San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh and 5 Niners Who Have Turned Team Around

Kyle BrownCorrespondent IIIJanuary 17, 2012

San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh and 5 Niners Who Have Turned Team Around

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    Who would've thunk it?

    The San Francisco 49ers finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and are now only one win away from making a trip to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. While it is a culmination of more than just a few things, Jim Harbaugh is the main reason why the 49ers have seen such a drastic turnaround.

    Some will argue that the pieces of the puzzle were already on the table when Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco and that all he had to do was simply put the pieces together. It's certainly a valid argument, but all of the credit should still go to Harbaugh even if that's the case.

    Here's a list of the five Niners who are most responsible for the revitalization of the franchise.

5. Justin Smith

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    Justin Smith deserves some recognition for what he has done this year.

    He was the single most important piece of the 49ers defense this year, which was the best in the NFL. Yes, he was even more important than Patrick Willis, which is really saying something.

    What makes Smith so great is his versatility. He excels in stopping the run, as well as rushing the passer. In both instances, he constantly draws double teams, which opens up holes for his teammates to make plays.

    One play that perfectly demonstrates Smith's affect on the defense is when he bull rushed New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod and got a hand on Drew Brees.

    If you look at the rest of the protection during that play, there was no way that neither Ray McDonald nor Aldon Smith were going to get to Brees. But Justin Smith took his man and pushed him back and single-handily disrupted the play.

    Smith was the best defensive player on the best defensive unit in the NFL. He is certainly deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award.

4. Vic Fangio

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    The main reason why the San Francisco 49ers have been so successful this season was because of the defense. They completely shut down the opposing offense's running game by allowing a league-low 77.2 yards per game. They also led the league in takeaways with 38. The unit was also two points shy of having the best scoring defense in the league.

    But the mastermind behind the defense's success is Vic Fangio, the defensive coordinator for the 49ers.

    Before 2011, the 49ers defense was widely regarded as borderline top-10 defense in the NFL. In 2010, they had the sixth-best run defense and the 16th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL.

    But what changed so drastically in just one year?

    Sure, the additions of Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers and Aldon Smith have helped. But it's really the new and improved defensive scheme and the way that Fangio utilizes all of his players to maximize their output.

    For example, Aldon Smith doesn't necessarily excel in run defense, so the only time he's on the field is during passing situations. It's one of the main reasons why Smith was able to accumulate 14 sacks this year, since he was able to focus on one thing every time he was on the field.

    Fangio has also developed a blue print on defense that only requires only a three- or four-man front in order to bottle up the running game. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Issac Sopoaga all excel in gap control and have the ability to eat up multiple blockers and free up room for other defenders to take down the ball carrier.

    The rest of the defensive scheme plays off of that and it allows the 49ers secondary, the weak link of the defense, to drop five to seven defenders back into coverage.

    It's a system that works and Fangio deserves a lot of the credit.

3. Alex Smith

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    Alex Smith's resurrection might be inexplicable to some, but I saw it coming as soon as I learned that Jim Harbaugh was going to be the head coach of the 49ers.

    Smith has always lacked the necessary tools to succeed in this league. He was thrown to the wolves his rookie year and expected to produce like the first-overall pick in the draft that he was.

    He had seven different coordinators during his first seasons in the NFL, which made him have to learn a new offensive system every single offseason.

    He has had head coaches who publicly ridiculed him through the media.

    Needless to say, Smith had trust issues, and it's hard to blame the guy for that.

    But that's the area Harbaugh was able to exploit. He knew Smith just needed someone to believe in him. Someone to stand behind him and tell him over and over again that he can be a great quarterback in the NFL.

    Smith has been clutch this year. He has led six game-winning drives this year, not including the one that could've been against the New Orleans Saints. Smith should've been credited with two game-winning drives that game because they both came with less than four minutes to play.

    He has also taken good care of the ball. He's only thrown five interceptions in 487 attempts this season. That is simply miraculous.

    No player is picked first-overall in the draft if they don't have any potential. Smith was no exception, he just needed the right situation to blossom.

    Blossom he did in 2011, and now he's only two wins away from becoming one of the great success stories in sports history.

2. Trent Baalke

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    All the praise is generally directed towards Jim Harbaugh, and rightly so.

    However, Trent Baalke, the General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers, has done an excellent job from a personnel standpoint during the time he has had.

    It was only three days before the Harbaugh hiring that the 49ers promoted Baalke from the VP of Player Personnel to the General Manager.

    Since then, take a look at the additions he has made to the team during his tenure. 

    Impact Players

    2011 NFL Draft: LB Aldon Smith, CB Chris Culliver, RB Kendall Hunter, FB Bruce Miller

    2011 NFL Free Agency: K David Akers, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, SS Donte Whitner, ST Blake Costanzo, ST Tavares Gooden, ST Colin Jones, LB Larry Grant

     

    There were some pieces already put in place from years prior, but some of these additions have been vital to the 49ers' success this season. He has proven in just a short period of time that he has the uncanny ability to evaluate talent in the NFL.

    Kicker David Akers has been automatic all season and Cornerback Carlos Rogers made it to the Pro Bowl this year.

    Many draft experts thought that the 49ers drafted Aldon Smith too high in the draft, but he turned out to be one-half of a sack shy from breaking Jevon Kearse's all-time rookie sack record of 14.5.

    Baalke deserves more credit for what he has done with this roster.

1. Jim Harbaugh

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    Jim Harbaugh deserves the recognition for what he has done with the San Francisco 49ers. He has found ways to bring the best out of his players and he's done that by instilling confidence in each and every one of them.

    The players believe in him and respect his judgement. It also goes both ways. It is truly like a father-son relationship.

    This mutual respect between players and their coach has been lacking in San Francisco for the past few years, thanks to the authoritative regime of Mike Singletary. It even got to the point where unnamed players were calling out Singletary. When that happens, you know things are bad.

    But that is where Harbaugh differentiates himself from the rest of the pack. His unique "one with the players" coaching mentality has showed immediate dividends this season.

    There is only one statistic one can use to evaluate how successful a head coach is: their team's record. So far, Harbaugh has turned a 6-10 team into a 13-3 team that is one game away from the Super Bowl. The most impressive thing about it is that he accomplished all of this with a shortened training camp caused by the NFL lockout.

    There is simply no other logical explanation to the 49ers immediate and drastic turnaround. If there was anything that was certain in life, it's that Harbaugh is a lock for the NFL Coach of the Year award.