49ers Year-by-Year: 2009

In a way, I can't believe that I actually made it all the way here. I've actually written 55 of these things? And this is the last. Well, at least the last one for a few months. With that in mind, I'd like to point out two things: 1) I made an effort to stay within a certain number of words, but that number was a lot higher than it has been in the past - I see no reason not go out with a bang. 2) If you want to call me out for making some terrible inaccuracy, any unforgivable mistake, this is your last chance. More than any other season, I wrote this one from memory. So, it could be like an Easter Egg hunt. With those things said, I certainly hope you've enjoyed this series as much as I have, and I certainly hope that you enjoy this installment as much as I did. This is the 2009 season. You remember it like it was yesterday. Now, you can enjoy it one more time.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 13

@ Arizona Cardinals

W: 20-16

1-0

0-1

Sept. 20

Seattle Seahawks

W: 10-23

2-0

1-1

Sept. 27

@ Minnesota Vikings

L: 24-27

2-1

3-0

Oct. 4

St. Louis Rams

W: 0-35

3-1

0-4

Oct. 11

Atlanta Falcons

L: 45-10

3-2

3-1

Oct. 25

@ Houston Texans

L: 21-24

3-3

4-3

Nov. 1

@ Indianapolis Colts

L: 14-18

3-4

7-0

Nov. 8

Tennessee Titans

L: 34-27

3-5

2-6

Nov. 12

Chicago Bears

W: 6-10

4-5

4-5

Nov. 22

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 24-30

4-6

6-4

Nov. 29

Jacksonville Jaguars

W: 3-20

5-6

6-5

Dec. 6

@ Seattle Seahawks

L: 17-20

5-7

5-7

Dec. 14

Arizona Cardinals

W: 9-24

6-7

8-5

Dec. 20

@ Philadelphia Eagles

L: 13-27

6-8

10-4

Dec. 27

Detroit Lions

W: 6-20

7-8

2-13

Jan. 3

@ St. Louis Rams

W: 28-6

8-8

1-15

Head Coach: Mike Singletary

Key Losses: OC Mike Martz, OT Jonas Jennings

Key Additions: WR Michael Crabtree, ???

Though the 49ers had just suffered through their sixth consecutive losing season, there was once again a sense of optimism surrounding the direction of the franchise. Mike Singletary had been promoted from his interim status almost immediately after the season ended, and fans and ownership both hoped that giving the inspirational coach an entire offseason to work with the team would pay dividends. While the move was questioned by many as being overly hasty, many preferred it to the across-the-board changes that a lengthy coaching search and completely new face would be likely to bring.

One of Singletary's first orders of business was going to be resolving the problem of the offensive coordinator. While Martz had overseen massive offensive improvement and while nobody relished the thought of putting the players through a fifth straight season of new offensive schemes, it was also well-known that Martz was unsatisfied in his role as a coordinator and that Singletary clashed with him on several fundamental offensively philosophical levels. It didn't take long for Singletary to decide that an arrangement with Martz would not be functional, but it took him significantly longer to find somebody who would provide a better arrangement. After a long search that included many interviews, and even a rejection from Scot Linehan, Singletary finally selected lifetime assistant coach Jimmy Raye, Jr., to take over the job. Raye came with a long resume, but not necessarily a good one. More important to the team, perhaps, was that his offensive schemes were in line with the kind of football that Singletary wanted to play: tough, physical, commanding football.

The other priorities for the offseason involved preparing for the draft and preparing the team for a very different kind of season. Ultimately, the offseason came with more intrigue than drastic changes. Along with the offensive coordinator fiasco, the 49ers aggressively pursued free agent quarterback Kurt Warner. The attempt became somewhat of an embarrassment, though, as Warner re-signed with the Cardinals almost immediately after visiting with the 49ers. For all intents and purposes, it seemed Warner had played San Francisco for a few extra million dollars in Arizona. This, of course, was denied by all parties.

Aside from that, the team had the good fortune of seeing top-rated receiver Michael Crabtree drop to them at the 10th pick of the draft. The initial elation of landing the pick was soon replaced by the fear of not being able to sign him. An extended holdout quickly became imminent. As the season approached and neither side was any closer to an agreement, it became a harsh reality.

Lastly, the return of Alex Smith from multiple shoulder injuries provided a small amount of intrigue for the offseason. Incumbent Shaun Hill was favored to win the starting job, but Smith was offered the chance to win it in the preseason. Ultimately, he could not unseat Hill by week one.

And week one promised to offer the 49ers their first true test of the young season. Facing the defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals in Arizona, it wouldn't take long to see how the new offense - still sans Michael Crabtree - would fare, a question the answer to which would be paramount to the team's success. For the 49ers, it was a tale of two teams. The defense was absolutely dominating, pressuring Warner the entire game and forcing mistakes across the board. The offense was somewhat less inspiring, looking both predictable and stale for much of the day. However, at a critical juncture late in the game, it was an extended offensive drive orchestrated largely behind the arm of Shaun Hill that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown for the 49ers and won the game. The victory wasn't a smooth ride, but it was a great sign.

One week later, the 49ers hosted the Seattle Seahawks and the results were largely the same. Behind the backstory of Crabtree's continued holdout, the 49ers handed the Seahawks a devastating defeat behind a dominating defense, even knocking starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck out of the game. While it was still apparent that the offense would be a work in progress, the defense - a true 3-4 under Singletary after years of Mike Nolan's hybrid - looked good enough to carry the team regardless. Traveling to Minnesota at 2-0, the 49ers were riding on a high.

