Do you believe in fate?
When it comes to sports, I have to say I believe in things falling in place, energy and the universe playing a role. Through the history of athletics, not just professional football, too many bigger-than-life moments have taken stage through the apparatus of sports.
It's early, but the San Francisco 49ers seem to have something very special. The smart money might've said that the Niners should have started 0-2, not 2-0, after taking on two NFC juggernauts in the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
San Francisco knocked off both teams convincingly.
Right now, it looks as if the stars have aligned and the Niners appear to be capable of virtually anything. All three phases are clicking, as the team is collectively performing at an optimum level. They are driven, focused and easily the most complete team in the NFL.
On top of the talent, they are very well coached. There is a lot weighing in San Francisco's favor, and they could be set up for a legendary run in 2012.
At the core, this is Patrick Willis’ team.
Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Justin Smith are great leaders as well, however, in the last decade, the biggest noticeable spike in this team’s performance and potential came after Willis was drafted in 2007.
He was immediately the team’s best football player.
Willis’ leadership by example remains uncompromised because of his work ethic and consistency. He is the nucleus of this team, and as long as he’s around, the 49ers will continue in forward motion.
The San Francisco organization has quietly assembled one of the most talented teams in the NFL. For years, they collected high first-round talent as if they were stockpiling it for a rainy day. It turned out that even though the 49ers drafted well, the coaching left something to be desired.
In the past seven years, the 49ers had a number of stout drafts, although their on-field performance has not decreed as much until recently. The Niners continually struggled on game day, and it resulted in them picking high for several years.
The 2005 and 2007 drafts were important to this team’s current makeup. In those two drafts, the 49ers acquired Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Ray McDonald, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown. These are the savvy veterans who help this team run.
Beyond that, 2010 and 2011 were productive as San Francisco brought in some missing pieces. The Niners have some young players that have stepped up to become contributors already. The notables are Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Anthony Dixon, Kyle Williams, Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller.
The 49ers approach to free agency has also been good to them as of recent. Justin Smith was the one infallible signing made during the Scott McCloughan era, but Trent Baalke has a much better batting average. The team brought in Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Brandon Jacobs and Perrish Cox under his watch.
Ahmad Brooks was also claimed off waivers in 2008.
The Niners have a terrific balance of youth and experience, with a lot gifted players recently finding their niche. In terms of talent across the board, San Francisco is among the elite teams in the NFL all of a sudden.
This turnaround is reminiscent of Bill Walsh taking over the team in 1979. The Niners had been struggling prior to Walsh's arrival, but in a short window of time, the legendary head coach turned the team around and led San Francisco to its first of many championships.
The head coach-quarterback relationship between Walsh and Joe Montana was one of the greatest of all time. Their ability to be on the same page and execute an advanced offensive game plan was a near-indefensible advantage.
On top of that, Walsh had a vision for this team and great knowledge of the game. He was able to motivate players and utilize their particular skill sets to put the team in the most advantageous position. He preached details and that led to a number of spectacular performances by an assortment of players under his watch.
Walsh's imprint endured even after his departure but was never repeated.
In 2010, the 49ers finished 6-10 under then-head coach Mike Singletary. After the team fired him, San Francisco pursued and successfully attained Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh. Even in a shortened league year, San Francisco improved plus-seven in the win-loss column upon his inception.
Harbaugh, like Walsh, immediately raised the bar.
He also committed to Alex Smith immediately and began forging a relationship that's ultimately benefited all parties involved. Harbaugh is firm in his decisions and quick to make them. He is intelligent, decisive and has a vision for his ideal football team. His is a no-nonsense approach, and in a performance-based league, Harbaugh produces results.
His vision put a winning football team on the field in practically no time at all, as Harbaugh currently boasts a pro record of 16-4, including the postseason. And it hasn't been the simplest of challenges; having faced the Saints, Packers, Eagles, Steelers and Bengals. Not to mention, the Lions, Seahawks and champion Giants also account for six of those 20 games.
The Brutality of the Schedule
Today’s league has been defined as a passing league, as teams are veering further away from the run. The successful teams in this league place strong emphasis on offense and putting up points. Their focus is to simply outscore their opponents. The defense is supplemental and special teams are all but forgotten about.
The 49ers could not be going in a more different direction.
We’re slowly learning that both models can be successful. More importantly, we recently found out that San Francisco’s model trumps the one utilized by the league’s top three offenses. This aligning of the stars, if you will, is very interesting given the Niners 2012 schedule.
The 49ers have already faced off against the Packers and Lions and came away victorious in both outings. Both units boasted top offenses in 2011, and although they remain a threat, they were bested by a more complete football team. San Francisco will also face the Patriots and Saints in the back half of their schedule.
Not only will the 49ers have faced the top three offenses by the end of 2012, but they will have done so on the road.
If the 49ers can conquer their schedule and make a deeper push than the aforementioned teams, it could bring about the next change in the landscape of the NFL. It could become less about finding that one quarterback, and more about balance, fundamentals and depth.
There is a vision in place for this team.
After a calamity-filled decade, the 49ers all of sudden have guidance and direction again. What’s going on in San Francisco is bigger than football, and it’s not as black and white as securing wins and avoiding losses. It’s about putting the best possible product on the field through effort and hard work.
This is about a group of men coming together, sharing a common goal and working tirelessly to achieve it.
The difference between the Singletary era and the Harbaugh era is this: Singletary knew what he wanted the finished product to look like, but had a tenuous comprehension on how to reach it. While he was Hall of Fame player, the how-to of professional coaching simply eluded him.
