While the 2009 San Francisco 49ers came up short in their goal of making the playoffs, an 8-8 regular season (their first non-losing season since 2002) made for an exciting brand of football.
Despite having to switch quarterbacks mid-way through the season, the 49ers still managed to hang around the playoff race until week 15, largely in part to the big play abilities in all three phases of the game
Unfortunately the 49ers would fall short in each phase of the game when it mattered most this season and because of this, they managed just two wins on the road and missed the post-season.
As their head coach Mike Singletary stated after the season finale, his team was simply too immature to reach their goals. And part of that immaturity has to be placed on the head coach. Questionable clock management, including odd timeout usages and play calling was evident throughout the season.
But with a year and a half of coaching under his belt, Singletary should improve as a head coach next season and his players will improve because of it.
Alex Smith will improve, the offensive line will improve and the defense will improve in 2010, and a big reason for the confidence in this team moving forward comes from the big plays turned in on both sides of the ball and even special teams this past season.
Granted some of the big plays turned in by the 49ers came in non crucial moments, including ones in the last two meaningless games. Therefore I have left those off this list.
The remaining big plays that made the list were the ones that fans went crazy over because they were huge moments in crucial games that had playoff implications on the line.
The 49ers proved the opening week of the season that they were a team nobody could take lightly when they went into Arizona and beat the defending NFC Champions 20-16.
They also proved that it doesn't matter how few yards their No. 1 running back picks up during the game as long as he reaches the end zone when it matters most.
Gore accounted for both 49er touchdowns in the season opener, one on the ground and one through the air.
His first score came on a six yard run late in the first half that increased the 49er lead to 13-3 and was the first big step to the eventual upset over their division rivals.
The second touchdown ended up as the winning score as Gore took a swing pass from Shaun Hill mid-way through the fourth quarter and walked into the endzone untouched from three yards out.
San Francisco was down by three before the score but Hill led the offense on a 15 play 80 yard drive that put and end to Arizona's opening day parade.
Gore may have only averaged about a yard per carry in the opener, but his two touchdowns got his team the victory.
Each time Gore took the ball to the house, 49er fans were cheering like no other. They were pumped up knowing they were sticking it to their division rivals.
Brett Favre aside, there is no other quarterback that 49er fans hate to play against more than Kurt Warner.
All those games with St. Louis and the "greatest show on turf" saw the Warner-led Rams pick apart the 49ers back in the day and 49er fans flat out hated seeing the Rams win that Super Bowl.
The Rams don't belong in the Super Bowl, and neither do the Cardinals, the 49ers belong in the Super Bowl.
So when the 49ers were able to pressure Warner consistently in the season opener, 49er fans were hoping their nemesis would soon make a pivotal mistake. And it was only a matter of time before a big play on defense was made and it came from the best linebacker in football, Patrick Willis.
While not best known for interceptions, Willis' coverage skills are quite underrated and half way through the first quarter Willis made a great read in coverage and picked off Warner inside Cardinals territory.
The turnover gave the 49ers great field position and helped create an electric atmosphere on the San Francisco sideline and energized the fan base.
Surely every 49er fan leaped out of their seat and yelled "PWILLY!!!" on that INT.
In my opinion (and as a 49er fan, I'm certainly biased) but 49ers defensive end Justin Smith is the most underrated defensive lineman in football.
Smith never takes a play off and is a run stuffing and pass rushing force game in and game out. In 2009 Smith finished with 55 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles.
The guy is a flat out work horse who never gives up on a play and is without a doubt one of the leaders of the defense.
Out of his six sacks, none other was more huge than his sack of Kurt Warner to end the game in week one. The Cardinals were looking for a last second victory but Smith was there to put an end to their hopes by slamming Warner down to the ground as time ran out.
The 49ers were 1-0 with an upset victory on the road against a division rival and 49er fans were absolutely ecstatic.
If there was one part of Frank Gore's game that experts and fans thought could be improved in 2009, it would be his break away ability. Throughout his four year career prior to this past season, Gore has often been caught from behind when it appeared to be an easy touchdown.
