bruce also moved into ninth place on the NFL's all-time list for receiving touchdowns.
Bruce's 1,003 career receptions are more than any wide receiver currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But the 49ers couldn't have been much more pleased with the 61 of those they shared with him in 2009, and they couldn't have asked for much more, either.
The Bruce breakdown
Age: Turned 36 last November
The price tag: Signed a two-year, $6 million deal
What he brought to the team: Leadership, production and a classy veteran presence the 49ers haven't had at the wide receiver position since Jerry Rice left the team at the beginning of this decade. Bruce became a quiet but stoic leader and mentor to the team's young wideouts while leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns with the best numbers recorded in either of those three categories by a San Francisco wideout since 2003.
Did he make a difference: Absolutely. The San Francisco passing game – orchestrated by first-year offensive coordinator Mike Martz, whom Bruce was familiar with after working with Martz for several years in St. Louis – wouldn't have been the same without him.
Where the team would have been without him: Searching for a go-to receiver throughout the season, and missing out on a lot of big plays made by Bruce that made a difference in games.
His future as a 49er: He's signed through 2009 and there is little question the team would like him to return, though Bruce recently indicated to coach Mike Singletary that he still is contemplating his plans for this year, with retirement a possibility. Bruce, however, said throughout last season – and also showed it on the field – that he still has plenty left. The belief at this point is he'll return for another season as a starting wideout and go from there.
Good move? Bringing Bruce into the fold was a great move by the 49ers. In fact, considering the quite reasonable cost for a veteran of his stature, the deal with Bruce was one of the best moves the 49ers have made in free agency during this decade. Not only did they get a distinguished, Hall of Fame-bound veteran whose presence alone transcended the team, but they also acquired a much-needed threat at the receiver position who produced the best season by a San Francisco wideout in the past five years. Some questioned the signing of Bruce because of age and the NFL wear and tear on his tires, but he turned out to be a bargain and one of the team's best players. If only all free agents signed by the 49ers could turn out like Bruce did in 2008.