With eight games under their belt, the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) have gotten off to a relatively good start. Entering the second half of the season, the Niners will not be playing behind the eight ball. Instead, they will be in a position where they are rested, self-aware and ready to hit the accelerator on this season.
There are not many NFL gurus doubting San Francisco right now, as it looks like one of the more complete teams in the league.
With great defense, ball control and fundamentals, the 49ers have concocted a winning formula. In the 2012 season, it would not shock anyone if San Francisco went on a magnificent title run.
Undeniably, one of the most important components in professional sports is coaching. And it’s rarely the efforts of a singular individual, but rather an assembly of brilliant minds that collectively optimizes the talent on the roster.
Without guidance, even the most talented athletes would fail to live up to their true potential. As of now, the San Francisco 49ers have one of the more polished coaching staffs in all the NFL. From Jim Harbaugh on down, it’s an all-star cast of some of the brighter and more innovative minds in football.
The team’s coordinators, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, are demonstrating their worth to one of the most storied franchises in sports. Both coordinators have installed a system that plays to the strengths of the individuals within it.
Outside of the two primary coordinators, San Francisco has a great corps of position coaches that have provided a spark.
Experienced and decorated position coaches like Brad Seely, Jim Tomsula, Ed Donatell, Geep Chryst and Tom Rathman are the unheralded puppet masters that allow for consistency when it comes to winning matchups on game day.
With nearly a century of collective NFL experience among them, they have really connected with the players and raised the level of their game.
But the coach-player relationship is a two-way street, and the 49ers have the right-minded players in place. They have a wide collection of talented yet humble athletes willing to put their potential egos aside for the betterment of the team.
From a character and systematic standpoint, San Francisco has the necessary parts to field a championship team. Not only do the Niners have a pool of levelheaded, team-first guys, but they also have high-caliber players that fit the scheme perfectly.
On offense, the 49ers have the deep threat, the hands receiver, the hybrid tight end and the smash-mouth run game.
Boasting a physically dominating style of football, San Francisco’s offensive line has made tremendous strides and now looks like one of the better units in the league. Of San Francisco’s starters, four of five of them are Pro Bowlers, first-round selections or both.
And the 49ers defense is a different story altogether.
Looking at the big picture, the 49ers have a team that is built for the postseason.
Representing the NFC West, the 49ers have made their mark in their respective conference. Along with the Falcons (8-0), Bears (7-1), Packers (6-3) and Giants (6-3), the Niners have one of the better winning percentages in the NFC.
And entering their Week 9 bye, San Francisco had a two-game lead in its division. The team has already put a few challenges in their rear view, going 3-1 against the Packers, Lions, Giants and Seahawks in the first half of the season.
In the preseason predictions, the 49ers were an early favorite by many, and after eight games in 2012 they are a top-five team. ESPN’s most recent power rankings has San Francisco at No. 4 behind Houston, New York Giants and Atlanta.
At this point in the season, the 49ers are right where they should be.
The 49ers’ defensive unit highlights their team—it’s their identity.
The 49ers have had a very competitive defense in the new-era team of the 2000s, but they’ve continued to reach new heights. In 2007, the team brought in several key pieces that make up its defensive unit today.
Before Harbaugh and company showed up, the organization was in the midst of building a rock-em-sock-em 3-4 defense that knew how to put the stranglehold on teams. Within the span of a year, San Francisco added Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Ray McDonald, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown, as well as line coach Jim Tomsula.
What the 49ers have is a first-rate defense that’s evolved into one heartbeat.
At every level of San Francisco’s defensive infrastructure, there is talent, experience and strong-willed men that have seen the dark period the NFL has to offer. They have developed cohesiveness by enduring hardships together. From 2007-10, the Niners finished with a record of 26-38, having never eclipsed .500 in a single season.
In rags-to-riches storybook fashion, the 49ers have fought against the grain to become the league’s most dominant defensive unit.
Upon Harbaugh’s arrival, general manager Trent Baalke and Vic Fangio were able to put the finishing touches on this group. Via the NFL draft and free agency, San Francisco added Chris Culliver, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Perrish Cox and Aldon Smith.
And with the emergence of Ahmad Brooks, Isaac Sopoaga and NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers find themselves in a very advantageous position.
Multiple All-Pros and Pro Bowlers make up this record-setting 49ers defense that continues to be the backbone of this team. It’s hard to bet against this group that at the moment looks like a championship-caliber unit, capable of bringing home the hardware for a sixth time.
Perhaps the best thing about the 49ers coach is that the cumulative talent on the roster has revealed itself under Harbaugh’s rule. The team has been steadily ascending since his inception, ranking high in several major statistical categories. There’s been an overall improvement in many aspects.
He is the caliber coach one needs to make a deep playoff run, and entering his second year in the NFL, he already has postseason experience.
As a pivotal figure in the organization, the team can depend on him as a strategist and motivator. He has successfully implemented his vision for this team, producing results right away. In a performance-based business, the 2011 NFL Coach of the Year has shown great promise for the future.
He revealed himself to be a man of high character—someone that will be there for his players, eliminate distractions and assume responsibility. In addition to being a leader, he has been a shield, protecting the franchise.
This maternal approach has provided a secluded bubble for his players to learn and practice their craft free of distractions. The team is able to put their nose to the grindstone and sustain a more resolute focus.
This sort of isolation gives San Francisco an edge.
The 49ers are in the tougher conference right now, with four of the top five power-ranked teams representing the NFC. San Francisco has that hard-nosed identity that many of the top teams possess. And to combat that sort of physicality, a team must be able to go shot for shot.
Luckily, when it comes to toughness, there is none fiercer than the Niners. On offense and defense, they come into the game with a dominating mentality. They strive to put a stranglehold on their opponent, battering them physically and mentally. It is a formula they exercise in order to win games, and it’s worked.
It would not surprise many to see the 49ers make a strong postseason push.
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If they can endure a competitive postseason slate of NFC games and make it to the Super Bowl, they would be in a favorable position against more permeable AFC teams—Houston Texans excluded. The balanced, efficient and complete product San Francisco fields on game day matches up well with a lot of the AFC’s more competitive teams.
Teams like Denver, New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego have exploitable deficiencies. If Harbaugh managed to bring his team to a title game against one of the aforementioned teams, they might even be favored to win.
The teams San Francisco wouldn’t want to see in the Super Bowl would be Houston or Baltimore—teams that can match them physically, have balance and can score points.
The 49ers definitely have a caliber team to make their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly two decades, but the season is a marathon, not a sprint. The Niners will have to finish strong and attempt to best position themselves for the playoffs once again.
San Francisco was lucky enough to have home-field advantage in 2011, but it might not be this year. The team needs to continue to make strides, work on its imperfections and pick up steam in the second half of the season.
If the 49ers can catch fire following the bye and carry that momentum into the winter months, they could become an unstoppable force in the postseason. But until then, they will continue to take it one game at a time.