The San Francisco 49ers are 8-1 and San Francisco fans are confused.
They are happy, but more than anything they are trying to figure out why the football Gods chose this year to be their year. Even with Jim Harbaugh taking over as head coach, expectations going into the 2011 season were bleak.
A summary of the 2011 offseason: The 49ers could not find a replacement for Alex Smith, a new coach with no previous NFL head coaching experience (Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary), was hired, and both the offensive and defensive coordinators were replaced.
The only difference between this offseason and previous off-seasons was the lockout.
Heading into the 2011 season, NFL fans nationwide assumed that the 49ers would be one of the worst teams in the league’s worst division. Yet after a statement win against the New York Giants, the 49ers find themselves at 8-1, destined for an appearance in the playoffs.
Here are the reasons why Harbaugh is able to do what Nolan and Singletary could not.
Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary both had similar philosophies: win with a stout defense and a solid running game. Harbaugh preaches the same thing, but he yields the results that the Mikes could only promise.
All three of these coaches will always be remembered by at least one instance of buffoonery: Nolan and his suits, Singletary and his infamous mooning of the team at halftime and Harbaugh’s aggressive handshake after the Lions game. 49er fans laughed at the Mikes following their bizarre and quirky behavior. On the other hand, Harbaugh’s raw emotion was something which 49er fans and players rallied behind.
Both of the Mikes’ had a point in their brief stints where they questioned the ability of their players. Nolan publicly questioned Alex Smith’s toughness. Singletary benched Vernon Davis mid-game. In retrospect, both of these instances reveal a coach who was trying to better his image by ruining a player’s reputation. Harbaugh emphasizes the importance of team unity. When everybody was begging for Alex Smith to be released this offseason, Harbaugh was the only one who stood by him (before Smith was even resigned to the team).
There were times when the Mikes’ had their teams performing well, but it never lasted long. Harbaugh’s confidence in himself and his team is contagious.
At the beginning of nearly all football games, the commentator wisely predicts that the team, which is able to force turnovers, stop the run, win the field position battle and have more time of possession will surely get a W.
The 49ers are plus-12 in takeaways. A big reason for this is that Alex Smith has only thrown three interceptions thanks to an improved offensive line.
The 49ers' defense is one of the best in the league. They have not a given up a rushing touchdown or allowed a player to gain 100 yards rushing all season. The 49ers defense has given up the least amount of points in the NFL, allowing only 15.3 points per game.
The performance of special teams is something that fans often forget to factor into a team’s success or demise.
Ted Ginn is averaging 29 yards per kick return and 12.5 yards per punt return (ranking fourth best in each category for players who have over 11 attempts). This, combined with a solid defense has allowed the 49ers' offense to have good field position at the beginning of drives.
Andy Lee leads the league with a net average of 43.8 yards per punt. Even when the 49ers' offense stalls they are able to rely on their special teams and defense to make sure that they dominate field position.
The 49er’s dedication to the power run game has enabled them to sit on leads. This strategy does not result in them scoring a lot of points, but being able to take time off the clock when you have the lead is something that is under-emphasized in a league that glorifies the pass game and big plays.
Harbaugh emphasizes the fundamentals. The 49ers' style of play will pay off in the winter when the weather turns bad (Lambeau Field).
The biggest question mark on the 49ers roster over the last several years has been Alex Smith. While Smith’s numbers probably are not Pro Bowl worthy, he is doing what is asked of him and more.
He is completing 64.1 percent of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 95.8. What is more remarkable is Smith’s touchdown to interception ratio: 11 to three. The combination of Smith’s numbers and the team’s 8-1 record are both evidence to Harbaugh’s ability to put players in situations to succeed.
Adding Carlos Rodgers was underwhelming after failing to lure Nnamdi Asomugha. After only accumulating eight interceptions in five years, Rodgers was not re-signed by the Redskins. Five interceptions later, and 49ers fans hardly remember that they ever wanted Asomugha.
The most under-appreciated 49er on the team is without a doubt Isaac Sopoaga.
With the departure of Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, people were skeptical that the 49er-defense would be as stingy against the run as it was in the past. Franklin was responsible for occupying blockers and allowing linebackers to make tackles.
Sopoaga moved from defensive end to nose tackle, and replaced Franklin. He's now anchoring the No. 1 defense against the run.
All three of these players are outperforming their preseason expectations, which in turn, makes Harbaugh look good. This is an encouraging sign for the future of the 49ers—it shows that Harbaugh and his coaching staff have the ability to get the best out of their players.
It is hard for 49er fans to say Alex Smith and winning in the same sentence.
His name has been synonymous with losing ever since he was drafted by the 49ers in 2005. Smith’s performance on the field has always been linked to the fate of his coach which is why nobody was surprised when both Mikes were fired.
Now that the 49ers are winning, Harbaugh looks less like a football coach and more like a football genius.
After beating the New York Giants, the 8-1 49ers are proving their legitimacy as a force in the NFL. Yet, they are still not given the respect that they deserve.
That’s fine with Jim Harbaugh. He likes being the underdog.
Nobody thought that he could turn an embarrassed franchise around in his first year, but he has. Nobody thought that he could coach Alex Smith into a winning quarterback, but he has. Nobody thought the 49ers would be an overtime loss away from being undefeated in mid-November, but they are.
Winning records and the 49ers have not been friends since the 49ers miraculously came from behind to beat the Giants in the 2002 playoffs. But Harbaugh has done wonders to mend this relationship. The 49ers have not been winning pretty like the 49ers of the 80s-90s, but they are winning.
They are also 8-1 and destined for the playoffs! Thank Harbaugh, thank Alex Smith, thank the defense but mostly thank the football Gods. They work in mysterious ways and for the longest time they have not been in good standing with the San Francisco 49ers, but things are changing.