The 2010-2011 season for the 49ers could be summed up in one word: REVOLTING. The amount of talent on the team had not translated itself to the field in terms of wins, which was nothing short of disappointing for a team with playoff aspirations. Teams that go through multiple quarterbacking changes over the course of one season don't generally scream out "Playoff Caliber". Such was the case for San Fransisco in 2010. The team was so awful that Mike Singletary was given the dignity of being fired after the season, but with one game to go. If that isn't the sign of a team in turmoil, then what is?
From top to bottom, the organization had been consistently inconsistent since Steve Mariucci was fired as head coach of the team following a lob-sided playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003. From the continuous turnover at offensive coordinator, to inability of head coaches Mike Nolan and Singletary to properly develop quarterback Alex Smith, to being a talented, yet largely misguided team on the football field. Eight consecutive season without posting a winning record for a team that was a perennial Super Bowl contender during the 80s and 90s was just downright terrible.
Fast forward to January of 2011: The San Fransisco 49ers hired former Standford head coach, Jim Harbaugh to coach the much maligned 49ers, in an attempt to bring the team back to relevancy with an offensive minded head coach with a good pedigree. Granted, the successes of former college head coaches at the pro level have been minute, but Harbaugh was an exception.
With general manager, Trent Baalke, Harbaugh and his coaching staff were able to turn around the culture in San Fransisco, instilling a new identity theme for the team. In a relentless effort that emphasized team, the talent that the 49ers had teased fans with for years was consistently put on display as the 49ers finished the 2011-2012 season with a 13-3 record, their first winning season since 2002, and best overall record since 1997.
A magical season indeed, many things took place for the 49ers to achieve what they had and the following slideshow will navigate through all key factors.
Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary weren't bad coaches. They were just awful fits for a team in transition, which the 49ers were during their tenures. The execution on the football field mirrors the belief the players have in their coaching staff. It stands to reason that the 49er offensive players in particular did not have complete trust in their coaches or their philosophies.
Jim Harbaugh didn't make the mistake of coddling players and not holding certain players accountable the way Nolan and Singletary did. No one was treated like a black sheep either. The family type environment is one of the more underrated functions in team sports. The more closely knit the team is, the higher chances for sustained success. The easiest way for a coach to do that is to treat superstar players like everyone else.
Not only did Harbaugh bring in a philosophy the players believed in, he made an underachieving team fight through mediocrity and adversity together.
When discussing what the leader of a football team is, one that may come to mind in the minds of many is quarterback Drew Brees. In New Orleans, Brees is the unquestioned leader of that team. The heartbeat and livelihood goes through him. The same cannot be said for Alex Smith.
For one, Alex Smith isn't far and away the best player on his team, but under coach Harbaugh, Smith took an initiative that was never seen from him in seasons past. With no contract in place for him, Smith still received a copy of the playbook from Harbaugh and studied it under a microscope. The collective bargaining agreement was far from being agreed upon at that point, yet Smith ran his unofficial "Camp Alex" to better get his teammates to not only start getting familiar with the playbook, but also to bring them closer together as a team.
In 2011, Smith played with a confidence that 49er fans had not seen from him since he was drafted first overall in 2005. He also displayed amazing resilience after absorbing a league high 44 sacks. Taking that many hits isn't really something to hang one's hat on, but given his injury history, it was a sheer indication of his toughness.
If Smith had learned anything from his tumultuous years in San Fransisco, it was learning to be tough. Being thrown under the bus by his head coach, to not having the whole team behind him, to publicly being labeled a bust would have broken a lesser man. Alex Smith's tribulations and play this season earned him a leadership role with the 49ers.
Teams that cannot win on the road during the regular season are not generally considered playoff contenders. The 49ers had not won more than three road games in any season since 2003. Their road woes were well documented, having been shutout three times on the road over the last nine seasons. However, the 2011 Niners were vastly different.
Their road prowess this past season started with their week four match-up against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial field. Down 23-3 in the third quarter, many 49er fans believed the game was over. The same old Niners showed themselves again.
Apparently, the 49ers themselves had not received that memo.
With spectacular play by the defense in the second half, the 49ers allowed only three points in the final 30 minutes of the game, before going on an unanswered, 21-point tangent to take the lead, 24-23. The 49ers defense needed to make a stop to preserve the lead and did so in a big way.