This trend must have sparked a vigorous offseason work out regimen because Gore came out firing in week two against Seattle and appeared faster than ever.
Late in the first quarter he broke loose for a 79 yard touchdown run, the longest of his career and simply nobody knew Gore had the speed to finish of a run of that caliber. Something was different about No. 21, he was out to prove his critics wrong.
And not only did he prove them wrong, he did it a second time in the same game on virtually the same play. On the first play from scrimmage to start the second half Gore took the ball 80-yards to the house for his second touchdown of the game.
If fans went crazy on the first touchdown, they were going absolutely bonkers when he broke lose for the second one right out of the gate to start the second half.
Two touchdown runs of 75-plus yards in the same game was just flat out amazing.
After a 2-0 start to the season, the 49ers went into Minnesota to take on the Super Bowl favorite Vikings. Going into the game, San Francisco was confident in an upset and so were their fans.
However, towards the end of the first half the Vikings were about to take a 16-7 lead on a Ryan Longwell field goal. A nine point deficit going into the half would put doubts into their chances to comeback and pull the upset.
But big ole' Ray McDonald led the special teams unit to generate a tremendous push at the line of scrimmage and McDonald was able to get his giant paws on the ball and knock it straight back where it came from.
The ball bounced towards Nate Clements who picked it up and jogged 59 yards the other way for a go-ahead touchdown.
I can honestly say that most of the people on the floor of my dorm were probably wondering why I was yelling at the top of my lungs but all 49er fans deserved the right to go crazy. A ten point swing saw their team take a one point lead into half time.
Despite the blocked field goal and return for a touchdown to end the first half in Minnesota, the 49ers found themselves down 20-17 in the fourth quarter. Until Shaun Hill found Vernon Davis for a 20 yard touchdown pass.
With a little over eight minutes remaining in the game, the 49ers had driven down to the Vikings 20 yard line and Jimmy Raye called for the patented Davis go route from the tight end spot.
The 49er tight-end burned the coverage and Hill threw a perfect ball in the back of the end zone where Davis was able to make the catch and give the 49ers the lead back.
San Francisco was about to beat a Super Bowl contender, and had they hung on, their season probably wouldn't be over already. It was this touchdown by Davis that made fans start to really believe they had a shot at the post-season.
And when you start believing that, you start jumping up and down.
In a game that was a gigantic miss-match on paper and in the box score (35-0), there wasn't much that really made fans jump up and down.
A special teams touchdown basically fell in San Francisco's lap, a fumble recovery with game wrapped up was just icing on the cake and neither offensive touchdown was spectacular.
But what was spectacular was Patrick Willis' interception and touchdown or "pick six" as fans like to call it. With about six minutes left in the third quarter, Willis read Rams QB Kyle Boller's eyes perfectly and intercepted the cross field throw and had nothing but green in front of him.
Willis then jogged into the end zone like the linebacker version of Deion "Prime Time" Sanders.
The 49ers blew their first chance to beat a Super Bowl favorite against Minnesota, but Frank Gore got the 49ers out to a fast start against another Super Bowl favorite when he sprung loose on a 64 yard touchdown run in the first quarter against the Indianapolis Colts.
San Francisco nearly won the game but lost by an 18-14 final. Unfortunately, playing in Indianapolis against Peyton Manning was a tough task. And without starting off with a huge Frank Gore touchdown run just three minutes and 46 seconds into the game, the 49ers probably wouldn't have made the final score as close as it was.
Alex Smith managed to lead the 49ers to just one other score the rest of the game and the 49ers let the game slip away, but at least for a half (as it seemed in almost every game) it felt like San Francisco had a chance to pickup the W.
Gore's TD certainly had 49er fans pumped up early in Indy.
Any time a defensive lineman gets an interception it is time to celebrate. But when a nose tackle picks off a quarterback when the opponent is about to punch in a touchdown, it is time to jump up and down.
