Week 13 turned out to be the lucky one for the San Francisco 49ers as they sealed their 1st Western Division title since the 2002 season. The 49ers are the first team to clinch their division (yes, Green Bay did clinch a playoff berth with their 12th win), and they did it in dominating style, shutting out the St Louis Rams 26-0. Kudos are deserved all around for the organization. From Jed on top, down to the practice squad players. Flash back to January, and this was one of the more dysfunctional franchises in the league. With the’nationwide’ search for the guy inside the building, the debacle that was the Singletary/Jimmy-Hat dynamic dud-o (and the Nolan/Hostler turd-fest), to the maddeningly inconsistent play in many different areas of the team (esp QB), the team seemed poised on another fruitless effort to improve. Jed York has to be given major props for going out and getting Harbaugh. Miami was hell-bent on signing Harbaugh, and while Harbaugh has Bay Area ties, had work with Bill Walsh, and picked his brain on many occasions, Young York got it done. Whether this really was the spot Harbaugh wanted to be plays into it, but Jed closed the deal. Miami is looking like a big mess front-office-wise as well, but what a difference a year makes.
Trent Baalke, although he was the recipient of the so-called nationwide search for a GM, has done admirably so far without the albatross of Mike Singletary hangning around his neck. He looks as though he stocked the team with this 2011 draft. He picked a winner in Aldon Smith. His 2 sacks yesterday pushed his team-leading total to 9,5. He’ll be the first Niner to go over the 10 sack mark since Andre Carter in 2002. Not coincidentally their last playoff run, with the likes of Jeff Garcia, TO, and Steve Mariucci. The rest of the draft looks very solid. Kappy is developing (looks like he’s behind Smith for a bit longer), Culliver is looking strong at CB (1 pick, 7 passes defensed, 24 tackles in limited duty), Kendall Hunter is a great change of pace from Frank Gore, Kilgore Trout and David Person-to-be-named-later are developing for O line depth (they looked good in preseason action), FB Bruce Miller is now an integral part of the offense as a blocking back, and catching the ball out of the backfield (hello Tom Rathman). Only Ronald Johnson (who was cut) isn’t in the future plans for the team. Curtis Holcomb, a FS from Fla A&M, suffered a ruptured Achilles. His status will be determined once he’s healthy. The 2010 draft under Baalke was solid as well, netting Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Navorro Bawman, Anthony Dixon, and Kyle Williams. Only Taylor Mays (a Singletary must-have), and Phillip Adams (injuries, on and off NE 3x) haven’t made the grade.
The lynchpin in the vast improvement sqaurely lies at the feet on one James Joseph Harbaugh. He and Fangio, and the rest of his coaching staff turned a group of underachieving players, browbeaten and yanked back and forth from starters to bench guys and back week to week, into the #1 defense in points allowed, and the #10 offense in points scored, and the #7 QB in Alex Smith. Special teams are vastly inproved as well. There is no element of the team that isn’t markedly better than last year. Harbaugh has gotten all the players to buy into his system. One that on the surface appears a lot like the previous versions. One that Singletary, and Nolan before him, strived to have. And that’s and offense built around a strong running game, and a punishing defense that doesn’t give up points easily. Harbaugh has done this, with little fanfare, preseason, or time. The result of the lockout may have forced Alex Smith to stay (as I think he would have left in a New York minute given the chance in a regular offseason), and for Harbaugh to work with him (this beaing said, the FA QB market wasn’t very good last offseason), but the results cannot be argued. Smith is 20 points up in his QBR from his previous career average of 74.1. 15 TDs and 5 picks is very solid, and when you look at the drops by VD and Crabs (seemingly 2 a game each), and the numbers could be even better. Gore’s running has opened up the passing game, and conversely the run has set up the passing game. Harbaugh has gone heavy pass and heavy run at different times during the season. Not as a knee-jerk reaction like the previous regimes would do, but as WEAPON to beat the opponent. Strategy. What a concept. Dumb as that sounds, it eluded the last 2 head coaches.
In other words, how much better will the team be when they get the privilege of a full training camp with Harbaugh and company running things? Even if the 49ers are one-and-done in the playoffs this year, the future certainly looks 100x brighter than it did at the beginning of the year. My thought is that the 1st order of business is to sign Alex Smith to a 3 year deal after the season ends.