In his first season as an NFL head coach, Harbaugh led the 49ers to a surprising 13-3 regular-season record. After an impressive victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC divisional playoffs, the 49ers looked primed to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.
But their mission was cut short a week later in the NFC Championship Game by the surging New York Giants. While the loss to the Giants was painful, it is not the kind of loss that haunts a franchise forever.
The 49ers will not spiral out of control like the Minnesota Vikings did after their loss to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game two years ago. Since then, the Vikings' problems have gone from bad to worse. Brett Favre's fatal interception has led the team from one bummer to the next.
Luckily for 49er fans, Harbaugh is a better head coach than Brad Childress. Childress was unable to move the Vikings past their painful playoff loss.
Harbaugh, a great motivator, will see it as a challenge. The 49ers will learn from their loss to the Giants, and one has to believe that Harbaugh will use it as motivation for next season.
Here is why the 49ers, with Harbaugh leading the way, are on the verge of becoming a dynasty.
The San Francisco 49ers win with defense.
They did not allow a single rushing touchdown until Week 16 against the Seattle Seahawks, and the Seahawks only scored because a blocked punt gave them the ball a few yards away from the end zone.
The 49ers had one of the largest point differentials this last season not because they scored a lot of points, but because they allowed so few. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers finished the season with the third-best defense. The season before, FO had them ranked 13th.
The defense has always been talented; Harbaugh just made it elite.
Playmakers are easy to find on the 49ers defense. Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman are both rising stars. Chris Culliver has the potential to be a very good cornerback. Justin Smith was the most consistent defensive lineman all season. Patrick Willis is still a centerpiece linebacker.
If Harbaugh can improve the secondary in the offseason, the 49ers defense could be historic—one that will shut down opposing offenses for a long time.
For years, the NFC West has been a laughingstock. Just a year ago, the Seahawks won the division after finishing the regular season 7-9. But if last season proved anything, the 49ers are nothing to laugh at.
The 49ers lost only one divisional game all season. They won the NFC West easily, finishing the season 13-3, while the Arizona Cardinals finished 8-8 and the Seahawks finished 7-9. While both the Seahawks and the Cardinals finished the season better than projected, they were still leaps and bounds behind the 49ers talent-wise.
Jeff Fisher could be a promising hire for the St. Louis Rams, but the former Tennessee Titans coach has only had six winning seasons in his 17 years as an NFL head coach. How much better will he actually make the Rams?
With a full offseason under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers will only improve.
Alex Smith will not have to learn a new offensive system, something he has sadly been accustomed to his whole career. The 49ers have the most stability, the most talent and the best head coach in the division.
None of those three things seem to be changing anytime soon. The division is in their control.
There is a lot to like on this 49ers roster.
Aldon Smith was a great first-round draft choice. Opposing offenses have to game-plan against him because of the matchup problems he causes.
NaVorro Bowman played all season like Patrick Willis 2.0. When Willis was out with a hamstring injury, Bowman showed that he was for real, not just a product of opposing teams focusing on Willis.
When ironman Frank Gore does eventually break down, Kendall Hunter will be ready to step in and produce. As Gore's backup in his first season in the NFL, Hunter rushed for 473 yards on 112 attempts. Hunter is also a good receiver out of the backfield, racking up 195 yards on only 16 receptions. With an increased role, his stats could go through the roof.
Hunter was not the only productive young back on the team. Fullback Bruce Miller had a strong rookie campaign as well.
Two of the 49ers offensive linemen, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, will be starting their third seasons in the NFL. If Davis can play at a consistently high level, the 49ers offensive line will be tough to handle.
Though Michael Crabtree has been disappointing, he is still young and has a lot of room for improvement. He has shown flashes of being an excellent player, like his late reception against the Seahawks in Week 16.
As the young talent on the 49ers improves, the more resilient the team will become. Building young talent is the key to creating a dynasty.
The 49ers are good because of coach Jim Harbaugh.
Most of the roster is the same as it was the season before, when they started the year 0-5. Harbaugh brought a winning culture to the Bay Area.
They force their opponents into making mistakes, while limiting their own. All season long, the 49ers played their style of football. They never let their opponents dictate the style of the game.
When teams suit up to play the 49ers, they know it is going to be a tough, physical game. Harbaugh's tough philosophy is intimidating, and it's a recipe for playoff football success.
Bill Belichick is the key to the New England Patriots' success. In 2008, when Tom Brady missed the entire season after he injured his knee against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots still finished the season with an 11-5 record. They barely missed the playoffs.
I believe Harbaugh is just as important to the 49ers' success as Belichick is to the Patriots' success. The reason the 49ers are on the edge of forming another dynasty is because Harbaugh is the head coach.