Jim Harbaugh has led the 49ers to a 13-3 record
The San Francisco 49ers finished the 2011 season with a 13-3 record. They earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye. The 49ers will play at home in their first playoff appearance since 2002.
Jim Harbaugh and his entire staff deserve an A+ for their work in turning around the fortunes of the 49ers.
I will give a grade report for all of the starting positions. Let's take a position-by-position look at those key players that have energized the 49ers.
Alex Smith has improved tremendously in 2011
No player has benefited from the presence of Jim Harbaugh more than Alex Smith. He has learned how to play the quarterback position without making mistakes and has led the 49ers to a 13-3 record.
Smith completed 274 of his 446 pass attempts, a rate of 61.4 percent. Although his 3,150 yards and 17 touchdown passes won't rank in the upper echelon of the league, Smith only threw five interceptions. The low turnover number was instrumental in the 49ers' success.
Smith also utilized his mobility to his advantage, often buying time to give his receivers more time to get open. He also did an excellent job scrambling for key first downs.
The growth shown by Smith this season was outstanding. He learned not to force his throws, but to use his safety outlets when under pressure. His passer rating of 90.7 was easily the best of his seven-year career.
Smith still has to improve his passing on the deep throws and his overall accuracy, but there was a marked improvement in the command he displayed. There was also considerable growth in Smith's leadership and confidence level.
Frank Gore had the fifth 1,000 yard season of his career
Frank Gore missed the final five games of the 2010 season due to a severe hip injury. Then he held out at the beginning of the abbreviated training camp and got off to a slow start to begin the 2011 season.
Gore found his groove in the fourth game of the season and reeled off five straight 100-yard games. Gore carried the ball 282 times and gained 1,211 yards, good for a 4.3-yards-per-carry average. He also did his customary fine job blocking and in blitz pickup.
Gore was not as big a factor as a receiver out of the backfield, as he only had 17 receptions for 114 yards, the lowest yardage total of his career. Gore also dropped several passes this season. He had over 40 receptions in each of his past five seasons.
Bruce Miller played defensive end in college
One of the best stories of the year was Bruce Miller. He was a defensive end in college at Central Florida. The 49ers made him a seventh-round draft pick and decided to convert Miller into a fullback.
Starting fullback Moran Norris went down with an injury and Miller found himself starting in the third game of his professional career. Miller has done a tremendous job blocking and has also not made the typical rookie mistakes we so often see.
Miller has only carried the ball four times this year. He has, however, made 11 catches out of the backfield, including a 30-yard touchdown against the Redskins.
Miller is an excellent special teams player. He has given the 49ers much more than they expected from him this season.
Joe Staley earned his first Pro Bowl invitation this year
Joe Staley missed seven games due to injury in each of his last two years. Early in the season he appeared slow and had trouble with faster pass-rushers getting around him. To make matters worse, he was also bull-rushed and overpowered at times.
As the season progressed, Staley seemed to find his legs and became a much better player. His improvement throughout the year coincided with the overall improvement of the entire line.
As a left tackle, Staley is often facing the best pass-rusher on the opposing team. He protects the blind side of Alex Smith and did a good job for the most part. Staley earned his first Pro Bowl selection this season.
Mike Iupati has had a solid second season
Mike Iupati had a very good first year in the league in 2010 and I was expecting him to really dominate this season. He did not dominate like I thought he would, but he did have a solid season.
Iupati is an extremely physical, devastating run-blocker. He did have a few problems with his pass blocking, including a few too many penalties. Iupati was not as consistent as he should have been, but overall, he was solid.
Jonathan Goodwin came to SF from New Orleans
Goodwin started all 16 games for the 49ers and was an bulwark in the center of the offensive line.
Adam Snyder became a starter after the third game of the year
Adam Snyder has always been a versatile lineman, able to play all of the positions along the line. He began the season as a reserve, but joined the starting lineup after the third game of the year.
Snyder replaced Chilo Rachal who was playing very poorly at right guard. Once Snyder began playing regularly, the 49ers offensive line improved steadily. Rachal's poor play put added pressure on center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis.
The insertion of Snyder into the starting lineup created a huge advance in the play of the entire line.
Anthony Davis has made big strides this year
Last year and earlier this year, I was very critical of Anthony Davis. He played poorly in 2010 and was the most penalized lineman in the league. He was the weak link along an offensive line that performed well below expectations last season. The word "bust" was beginning to be tied to Davis' name.
