Well, for all of us that thought this year would be a fight for respectability, and a dogfight to win the weak-kneed NFC West, this was an eye-opening season. I certainly knew the team had talent, and I had thought that the team had playoff caliber talent since 2007, but I really thought they would be hamstrung by the lockout, the shortened preseason, and yet another coaching staff that was brought in to try and right the ship. As it turned out, my fears of an 8-8 dogfight to win the West were unwarranted as Jim Harbaugh and company did what the previous three head coaches couldn’t do. And that was to reach the playoffs. And on his first try, no less.
The problem really is, the 49ers did it in too grand a style. I figured at best the Niners to be a 3 seed, or more than likley the 4. Instead, the Niners went 4-1 on their brutal east coast schedule (the only loss being the ridiculous scheduling nightmare that was the Thursday night game in Baltimore), beat perennial powerhouses NYG and Pittsburgh at home, took care of their division foes to the tune of 5-1, and finished the year 13-3 and the #2 seed. One of the more brilliant moves by Jed York was to have the team stay in Youngstown, Ohio between the Cincinnati and Philly games to avoid travelling back and forth between 3 time zones 4 times in 8 days. Players unanimously said it was a team bonding moment that they felt they didn’t get with the abbreivated training camp. They felt it helped develop a sense of purpose and unity. All that being said, expectations, which were a hell of a lot less grandiose at the start of the season, are off the charts.
Team MVPs are scattered all over the roster. Alex Smith gets obvious props for throwing 17 TDs against a measly 5 INTs. Smith’s last INT was in the Balt game to close the 1st half when Smith and Edwards got crossed up on a deep pass to the end zone. 22 quarters without a pick. Gore had a strong, albeit inconsistent year rushing the ball. Still and all, 1,211 yards on 282 carries for a 4.3 yard average, and 8 TDs is a solid season in anyone’s book. Rookie Kendall Hunter showed very well with his opportunities, gaining 473 yards on 112 carries for a 4.2 average, and 2 scores. For all the unevenness of the wideouts, Michael Crabtree had a very strong season. His numbers (73 catches for 880 yards) aren’t spectacular, but they are a considerable improvement over 2010. Vernon Davis, for all his drops, was the only other pass catcher to remain healthy over the course of the season, and put up decent numbers (67 catches, 792 yards), though they are a drop-off from his previous few years. All the other recievers sent significant time on the sidelines. Joshua Morgan was lost in week 5, Braylon Edwards struggled through knee and shoulder injuries and never got untracked, Ted Ginn, a surprising Kyle Williams, Delanie Walker, and Bruce Miller all missed playing time. Drops by all these guys were a nagging issue as the season went on, but all in all, for all of the injuries and substitutions, they showed fine.
The defense? Well, they are one of the top units in the game right now. The 4th quarter meltdown vs StL notwithstanding. The Niners D was 2nd in points allowed (eked out by Pittsburgh by 0.1 ppg), #1 against the run, #1 turnovers with 36, and #1 in turnover differential with a +26. The biggest changes were to the defensive backfield. CB Carlos Rogers, who was maligned in Washington for not being able to hold on to INTs, led the team, and is tied for 2nd with 6 INTs (along with S Dashon Goldson). Tarell Brown added 4 INTs, S Donte Whitner and CB Tremaine Brock added 2 each, and S Reggie Smith and rookie CB Chris Culliver each had one pick. A vast improvement over the previous 7 seasons. Rookie of the Year candidate Aldon Smith had 14 sacks, and was a big difference in this defense between this year and last as well. Justin Smith once again had an outstanding year. And the front office was rewarded for signing Ray McDonald to a multi-year deal with a strong season from him as well. Soap did fine holding the nose, and letting the others make plays. The LB corps was the strongest group on the team, with NaVorro Bowman leading the way. Since the pass rush was usually done with 4 rushers, the LBs were free to attack on the runs and stuff just about everything heading their way. Willis was his usual dominant self, and even his backup, Larry Grant had a few great games when Patrick went down with the hammy injury. Haralson? Ehhh. All in all, though, the defense as a whole is regarded as one of the toughest in the league to play against. A sea change from the bend-and-break defense of recent years under Manusky/Sing/Nolan of recent years.
Special teams were just that. Very special. David Akers set the 49ers single-season scoring record, previously held by Jerry Rice. One of the only non-kickers to HOLD that distinction. And Akers added a TD pass last Sunday. He had innumerable 50 yard + FGs, and did very well to keep opponents from running kicks back. Andy Lee was outstanding in pinning opponents deep in their territory, and led the league in gross and net punting average. The return game was outstanding as wel, with Ted Ginn providing the excitement. His returns help the 49ers consistently win the field position battle game after game. Which led to shorter scoring drives.
So, the playoffs. The 49ers will more than likley face the New Orleans Saints. A high-scoring hard charging team that is playing very well right now. Better than GB even. Matt Flynn’s heroics notwithstanding (GB gives up 41 to Detroit at home? Ouch). The caveat being that the Saints game is going to be at the quagmire known as Candlestick Park. A definite home-field advantage for the boys in red and gold. A win, and the ensuing trip to the NFC Championship game would be a gigantic leap in the fortunes of the 49ers. A loss? Well, as disappointing as that would be, it would still be a hugely successful season in the grand scheme of things. The team is headed in the right direction. The team can only improve with another draft and a full training camp and preseason schedule under the prospective coach of the year in Jim Harbaugh.