In week 10, 49ers nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin intercepted Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler right at his own goal-line and returned it to the 11. The interception was a huge swing in momentum as Chicago was marching down and about to take a 7-0 lead.
However, Franklin stepped up in what became the first of five 49er interceptions on the night.
The very next Chicago drive after Franklin's interception, the 49ers picked Jay Cutler off again. This time up and coming young corner back Tarell Brown came up with the pick and returned it 51 yards all the way down to the Bears' 14 yard line.
Brown's interception and return set up the only touchdown of the game for either side, as Frank Gore took the ball to pay dirt on the very next play.
Despite already having four interceptions, the 49ers were in danger of losing to the Chicago Bears in week 10 as Cutler and the Bears were deep inside 49er territory down just 10-6 in the final moments.
With the 49ers defense being let down by their offense all game long, they had to come up with one last big play to hold on to the victory.
As time expired, Cutler attempted to fit the ball into a tight gap in the middle of the field where Michael Lewis was able to make the interception and take the knee to end the game.
The Win was a huge relief as it got the 49ers back in the win column after a four game losing streak.
Not winning in some time and then winning on the final play makes even the average fan jump for joy.
While the 49ers' legitimate playoff hopes went down the tube in Week 13's 20-17 loss in Seattle, there were some big moments in the game that had 49er fans on their feet.
On fourth and short mid way through the first quarter, Alex Smith found Vernon Davis cutting across the field and hit him in stride. Davis then beat the defender to the sideline and then had a clear lane down the sideline to jog into the end zone for a 7-0 49er lead.
The 49ers would lay a dud in the second half, managing just a Joe Nedney field goal thanks to inconsistent throws from quarterback, a fumble by Frank Gore and a drop in the end zone by Davis.
Numerous mistakes led to the loss, but at-least there was some excitement with Davis' first quarter touchdown.
The San Francisco 49ers' offense may have not had a sense of the moment in 2009, but their defense certainly did.
On one of the biggest stages the regular season can offer, (Monday Night Football against a division rival late in the season) the 49ers defense forced seven turnovers, three of which were made by free safety Dashon Goldson.
With just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Goldson timed his hit perfectly on Cardinals running back Tim Hightower and forced the ball loose. The ball was recovered and should have been a touchdown for Dre Bly but the refs made a terrible call like they always do and ruled down by contact.
The 49ers challenged and got the play reversed and Goldson's hit was rewarded with a Vernon Davis touchdown catch two plays later.
In the second quarter, Goldson picked off Kurt Warner with a great leaping catch by the side line and made sure to get two feet in before his momentum took him out of bounds.
The 49ers defense was rolling and Goldson was having a career game that would only continue to get better.
Goldson was able to keep Arizona's star receiver Larry Fitzgerald in check most of the game and was able to force a second fumble later in the game.
In the fourth quarter Goldson forced the other impressive Cardinals running back Beanie Wells to fumble and the 49ers once again recovered.
The 49er safety was simply all over the field making plays and on each one of his turnovers, the San Francisco faithful was jumping up and down in celebration. FUMBLE!! FUMBLE!!!
Wow. just wow. I guess 48 catches for 625 yards in 11 games can make fans forget about that lengthy holdout.
Granted those living in the past constantly bring up the "what if" argument, as they wonder what would have happened if Crabtree had gone through training camp, preseason and started the entire season.
But at this point, that doesn't matter. What does matter is that Crabtree proved he can become the next great 49ers wide receiver. Analysts saying the 49ers still need a deep threat at receiver need to do a double take on Crabtree because the guy is that game changer who can stretch the field.
His leaping catch and subsequent 20 yard scamper to the endzone while breaking tackles on Monday Night Football against the Cardinals was the offensive play of the year in my book.
Fans were going nuts with flashbacks of Jerry Rice in their minds when Crabtree took that catch to pay dirt.
One can only imagine how much better this kid can get next year with a full offseason, training camp and preseason to prepare.
The future is bright for this young star receiver.