When the 2011 training camp finally began, Davis was in not the best condition. It showed early in the season, as Davis was routinely victimized by opposing pass-rushers. He was also called for numerous penalties, including some tripping calls earlier in the year.
Davis had poor footwork and was often off balance earlier in his career. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno has done a fine job helping Davis improve his technique and footwork.
As the season progressed, Davis improved quite a bit. He was also helped by the steadying influence of right guard Adam Snyder, who became a starter after the third game of the year.
Davis has been a good run-blocker, but it was his pass blocking that showed the greatest improvement. He is showing steady improvement and the term "bust" is now rarely heard.
Vernon Davis hauls in a pass against the Rams
Vernon Davis had his best game of the season against the Rams, with eight catches for 118 yards. The 49ers hope that Davis will continue this trend and need him to come up big in the playoffs.
For the season, Davis has 67 receptions for 792 yards and six touchdowns. His yardage totals were down from the past two years, as was his yards per catch.
Davis had several drops this year as he often seemed to fight the ball into his hands. Over the second half of the season, not including the Rams game, Davis had on average about two drops per game. The 49ers cannot afford to have these missed opportunities as they move forward into the playoffs.
Davis continued to be a strong blocker and is quite valuable in the running game.
Michael Crabtree eludes a tackler on his way to the end zone
I have been extremely critical of Michael Crabtree's diva attitude that was so prevalent over his first two seasons. Crabtree seemed to realize that this "me-first" attitude would not fly with head coach Jim Harbaugh. To his credit, Crabtree toned down this approach and concentrated on playing football.
Crabtree had his best season and really came on over the second half of the season. He finished the year with 73 receptions and 880 yards. Crabtree also showed more flashes of his ability to make yards after the catch, which was an integral part of his game in college.
Crabtree had his first two-touchdown game of the year against the Rams. Most refreshing was the fact that Crabtree simply hugged a player or two and trotted off the field. Gone were the berserk histrionics that had been synonymous with Crabtree.
Crabtree has made great strides in terms of his professionalism. He has matured as a player and as a man.
Joshua Morgan was lost for the year due to injury
The other wide receiver spot has been a revolving door due to a myriad of injuries.
Joshua Morgan began the season as the starter, but was lost to injury in the fifth game of the year. He had 15 catches for 220 yards, prior to going down.
My feeling is Morgan is best suited as a No. 3 receiver on a top offensive team. He has good size but has trouble getting open against tight man coverage.
Braylon Edwards never really found his game in San Francisco, as injuries hampered him and he was eventually released prior to the 49ers' last game of the year. The timing of Edwards' release had a lot to do with his attitude, which went downhill as his playing time diminished.
Edwards had 15 catches for 181 yards and no touchdowns. With injuries to Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr. and Williams, the only reason the 49ers would have released Edwards with one game remaining in the season is due to a very poor attitude.
Ginn made his biggest impact as a return man. As a receiver, he had 19 catches for 220 yards and no touchdowns.
Kyle Williams was starting to come on and make an impact, when he suffered a concussion in the second-to-last game of the year. Williams had 20 receptions for 241 yards and three touchdowns. He is extremely quick and is best utilized as a slot receiver or third-down receiver.
Williams has battled injuries throughout his career and it remains to be seen how much the 49ers can count on him in the future.
Brett Swain was a midseason pickup and he started the final game against the Rams. For the season, Swain has only two catches for 15 yards. I expect Williams and Ginn to return for the playoffs, so Swain probably will see minimal action, if any.
Justin Smith made the Pro Bowl in 2011
Justin Smith is in his fourth season with the 49ers, after spending seven years with the Bengals. Smith earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection based on his stellar play and relentless effort.
Smith made 58 tackles, including 7.5 sacks. He also forced three fumbles and recovered one. His forced fumble late in the Eagles game saved the win for the 49ers.
Smith is known for playing with supreme effort on every down. He is a tremendous leader by example and has a never-ending motor, which runs consistently from the first play to the last.
Isaac Sopoaga has been a steady force on the 49ers' defense
This past summer the 49ers had to make a decision on if they wanted to spend big money and bring Aubrayo Franklin back as their nose tackle. They decided to let Franklin go and moved Isaac Sopoaga inside from his left defensive end spot.
