Some wondered aloud how the San Francisco 49ers were able to improve so drastically in such a short period of time.
Many concluded that it was Jim Harbaugh just being a much better head coach than Mike Singletary. Others concluded that the talent was always there and they just needed to find the scheme to utilize it in the best way.
While both of these arguments hold solid footing, there is one thing that no one is really paying much attention to.
The Continuity Factor
We have to remember that the 2011 season began after a shortened training camp period due to the lockout. This put a bunch of first-year head coaches behind the proverbial eight ball, but none more than Jim Harbaugh.
He didn't have the chance to fully learn his new players, nor did he have an opportunity to work with them in organized team activities or during mini-camps. Instead, Harbaugh had to learn his team on the fly, while the team figured out what type of coach he was going to be in weeks, not months.
This is one of the primary reasons why expectations were so low when it came to the 49ers at the beginning of the 2011 season. How could they assemble the right mix of talent in such a short period of time?
After all, this was a 6-10 team the season prior. With this, Harbaugh fully understood that San Francisco wasn't going to be an overnight sensation.
He prepared them to play tough, disciplined, mistake-free football. This was the way San Francisco was going to contend for the NFC West Championship in 2011.
They were not going to completely dominate opponents on a weekly basis, nor were they going to contend for a Super Bowl. For them it was about one day at a time, baby steps, or as Harbaugh would say, "getting one percent better each day."
Little did we know that the 49ers would run off their best winning streak in over a decade, dominating opponents on a consistent basis and ending the regular season with the second best record in the National Football League.
The common theme throughout this surprising season was team chemistry and continuity.
The players immediately bought into what Harbaugh was selling and ran with it throughout the season. It was similar to the new kid on the political block selling a new idea and the masses voting him in with a landslide.
Well, this worked out perfectly for San Francisco. They became an extremely tight-knit locker room, players amassed around Harbaugh like no other coach before, and the team became a family of sorts, more so that any other team in the league.
San Francisco was nowhere near the most talented team in the NFC last season. However, they played exceptional football the vast majority of the season, and by year's end had caught the attention of the entire sports world.
Now, San Francisco is considered one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl heading into the 2012 season, and the offseason will play a crucial role in their ability to return to the NFC Championship.
Alex Smith and the Team Atmosphere
ESPN and NFL Network continue to dish out rumors that San Francisco could be a landing spot for Peyton Manning. They do so despite the fact that the 49ers' front office has repeatedly picked this rumor up and thrown it out the backdoor of 4949 Centennial Blvd.
Now, I understand the PR game and the smoke and mirrors that usually come from organizations around the league. However, this is a different story.
The 49ers are committed to Alex Smith as their quarterback for the 2012 season and beyond. There is absolutely no information that any insider in the NFL could provide that would fly in the face of this.
Jim Harbaugh has stated more than once that it takes at least two years to learn the 49ers' complex offensive system. Why would he bring in a player that has no understanding of the nuances of the hybrid west coast offense?
The 49ers' players are also sold on Alex for the long run. In fact, they would follow him to the deep ends of the Earth if he asked them to. Why mess up the chemistry of this tight-knit group by bringing in an outsider?
While players on the Arizona Cardinals, Darnell Dockett specifically, continue to undermine their current quarterback by suggesting Manning would be a good fit, 49ers players are having none of this.
They value the work Smith has done over the last few seasons, despite the fact that he continued to face a skeptical audience at Candlestick Park up until the 2011 NFL Playoffs.
It is the idea that they are bigger than the sum of their individual parts. Bringing in Peyton Manning would seem to fly in the face of the atmosphere that Harbaugh and Co. have built in Santa Clara.
Other Factors and Free Agency
The blueprint of success is there for this 49ers franchise. They have modeled their philosophy behind teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers in building through the draft and supplementing in free agency.
This is not going to drastically change when free agency starts next week.
They will make every effort to retain all valuable free agents on the roster before looking at the open market. In doing so, San Francisco has made it clear that they value what certain players have done for them, and they don't plan on kicking them out the door.
While this is a business, there is something to say about loyalty. The 49ers will likely stay loyal to the players that took the team as far as an overtime loss away from the Super Bowl.
This doesn't mean that they are not going to make the difficult decisions to upgrade at certain positions.
As I said before, the NFL is a business.
San Francisco will not continue to give the likes of Chilo Rachal and Moran Norris an opportunity to hold back the momentum that the franchise currently has. Instead, they fully understand the necessity to bring in better players at those positions.
You can expect the 49ers to bring in a big-name free agent wide receiver, as it will dramatically alter the balance of the team and give the offense the added dimension that it needs. You can expect them to play hardball with the likes of Carlos Rogers so that they don't give a 31-year-old corner a contract that doesn't mesh with the rest of the roster.
You can expect there to be between eight and 10 new players on the roster heading into the 2012 regular season. After all, there is a difference between remaining loyal and having blinders on.
With that said, the modus operandi of the 49ers is clear. They are going to keep this team together, continue to build a strong foundation, and do it the right way.
Jed York isn't going to be morphing into Daniel Snyder anytime soon, and you should count your blessings for this. Not to single out one team, but the Washington Redskins have utterly failed in consistently remaking their roster via free agency.
As the perfect case study for lacking patience, the Redskins seem to have the most interesting offseasons in the league.
What do they have to show for it? A couple of marginal playoff teams since Snyder took over in 1999.
In short, the idea that you can consistently remake and rebuild your team through free agency just doesn't work.
This doesn't mean that San Francisco wouldn't give up a first round pick for a player like Mike Wallace. He is still incredibly young, has proven he can get it done in the NFL, and fits a position of need for the 49ers. It just means that those types of acquisitions are going to be few and far between.
So, any of you holding out hopes that the 49ers drop Alex Smith in lieu of Peyton Manning, you can stop. For those of you who think that they are going to bring in multiple top ten free agents, it just isn't going to happen.
This is the way championship teams are built. It might be boring during the off-season, but it ends up paying off when it counts in January and February.