Now that the San Francisco 49ers have been bounced from the playoffs, it is time for reflection. It is time for perspective, and most importantly, it is time for optimism in a look toward the future.
The season that the 49ers just wrapped up was truly remarkable. Coming off a 6-10 season that saw the team woefully underperform its expectations and subsequently fire its coach (Mike Singletary), San Francisco — with new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, freshly recruited from Stanford University at the helm — went 13-3 to win its division and reach the playoffs as a No. 2 seed in the NFC. This season marked the first time San Francisco has reached the playoffs or had a winning season since 2002.
Much of the credit (and deservingly so) for this monstrous turnaround will go to Harbaugh. The obvious choice for NFL Coach of the Year brought a gritty, demonstrative and intense demeanor that set a new precedent in the San Francisco locker room from day one.
I do remember thinking that Harbaugh was a great hire and fully expected to turn the franchise around. But this soon?! In a lockout-shortened offseason with minimal training camp?! That was certainly unexpected. The job that he has done cannot be understated.
The 49ers defense — led by a brutal linebacker corps of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, with help from career years by Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers — was even better than initially advertised, ranking No. 2 in the league in points allowed, No. 4 in yards allowed and with the No. 1 rushing defense in the league.
But, as a former quarterback, the biggest impact Harbaugh made was with his own field general — Alex Smith. Upon taking the job, Harbaugh sat down with Smith to ensure that the former No. 1 overall pick (and up until this season, a consensus bust in the league) was ready and willing to work and turn things around in The City.
As if suddenly possessed in his sixth season with the Niners, Smith posted career highs in passing yards (3,144) and completion percentage (61.3 percent), and a career low with five interceptions. Unbelievably, Alex Smith posted the No. 9 passer rating in the league, ahead of Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco.
So the answer is yes. Yes, you can reach the Super Bowl with Alex Smith as your starting quarterback — it is possible. I (almost) saw it. The 20-17 heartbreaking overtime loss to the New York Giants proves that.
And for the record, I’m not buying the “Kyle Williams as a scapegoat” excuse. Surely, he contributed and was a large factor in the loss, but San Francisco lost that game on third downs (1-for-13) and turnovers (49ers 2, Giants 0). The Niners built their team around an elite defense, special teams and winning the turnover battle. In fact, the loss against New York was only the third time all season that San Francisco lost the turnover battle. Even through overtime, Smith and the 49ers had three realistic chances to score points (even a field goal) on a game-winning drive. San Francisco played the type of game they wanted to play — a game of field position, reliant on special teams and defense. And they just couldn’t get it done.
Going forward, the biggest thing for this team is continuity. The Niners must keep its players healthy going forward, something it was luckily able to do with its best players for the most part this season. They play in a weak division (although the NFC West should get a lot better in the next few years) that they should rule for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for San Francisco, teams that improve their win-loss record by more than six games have traditionally been unable to keep that upward trend, losing an average of 4.8 more games the following year. In all honestly, it is hard to see the 49ers winning 13 games and capturing the NFC’s No. 2 seed for a second consecutive season. But then again, the New York Giants have proved once again that home field advantage in the playoffs is overrated and that a formidable defense can travel on the road. All in all, it was an unbelievably successful year for the 49ers.