The nose was an ideal fit for Sopoaga who has always been good against the run, but is not a strong pass-rusher. Sopaga's strength in the middle of the 49ers defense has been instrumental in them having the No. 1-ranked defense against the run in the NFL.
Although Sopoaga has only 31 tackles and no sacks, his ability to occupy blockers and clog up the middle enables linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to make tackles.
Sopoaga is also used in the 49ers' jumbo offensive set, where he is a power-blocking back. He even caught a pass and turned it into a 17-yard gain against the Browns.
Ray McDonald holds down the end opposite Justin Smith
Prior to the 2011 season, Ray McDonald had made only nine starts in his four seasons with the 49ers. When San Francisco decided to move Isaac Sopoaga to the nose tackle spot, it opened up a position for McDonald at the left defensive end.
McDonald has played admirably and started 15 games for the 49ers. He had career highs with 39 tackles and 5.5 sacks. These are not spectacular numbers and there were times when McDonald disappeared, but for the most part, he was pretty good.
Perhaps the biggest thing I noticed was that there was a big drop-off in effectiveness when McDonald was not in there.
Ahmad Brooks was a full-time starter in 2011
Ahmad Brooks started all 16 games this year for the 49ers. Prior to this season, he had made only one start for San Francisco. Brooks replaced Manny Lawson who had departed via free agency. As a full-time player, Brooks achieved career highs with 49 tackles, including seven sacks.
There were a few times when Brooks found himself out of position when he bit on run fakes and allowed a man to get behind him for a pass completion, but for the most part, Brooks was solid.
Brooks has always made big plays for the Niner defense, but he was also somewhat inconsistent. He improved on his consistency quite a bit this year.
Patrick Willis made his fifth Pro Bowl in as many years
If Frank Gore is the heart and soul of the 49ers offense, Patrick Willis is that for the defense. He was his usual outstanding self throughout the 2011 season, until he went down with a hamstring injury in the Baltimore game on Thanksgiving.
Willis missed the next four games and just returned to play in the regular-season finale against the Rams. He was noticeably rusty and it was good for him to get on the field prior to the playoffs.
Playing in his fifth NFL season, Willis earned his fifth Pro Bowl selection. He was second on the team with 97 tackles. Willis also had two sacks, forced four fumbles and recovered two.
Willis is so consistently good that it's easy to take him for granted, but I can guarantee that the 49ers don't. Neither do opposing offenses, as Willis is constantly making tackles and disrupting plays.
NaVorro Bowman sacks Tarvaris Jackson of the Seahawks
NaVorro Bowman is the player who made the greatest impact on the 49ers defense this year. He played behind Takeo Spikes last season and when Spikes departed for San Diego in free agency, Bowman was handed the job.
Bowman started all 16 games for the 49ers and led the team in tackles with 143. He also had two sacks and recovered three fumbles.
Bowman is a gifted athlete and used his speed and power to disrupt opposing offenses. He had an outstanding year and should have been a Pro Bowl selection, also. Bowman, in only his second pro season, will be a fixture for the 49ers defense for many years to come.
Parys Haralson split time with rookie Aldon Smith
Parys Haralson is in his sixth season with the 49ers. With the emergence of rookie Aldon Smith, Haralson's role diminished and did not play on every down.
Haralson played primarily in the base defense and on running downs. Where he lost playing time was on passing downs, when the 49ers would bring in Smith to rush the passer.
I would estimate that Haralson played on about 60 percent of the snaps when the 49ers were on defense. He made 30 tackles and had two sacks, both below his numbers over the past four seasons. His three forced fumbles were a positive.
Heading into 2012, it would not surprise me at all to see Haralson backing up Smith and playing mostly on special teams.
Aldon Smith led the 49ers with 14 sacks
Although linebacker Aldon Smith was not a starter, he made such a big impact on the 49ers defense that I felt compelled to include him on our grade report.
Smith was drafted by the 49ers as the seventh overall pick in the first round. When the 49ers selected him that high, many experts, including me, questioned why they picked him so high. I felt that they could have traded down three or four spots, picked up an extra pick and they would gotten him anyway around No. 11 or 12.
GM Trent Baalke was not willing to take that risk and it's good for the 49ers that he wasn't. Smith was brought along slowly by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. As the season progressed, Smith became more active and involved in the 49ers defense.
