NFL Playoffs: San Francisco 49ers Take a Familiar Path to Success

Craig HortonCorrespondent IJanuary 19, 2012

Jim Harbaugh has turned the 49ers around in one year.
Jim Harbaugh has turned the 49ers around in one year.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Following a 2-14 season in 1978, the San Francisco 49ers hired Stanford head coach Bill Walsh to be their head coach. They were at a low point in the history of the franchise. The 49ers had gone through three head coaches and one interim coach in the previous three seasons. None had lasted more than a year.

Even though Walsh was hired from the college ranks, he had significant NFL experience. He had served as an assistant under the legendary Paul Brown from 1968 to 1975 with the Bengals.

While in Cincinnati, he developed a short passing game to suit a quarterback who lacked arm strength.

It later became known as the West Coast offense.

It has been the most duplicated offensive system in the NFL in the last 30 years. Many teams still use it in some form or fashion today.

The hiring of Bill Walsh was the turning point for the 49ers. The 49ers had never played in a Super Bowl, or even the NFL Championship Game before that. They had only made four playoff appearances in their history, and none since 1972.

In his first draft, Walsh selected quarterback Joe Montana in the third round. His first two teams posted 2-14 and 6-10 records.

Finally, in 1981, after a 1-2 start, the team got hot. They won seven straight and 12 out of 13 to finish 13-3.

It was the year of The Catch, and the year of their first-ever Super Bowl victory.

With the Super Bowl win, the Niners began an unprecedented and unequaled period of success in the history of the NFL.

Excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season, the 49ers won 10 games or more every year from 1981 to 1998. They were in the postseason every year except 1991. They would end up winning five Super Bowls and making 10 appearances in the NFC Championship Game.

Since that dynasty ended, there have been few good years. After playoff appearances in 2001 and 2002 they have been silent in the postseason.

No playoffs. No record better than 8-8. A revolving door of head coaches and offensive coordinators.

Following another dismal season in 2010, the 49ers went back to Stanford to hire a head coach.

This time they got Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh had revived Stanford in just a few years, from 1-11 the year before he arrived to a 12-1 season (and an Orange Bowl win) in 2010.

Like Walsh, Harbaugh has significant NFL experience. A first round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1987, Harbaugh played quarterback in the NFL for 15 years.

Unlike Walsh, Harbaugh turned the team around in just one year. They came from out of nowhere to post a 13-3 record. No one saw this coming.

Their last-second win against New Orleans has become an instant classic.

Whether the 49ers are just the latest one-year wonder or starting a new dynasty, time and history will tell.

All that matters now is this Sunday.

The Sunday that San Francisco hosts the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1997.

The Sunday that the 49ers bury the past eight years of irrelevance.

The Sunday that the 49ers win the NFC Championship 28-24 over the New York Giants.