How does a team like the 49ers, out of the playoffs since 2002, go from a woeful 6-10 record in 2010 to a 8-1 start the next?
Some of the reasons are obvious, like a dynamic new head coach (Jim Harbaugh), a resurrected QB (Alex Smith) and a tough, blue-collar attitude 180 degrees removed from the finesse teams of the Bill Walsh era.
But other reasons, many hidden and under-the-radar to NFL fans, are equally responsible.
Let’s take a look at the people and things behind the curtain you may have missed in the 49ers resurgence.
The Niners started off the season with a simplified offense dedicated to mistake-free football and gaining embattled QB Smith some much needed confidence. Since then, they’ve opened things up and seem to add a new wrinkle every week.
Against the Giants, with Frank Gore expected to be the focus of the offense, the 49ers threw on nine of the first 11 plays. Two weeks ago against Cleveland, linemen Joe Staley and Isaac Sopoaga caught passes and lumbered to big gains in setting up a pair of field goals.
From last year’s “Gore and Nothing More” offense, the Niners are developing an increasingly complex attack that takes care of the ball while keeping defenses guessing.
When 49er President Jed York named Trent Baalke the new general manager in January, disappointed fans promptly responded “Trent who?”
Though Baalke was the reigning VP of Player Personnel, he wasn’t widely known by fans who had heard names like Parcells, Holmgren and Mike Lombardi mentioned as candidates.
Then Baalke recruited Jim Harbaugh as head coach and enticed free agents like C Jonathan Goodman, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Carlos Rogers, S Donte Whitner and PK David Akers to move to San Fran. The 49ers are now 8-1.
Forget Trent “Who?” Call him Mr. Baalke!
When Terrell Owens began his 49er career, he was a model citizen, but with success came the Mr. Hyde persona that has plagued several NFL teams. TE Vernon Davis started off as an undisciplined, me-first version of T.O.
Then came that fateful day when Big Mike Singletary threw him off the sideline with his infamous “cannot play with ‘em” speech.
Since then Davis has become Dr. Jekyll and one of the leaders on a team more concerned with wins than personal glory. Recently he told Oakland Tribune writer Cam Inman, “"Whatever I'm asked to do, I'm going to do it without any complaints.”
Did you ever hear T,O, says this? And if you had, would you have believed it? Davis will never put up those phenomenal T.O numbers but he may get something Terrell never got—a Super Bowl ring.
Nobody talks about coaching staffs. They should.
Part of Coach Harbaugh’s success comes from the assistant coaches he brought with him from Stanford.
You noticed an immediate change in training camp. Practices were focused, brisk, energetic, with no more of Mike Singletary’s aimless, self-defeating nutcracker drills.
New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has taken a promising but underachieving defense to the best in the NFL, allowing a mere 15.3 points a game.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has built an offense perfectly suited to 49ers personnel that continues to mature and seldom makes mistakes.
The sky's the limit.
And let’s not forget ties to another Stanford coaching alum, Bill Walsh.
Walsh created the West Coast offense that had defined the team during the 49esr glory years when they won five Super Bowls.
The team had jettisoned the offense in recent years, alienating fans and turning blandly conventional and predictable. Harbaugh has brought it back. Its emphasis on quicker drops, releases and more options for the QB has been good for Smith.
During the bad years, many supporters said Smith suffered from poor coaching and that he would catch on when he fully understood and mastered a friendly system.
Looks like they were right.
Harbaugh’s trip from first-round draft pick to “Captain Comeback” was as up-and-down a career ride as Smith’s. The coach has walked in Smith’s Nikes and knows firsthand what’s needed to coach him up.
Much as Smith was considered finished at the end of last season, so was Harbaugh in 1995. He spent the first three games of the season on the bench behind newly-acquired QB savior Craig Erickson before bringing the Colts to within a barely missed Hail Mary of a Super Bowl and winning “Comeback Player of the Year” honors.
Smith may hoist a matching trophy at the end of 2011.
The 49ers are back. So are the season ticket holders and the occasional No. 11 Alex Smith jersey. You never saw one at Candlestick last year when Smith was booed mercilessly.
Now, Niners defenders and special team players frequently gesture to the crowd for support before pivotal plays, and they’re getting it. It’s loud again.
When Harbaugh gives his “Who’s got it better than us?” speech after a win, you can clearly hear the 49ers faithful joining the team in a resounding “NOBODY!”
Expect fans to go bananas when that hotly anticipated playoff game arrives in January.