Smith is primarily used as a pass-rusher in passing situations. He has excelled at this, with 14 sacks, just half a sack away from the all-time sack record for rookies.
Smith has a great burst of speed coming off the end, but also has the strength to bull rush an offensive lineman. It has been his play that has elevated the 49ers defense into the top unit in terms of fewest points allowed. Smith is a major contributor for one of the elite defenses in the league.
Carlos Rogers breaks up a pass against the Steelers
Carlos Rogers came to the 49ers from the Redskins as a free-agent acquisition. He replaced the much-maligned Nate Clements and has done an excellent job.
Rogers' signing has helped to solidify the defensive secondary, a major weakness in the 49ers defense last year. He is having his best season ever. Rogers has six interceptions, which ties him for the team lead with safety Dashon Goldson.
Rogers was selected to his first Pro Bowl in this, his seventh NFL season.
Tarell Brown picks off a pass against Arizona
Tarell Brown has had an up-and-down season for the 49ers. Thrust into the starting role due to an injury to Shawntae Spencer, Brown has held onto the job over the course of the season.
Early in the season, Brown was the weak link in the 49ers secondary. He was beaten deep for touchdowns on several occasions. He also has been called for several pass interference penalties over the course of the year. This caused him to lay back and he allowed easy completions in front of him.
In the second half of the season, Brown has played quite a bit better. He is far from being a lockdown corner, but he has improved to a point where opposing quarterbacks cannot simply target him whenever they need to make a play.
Brown's improvement, coupled with Spencer's high salary, probably means the end of Spencer's time in a 49er uniform after this year.
Brown has four interceptions, all of which came in the last four games. His techniques are better and secondary coach Ed Donatell has worked extensively with Brown to make him a better player.
Donte Whitner has helped to solidify the 49ers' secondary
After five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, the 49ers acquired Donte Whitner as a free agent this past summer. Whitner has added a strong, veteran presence to the 49ers defensive secondary. His steadying influence has been instrumental in helping this unit improve.
Whitner has 62 tackles and two interceptions this year. He is a hard hitter and good tackler. Although only an average cover man, Whitner is still a big upgrade at strong safety.
Whitner handles most of the 49ers' defensive calls for the secondary. This enables his fellow safety Dashon Goldson to focus on his own responsibilities and not have to worry as much about the positioning of the other defensive backs. Whitner's presence has helped lead to a major improvement in play for Goldson.
Dashon Goldson returns one of his six interceptions
Following a very good 2009 season, the 49ers felt Dashon Goldson was ready to be a leader in the defensive backfield. Unfortunately, Goldson played poorly in 2010 and his job of handling the defensive secondary calls affected his play negatively.
Goldson did not expect to be back with San Francisco, but it's a good thing for the 49ers that they were able to sign him for the 2011 season. Goldson has benefited greatly from having veteran Donte Whitner next to him. Whitner makes most of the defensive secondary calls, which frees Goldson to concentrate on his own responsibilities.
Goldson had the best year of his career. You could tell that he was playing with greater confidence as the season progressed. He had a career high of six interceptions and became a feared hitter in the secondary. Goldson made his first Pro Bowl this year.
David Akers had an outstanding year
David Akers was signed in the offseason as a free agent. The former Eagle was nothing short of spectacular this year, as he made 44 of his 52 field-goal attempts. His 44 made field goals set an NFL record.
Akers was also very good on his kickoffs, with 47 touchbacks in 93 kickoffs. He even threw a touchdown pass on a fake field goal in the Rams game.
Akers was selected for his fifth Pro Bowl.
Andy Lee booms a punt against the Cardinals
Andy Lee was the top punter in the NFC in 2011. He had a 50.9-yard average per punt and set a league record for net yardage at 44.0 yards. This speaks volumes for Lee and also his coverage unit.
Lee was instrumental in the 49ers winning the field-position advantage, which was a huge benefit to the defense. He had 28 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
With David Akers and Lee, the 49ers have the top kicking specialists in the NFC.
Jim Harbaugh is intense on the sidelines
When the 2011 season began, nobody could have anticipated the 49ers would go 13-3 and hold the second seed in the NFC playoffs.
The 49ers relied on their strong defense and excellent special teams to lead the way. Offensively, the 49ers still have a lot of room for improvement, but they did do better late in the season.
It has been a tremendous year for the 49ers organization and for their players. Football is fun again in San Francisco.