For football fans, July is always a dark time. It’s the month on the NFL calendar when hats, magazine photo shoots and long snappers can dominate the headlines just so we have something to talk about before training camp begins.
It's unfortunate, because the last two years have been the best in a long time for the San Francisco 49ers. Deep playoff runs, thrilling finishes and overall dominant play have propelled this team back to relevance.
Why not take a look back and appreciate a great stretch in this franchise’s history?
If there’s one sentiment that’s been shared a hundred times over in the past week, it’s some version of this statement: “Can we get back to football already?” Unfortunately, I can’t speed up time and get to the preseason, but that doesn’t mean we can't get back to talking some football.
So without further ado, here are the Top 10 plays for the 49ers since coach Jim Harbaugh took the reins.
It may be a field goal, but David Akers’ 63-yard bomb on Opening Weekend 2012 was one for the ages. Akers’ season went mostly downhill from there, of course, but it was fun while it lasted. I mean, the guy tied an all-time NFL record with that kick.
He had to be on this list...and the run at the end of the video was pretty nice to watch, too.
It’s hard to remember the good about that Super Bowl, but wide receiver Michael Crabtree staying on his feet through two hits for a touchdown was impressive. The 49ers were down and out at the time, behind by 22 points, but Crabtree’s 31-yard TD brought them back within two scores and started a valiant 49ers rally.
Yes, the comeback ultimately fell short, but that game was significantly uglier before Colin Kaepernick and Crab connected on this third-quarter play.
(Note: The play can be seen at the 1:57 mark in the video.)
I so badly wanted Donte Whitner’s hit on Pierre Thomas to be on this list, but that game is represented well toward the end of this list, so I just can’t do it. However, here’s the link to the video, if that offers any consolation.
What I will include though, is this amazing turnover forced by Dashon Goldson and Whitner against the Saints in the 2012 regular season. A huge hit by “The Hawk” put the ball right where Whitner needed it to be, and he finished the play all the way to paydirt. I felt this play truly represented the style of this dangerous safety tandem, even though Goldson has since moved on to Tampa Bay.
(Note: The play starts at the 2:02 mark in the video.)
The second special teams entry on this list is technically two plays, but it got the 2011 season going on the right foot, so we’ll allow it. Had the 49ers lost this opening game, who’s to say the season plays out the way it did?
Ted Ginn Jr. put the team on his back with a kick return and punt return for TDs in the same game, sparking his squad to a big win in Jim Harbaugh’s first game. And the rest has been history in the making.
Frank Gore was the workhorse during some of the darkest years in 49ers history. He is a consummate pro who played through pain and carried the offense every season. Considering his injury history in college, and his subsequent draft slide, Gore’s NFL career was never guaranteed.
However, after years of consistent play, Gore finds himself atop the all-time franchise list for both rushing yards (12/4/11) and touchdowns (12/30/12). These records were earned over a career, but broken in the Harbaugh Era, which was good enough to merit a spot on this list.
After years of failed promise, Alex Smith finally delivered in 2011. Colin Kaepernick is the current starter of the 49ers for a reason, and there’s no denying he has a higher ceiling than Smith. Alex, however, was more than effective for the 2011 squad.
Smith didn’t lose games for San Francisco, but the Saints were forcing him to put the team on his back and really win a game, in the Divisional playoffs no less. Smith managed to do just that, giving the 49ers the lead twice in the final 2:11 of regulation. The first touchdown came on a run play that shocked almost everyone in the building, showing off the athleticism that Smith’s opponents ignored one too many times.
If Ginn’s run-backs got the new 49ers going in the right direction, Justin Smith’s forced fumble saved the team from stumbling back. The way that game in Philly started, it looked like they were right back to the old Niners, giving some hope just squander it all way. But once the offense finally came alive to take the game back, the vaunted defense had to hold up to complete a wild comeback.
For all 6'4" and 285 pounds of Justin Smith to catch WR Jeremy Maclin, he of the 4.45 40-yard dash (according to NFL Draft Scout), is nothing short of a pure hustle play. The heart of the defense lived up to the billing and made a play that I truly believe saved the 49ers’ 2011 season. Consider this: The 49ers rolled off six straight victories after this game, following a fairly rocky start to the season.
That sounds like a tone-setting moment in my book.
(Note: The play starts at the 3:26 point of the video.)
Bouncing back from an early turnover, Colin Kaepernick absolutely blew by everyone in green and yellow on this 56-yard run. En route to a playoff record 181 yards rushing by a QB, Kaepernick left a lot of NFL fans wondering the same thing as the Green Bay Packers defense: Where did this guy come from?
But for 49ers fans, the play was more of a thrill than a surprise. After all, Kap had given the Miami Dolphins a similar treatment on this play in December.
They say speed kills in this league, and no one was catching Kaepernick that night.
Kaepernick’s playoff run might have been the most jaw-dropping play of the postseason, but NaVorro Bowman’s deflection sealed a Super Bowl berth for San Francisco. Sometimes the moment carries a little weight in the discussion, and this is certainly one of those cases.
The bottom line is, Julio Jones and Roddy White were having their way with the secondary for most of the game, ending with a combined 18 catches for 282 yards and two touchdowns. But when it counted, Bowman and the 49ers made a stand. The defense has had a lot to do with this team’s resurgence, so I feel it would be unjust to put this play any lower than No. 2.
(Note: The play can be seen at the 4:42 mark in the video.)
I still get chills thinking about this play, and I know I'm not alone in that sentiment. You can argue Bowman’s play came at a bigger moment, but this play validated the new 49ers.
The Saints were supposed to come into Candlestick Park and march right through San Francisco (they were a 3.5 point favorite, even outside and on the road), but Alex Smith conquered his ghosts and Vernon Davis made the catch of a lifetime. After years in the cellar, this play was sweet vindication, which is why it sits at No. 1.
Defeating the Saints put this team back on the map and, most importantly, showed that this 49ers squad was no fluke. The Red & Gold under Jim Harbaugh were finally here to stay once again.
Disagree with the order? Think a play got snubbed? Let me know what I missed in the comments!