As 2011 comes to a conclusion, I can't help but hum the lyrics of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun."
The year may be ending, but the season continues for the San Francisco 49ers. There is still Sunday's finale at St. Louis, and oh just that thing they call the playoffs, a place the team has failed to attend since 2002.
It’s a time to look ahead, but also a time to look back at a year that has seen the 49ers transform from pretender into contender.
We've only just begun.
The excitement commenced well before the season ever started, the day San Francisco hired head coach Jim Harbaugh. After a successful stint leading Stanford, Harbaugh was lured away by the 49ers on a five-year $25 million contract and a chance to prove himself at the pro level.
Hope outweighed doubt, but there were many hesitant to believe in a man that had yet to coach a single NFL game.
They are all believers now.
The 49ers stand atop the NFC West with an unforeseen 12-3 record and are about to secure a No. 2 seed.
That prior excitement has now matured into mammoth proportions as a result of players stepping up on a regular basis to make big plays.
As we look back on the incredible journey of this season, here is a list of the top five plays that have defined the team’s success.
Narrowing the list down to just five plays was a tough task, trust me.
This is all subjective and I may have left out some that deserve mention, but here are a few that just barely missed the cut.
1/7/2011: The Hiring of Jim Harbaugh & Staff
This doesn't technically qualify as a "play," but the remodeling of the coaching staff has produced results faster than Minute Rice.
10/9/2011 vs. Tampa Bay: The Joshua Morgan Injury
The 49ers blew out the Bucaneers 48-3, but an injury to starting wide receiver Josh Morgan put a damper on the almost-perfect afternoon. Almost being the key word. Late in the game with the outcome already decided, Morgan remained in the lineup as backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick got his first reps of the regular season.
After a nice throw by the rookie and even better catch, Morgan reached for the end zone, only to be tackled by a Bucs defender. It was a highlight that quickly became a lowlight. On the tackled, the receiver's knee twisted the wrong way resulting in a season-ending injury. It was a tough loss for a team already lacking depth at that position, especially as Morgan appeared on his way to a breakout season.
10/30/2011 vs. Cleveland: Linemen Receptions
What do you do when your receivers are struggling to produce? Throw a couple passes to 300-plus pound linemen. Duh. That's what the 49ers did during this game and it worked. OT Joe Staley made a great catch and run for 17 yards that put the team in scoring position. Then it was DT Isaac Sopoaga's turn to pick up 18 yards of his own on a crucial 3rd-and-4 play.
They weren't the prettiest plays of the year, but they may been the funniest. Oh, the linemen now lead the team in yards per reception. Not too bad for a couple big guys.
12/4/2011 vs. St. Louis: Kyle Williams Sprint to the End Zone
Kyle Williams, in his second year out of Arizona State, has been a breath of fresh air for a thin receiving corps. Injuries and ineffectiveness from starters has pushed Williams into a starring role and the receiver has not disappointed one bit. He is displaying crisp route-running, good hands and the ability to break off a big play at any moment. This play sums that up.
On what was supposed to be a simple 8-yard pickup, the receiver had other ideas as he sprinted past the defenders for a 56-yard touchdown reception. It was his third of the year, and there are sure to be more in his future which now glows brighter than ever.
Watch the video here.
12/24/11 @ Seattle
You don't normally see too many highlights of kickers. You also don't see too many kickers enjoying a season of this magnitude. For an early Christmas present to himself, David Akers converted his record-setting 41st field goal of the season. That same day, he would also connect on a game-winning 39-yard attempt.
It's been that type of season for the free-agent acquisition, a move that has paid off immediate dividends for the 49ers. The man has been clutch all season in making 42-of-49 tries on the year. Fans would like to see him kick more PATs, but with a defense like the 49ers have, they don't need too many points.
With the record already being set, look for him to extend it even more during Sunday's season finale at St. Louis.
9/11/2011 vs. Seattle
While Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers are Takin' it to the Streets, Ted Ginn is takin' it the house.
Not just once, but twice.
In the season opener, Ginn crushed any hopes of Seattle completing their comeback by returning two kicks for a touchdown all within about two minutes.
One was a kick-off, the other a punt. The returns stretched a two-point lead to a 16-point win for the 49ers against a division rival.
Ginn may still have his struggles as a receiver (that being an understatement), but his value to special teams is often understated. Throughout the year, he has given the offense amazing field-position, a category they actually lead the entire league in.
This performance was just proof that the balanced 49ers can beat you in a variety of ways. The defense wins them games, the offense does too and even the special teams comes through when needed.
And if you don't believe me, just ask Seattle.
12/4/2011 vs. St. Louis
Huh, a 3-yard run is a highlight?
Not ordinarily, but this was no ordinary 3-yard run. On the short gain, Gore eclipsed Hall of Famer Joe Perry's all-time franchise record of 7,334 yards.
The home crowd responded with a standing ovation for the seventh-year back out of Miami (Fla.).
Gore has steadily become one of the premiere backs in the league and has been one of the few consistent producers on this 49ers team over the previous few years. This season has been no different, as Gore continues to rank near the top of most statistical categories for running backs, even while sharing the load at times with rookie Kendall Hunter and dealing with nagging injuries.
The record-setting run prompted comments by coach Jim Harbaugh that the running back deserves some sort of permanent reward.
"There should be a statue of Frank," Harbaugh said the following day. "Maybe with the new stadium, there'll be something somewhere—a life-size statue of him, in one of those cool positions he gets in, you know?"
While I enjoy the coach's enthusiasm and support of players, a statue may be a far-fetched idea. And in one of those cool positions he gets in?
I don't know about that.
Next to a new, large stadium that statue may end up looking more like a lawn gnome.
10/16/2011 @ Detroit
Watch the play here.
If a single play can sum up an entire season, then this is the one for Alex Smith.
Despite struggling throughout the game to get into any sort of rhythm, Smith found a way to win the game. Down 15-19 and facing a 4th-and-goal with 1:51 left in the final quarter, Smith threw a perfectly placed ball to Delanie Walker who caught it in stride using his momentum to reach the end zone.
It epitomizes everything about the former No. 1 pick, who has resurrected his career with his best season as a pro. The numbers don't jump out at you like a Brees or a Rodgers, but he's making the smart plays and leading his team to wins like a Brees or a Rodgers.
The turnaround began last year, as Smith finished the season on a nice streak. Despite the efforts, most assumed the free agent to be would walk away for a fresh start somewhere else. But the arrival and public support of coach Harbaugh swayed the quarterback to return once again.
Finally surrounded by a solid supporting cast and improved play calling, Smith is thriving and will be making his first trip the postseason. Along with career-best stats, the 49ers' quarterback has engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks, tied with legendary Joe Montana for a franchise-best.
Few can argue that Smith has been anything but essential to the team's historic turnaround.
10/2/2011 @ Detroit
Watch the play here.
The play of the year belongs to a member of the 49ers defense. Actually, with the historic season they're having, this comes as little surprise.
After staging an improbable comeback against a Dream Team having a nightmare of a season, defensive end Justin Smith chased down Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin to force the game-sealing fumble. Yes, that same Maclin who posted a 4.4 40 at the combine was brought down by the 285-pound Smith.
It was a classic battle between hustle and speed. Hustle won.
Down 20-3 at halftime, the 49ers miraculously fought back aided by the arm of their quarterback who passed for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter alone. The player of the game may have been Alex Smith, but it was another Smith that made the play of the game and arguably the play of the year.
It was this game, specifically this play, that really put the 49ers on the map where they have remained all season long. And with players making plays like these, the team aims to make 2012 even more special.
Remember, we've only just begun.