Justin Smith chased down Eagles receiver, Jeremy Maclin, and stripped him of the football, which Dashon Goldson recovered. Eating up clock in the final two minutes of the game, the 49ers shocked the football world with an improbable, come from behind victory against one of the better teams in the NFL. Their 6-2 road record came at the expense of winning five of those contests at a 1 p.m. Eastern time start, something they have struggled mightily with over the years. By finishing 6-2, their road record was good enough for second best in the league, trailing only the Green Bay Packers. Also, it was the best road finish since 1996.
If the 2010 season's first seven games were any indication, the 49ers were downright pathetic at protecting the ball. Four of the their first seven games resulted in turning over the ball three or more times in the games, which led to their dreadful 1-6 start.
A year later with virtually the same cast, the 49ers committed seven turnovers in seven games, which by law of averages, flows with the league-wide average. Granted, the Niners were more efficient on offense, but they did a magnificent job of protecting the ball in the final nine games, surrendering only three turnovers, for a total of ten on the season.
Committing only ten turnovers is usually a recipe for success, but it didn't just stop there.
The defense did their part as well.
A defense that forced 38 turnovers in 16 games had to be playing at a consistently high level, considering that there were only two new starters on defense.
Speaking of defense...
Since 2007, the 49ers defense had steadily gotten better with each passing season. Stalwarts like Justin Smith and Patrick Willis made it easier for that unit to progress. However, as good as the team was becoming, they were wildly inconsistent.
One week, they would find a way to put a beating on Brett Favre, only to find themselves being thoroughly dissected by Matt Moore. The defense played with a chip on its shoulder the entire season, playing as consistently as anyone in the NFL. The league's top ranked run defense and fourth overall was a huge jump from finishing in the middle of the pack in 2010.
The defense was always loaded with talent, but did not execute well enough to dominate the way they had in 2011. Before a fourth quarter lapse in week 17 to the St. Louis Rams, their season high for points allowed on the road was 23 points. That is incredible for a team that hadn't played up to their potential until this year.
They were also the only team in the league to not allow an opponent to score 30 or more points during a regular season game.
The scary thing is that the defense has only begun to hit their stride.
For a team that annually is dismissed as a playoff team or even a good team, 2011 was the start of a new era in San Fransisco. Under Jim Harbaugh's guidance, there were many things to be proud of when considering:
1. The 49ers went 7-1 at home, their best record since 2001. Another fact was that they had not lost a home game in regulation in 2011.
2. The only team to not allow a return touchdown of any kind all season.
3. By defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in week four, the 49ers snapped a five game losing streak to the Eagles.
4. The team went 3-1 against the AFC, their first winning record against non-conference opponents since 2001. They also went 3-1 against the NFC East, their first interdivisional winning record against the NFC since 2002.
6. The 49ers went on an eight game winning streak, enabling them to take full control of the NFC West.
7. The 49ers allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (3) in a 16-game season.
8. With their victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional round of the playoff, the 49ers snapped a six game losing streak to the Saints. Drew Brees also suffered his first career defeat to San Fransisco after previously winning his first five starts against them.
9. The 49ers have not lost a home game to a divisional rival since losing to Seattle in 2008 at Candlestick. They also won four or more games in the NFC West for the third straight season.
10. The defense had not allowed a rushing touchdown in any home game, including the playoffs.
11. After an Alex Smith interception at the end of the first half against the Baltimore Ravens, the 49ers played 19 consecutive quarters without committing a turnover.
12. Alex Smith's career best passing total in a victory came in his first ever playoff start, when he threw for 299 yards against the New Orleans Saints.
The 49ers were a field goal away from representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, but fell short to the eventual champs, the New York Giants, in overtime, 20-17. It was an ugly and painful loss, but in retrospect, the Niners and their fans have to be proud of the season they had. If anyone told any 49ers fan that after their team went 6-10 in 2010 that their team was going to play in Conference Championship, they would have laughed and called them crazy.
After all, they had every reason to feel that way.
What are the odds the 49ers host the NFC Championship game again against a 9-7 team? Not very likely, but with Harbaugh guiding this talented team in the right direction, the league has not seen the last of the San Fransisco 49ers.