Harbaugh is a dual-threat as a motivator and knowledgeable coach.
Jim Harbaugh can identify with individuals from all sorts of backgrounds, he understands what makes people tick and he can optimize the potential of everyone he encounters. He came to the organization in 2011 and immediately raised the bar.
Aside from being able to reach people, Harbaugh understands the intricacies of coaching. He is highly educated and well-versed in the sport, which immediately made him a desirable candidate for the vacancy in San Francisco. Harbaugh brought with him concrete philosophies that instantaneously transformed the landscape, not only in the Bay Area, but also in the NFC.
His viewpoint of sustaining long-term greatness by maintaining short-term focus seems to have impacted the Niners. Their “one day at a time” mentality has contributed to the rejuvenated spirit within this team.
Furthermore, this team has gone back to basics by redefining physicality in the NFL and preaching fundamentals.
Harbaugh has some of the league’s most gifted athletes buying into a blue-collar mentality. There is a selfless, team-first approach by each and every individual—it’s essentially part of the required criteria for players that wish to be a part of the 49ers.
Once you get beyond that, there is a family environment.
"You got to have a quarterback." - Mike Singletary, after his firing
Despite their recent success, the 49ers for the most part, still don’t get the respect they deserve. Most of the doubters come in the form of non-Alex Smith believers who refuse to label San Francisco a favorite until they have an "elite quarterback."
Starting with their quarterback, this is surprisingly still an underdog team.
As a result, the individuals that makeup the 49ers have banded even closer together, adopting an "us against the world" mentality. I even buy that Harbaugh being unfriendly to the outside world is a philosophical ploy in that it further isolates this team from everyone else, keeping them even a closer-knit unit.
There is a cohesive family environment instilled, when only a few years ago, there was turmoil, mistrust and dysfunction. Harbaugh understands that teams win championships and he's built a resilient family environment that's simply magnetizing.
There is an entire organization buying into an idea because they all share a common goal, and together they know they can accomplish much more than they would as individuals.
Finally, there is a return to prominence. Once again, the 49ers expect to win football games week in and week out. There is the aura of something special brewing in the Bay Area—the feeling that this particular team can accomplish great things.
The Individual Stories
For a number of San Francisco starters, it was an extensive, daunting road to the current success they now have. A number of these men have undergone trying journeys, dealing with hardship and overcoming adversity.
Ahmad Brooks was a highly sought-after recruit who received a scholarship from the University of Virginia. After three seasons of play, his scholarship was revoked and Brooks was dismissed from the university after a marijuana possession charge. He was forced to enter the 2006 NFL Supplemental Draft, in which he was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals.
After suffering an injury almost immediately, Brooks was placed on IR and then waived by the team. His pro career looked to be diminishing right before his eyes—until the San Francisco 49ers claimed him off waivers in 2008.
During his time in the NCAA, NaVorro Bowman was arguably the most talented player at Penn State. Though it did not come without some hard times. While at the university, Bowman unexpectedly lost his father, Hillard. After which, Bowman was caught violating the school’s substance abuse policy (marijuana) and was placed on a one-year probationary period.
Bowman came back to the team and was as dominant as ever. And while these speed bumps affected his draft stock, they would only fuel the player he is today.
After having a breakout year as a true freshman at Miami, Frank Gore suffered a devastating ACL tear in his left knee in 2002. This would become a theme for the running back who would battle injuries only to come back stronger each time.
After sitting out the season to recover, Gore came back to be one of the most prolific backs to ever come out of the University of Miami, amongst a star-studded lineup that also featured Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James. There is no quit in Frank Gore and it's reflective of the style of runner that he is.
A lot of 49ers fans now know, courtesy of E:60, that Patrick Willis comes from a broken home in Tennessee. When things finally came to a head during his youth, his high school coach took in Willis and his three siblings. Willis was faced with some harsh realities at a young age, forcing him to become a man early in life.
His background is defining of who he is. He is living proof that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And not only is Willis one of the great underdog stories, but he provides a great example of human resiliency and perseverance through hard work. Willis is someone who has earned everything he has in life and knows how to fight for what he wants.
It was not the easiest start for the first overall pick. With San Francisco, Alex Smith went through a rotation of offensive coordinators annually. For the first half of his NFL career, he had no support system and no hope.
The hiring of Jim Harbaugh was exactly what Smith needed to resurrect his career. After being completely written off by virtually every fan and critic, Smith is performing at a level to which most never thought was possible. He's shown great strength and persistence to overcome one of the most emotionally and mentally straining beginnings to an NFL career.
Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Justin Smith all shared a similar path to the 49ers. All three individuals were highly-talented players who were in less than desirable team situations. The teams that drafted them—the Redskins, Bills and Bengals, respectively—were either struggling to win games or misusing their defenders, or both.
All three players signed with San Francisco via free agency, and their careers have since been in a constant state of ascension. The change of scenery has redefined their NFL legacies, an opportunity they might've never had if they remained with the teams that brought them into this league.
For these guys, it's about taking advantage of a true to life second chance.
While it’s emphatically premature to make any final conclusions about how their season may end, the coaching is superb, the talent is sensational, they are the NFL’s most complete team and they don’t beat themselves. There is not one team that wants to see the 49ers in the postseason.
It seems appropriate that this collection of unique events and happenings, all converging in Cinderella fashion in San Francisco, will eventually culminate in a Super Bowl championship.