Facing Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings, arguably one of the league's best teams and an early Super Bowl favorite, the 49ers battled to very edge of victory. In what was becoming a trademark style, San Francisco shut down every offensive weapon the Vikings threw at them. From Justin Smith's defensive line to Patrick Willis's linebackers to Shawntae Spencer's secondary, every unit on San Francisco's defense shined. If the offense played half as well, the game could have been a blowout. That said, it was the stellar clutch play of Shaun Hill that found the 49ers in the lead so late in the game. Following another late game scoring drive to put the team ahead, Hill and the offense had to wait on the sideline as Favre and the Vikings woke up for one last-minute drive that ended in a miracle touchdown to turn the game in its head. The loss was absolutely crushing, if still fairly encouraging.

And behind it all, Crabtree's holdout reigned, occupying more media coverage than virtually any other story surrounding the team. As the 49ers' defense steamrolled the Rams, Crabtree held out. Bt then, just before a banged up 49ers team stumbled badly in a blowout loss to the Falcons, Crabtree agreed to terms, ending literally months of speculation. He wouldn't play until after the bye week, though. Meanwhile, internally, a new storyline began to brew. As the coaches began to acknowledge that the offense could not continue to languish if the season were to be successful, the seeds of change were planted.

And the decision to change could not have been easier to make after the first half of the Houston game. Falling behind 21-0 in the first half, the 49ers were forced to face the realities of their offense. Shaun Hill was a smart, often efficient quarterback, but his physical skills proved too limiting - not only to the passing game, but also to a running game that was facing eight- and even nine-man fronts on a weekly basis. With the game virtually lost and, really, nothing else left to lose, the 49ers replaced Hill with Alex Smith. The difference was immediate. Over the course of the next two quarters, Smith threw for over 200 yards and orchestrated three efficient scoring drives. The defense, getting more time off the field, responded by nearly blanking the Texans for that same period. Though the 49ers could not win the game, they may have figured out their biggest problem.

That optimism hit a speed bump as Smith played an uneven game against Indianapolis, with a last-minute finish that eerily resembled the team's earlier loss to the Vikings - this time, though, the winning touchdown pass came on a gimmick pass from running back Joseph Addai as opposed to coming on a desperation throw from a star quarterback. Another loss the following week would reveal no more definite answers. Despite adopting more of a spread mentality to fit Smith's comfort zone, he struggled to keep the offense in rhythm and was responsible, to some extent, for each of the team's four turnovers. Still, Singletary praised his play.

After a short week, the 49ers duked out an ugly, ugly win against the Bears on a Thursday night. The only positive - other than the W - to come from the game was the remarkably poor play of Jay Cutler, the opposing team's quarterback!

With that victory, frustrations with the offense began to mount anew. Did the problem go beyond the quarterback? Was Smith in fact a significant upgrade over Hill? Should a more conventional spread offense be used exclusively to complements Smith's skill set? An up and down loss to the Packers in week 11 just found the team circling the same drain. For long stretches, Smith looked completely ineffective. But under the spread, late in the game, he came alive and produced. Were the Packers playing soft with a lead? Would any change allow the team to be anything but a sub-.500 product for the first time in six years?

First, the 49ers would have to crawl back to .500. And with a convincing victory over the Jaguars, the first convincing victory by the team in over a month and a half, and one that featured not only the great defense that had characterized those early victories but also the efficient offense that had appeared, though sporadically, only after Smith was handed the starting job. Heading into Seattle to face the struggling Seahawks, the 5-6 49ers could taste .500.

And then it slipped away. Despite Smith playing what was statistically one of his best games as a professional player, the 49ers let scoring opportunities slip away too many times against a team that nobody expected to put up a fight. A late field goal with the game tied ultimately finished the 49ers off.

From there, the schedule got no easier. However, facing Arizona at home, the 49ers got a second wind. For whatever reason, the 49ers had the Cardinals' number and this game was no exception. The 49ers were dominant in a 24-9 victory that brought them to within one game of .500 for the fourth time that year. But against the Eagles the following week, the pendulum swung the other way. Mistakes and missed opportunities doomed San Francisco to a 6-8 record.

However, with just the Lions and the Rams left on the schedule - both perennial patsies - a .500 season was still a distinct reality.

The next two victories, however, proved bittersweet. Sweet, because the wins gave the 49ers and their fans something that they had not experienced for the better part of a decade - a non-losing season. That accomplishment in and of itself cannot and should not be understated. To top it off, the Detroit game saw Vernon Davis tie the NFL record for single-season receiving touchdowns by a tight end. At long last, the highly talented young man appeared to be fulfilling his great promise. However, they were also bitter victories because they failed to answer what were perhaps still the most pressing questions of the entire season: what was Alex Smith capable of and what should be done with the spread? Against drastically inferior opponents, fans and coaches alike hoped that Smith would have a couple of statement games. And though he performed competently in both, he failed to provide the wow factor that everyone was looking for.

On the bright side for San Francisco, Michael Crabtree had the most successful campaign for a 49ers rookie wide receiver, essentially, since Jerry Rice. Even despite the holdout, he made an almost immediate contribution to the team and barely seemed to have missed any time at all in his development. He was, to put it simply, as advertised. Also significantly, Frank Gore managed yet another consecutive 1,000 yard season. His fourth consecutive such season set a 49ers' franchise record, cementing Gore forever in the team's history books. The season also catapulted Gore into fourth place for all-time rushing yards for a 49ers' running back, behind only Joe Perry, Roger Craig, and Ken Willard.

Behind that context, one of incredible individual achievement and uneven team performances, the 49ers went into the offseason with as many questions as ever, but an overwhelming sense of optimism over what the answers to those questions might be.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200912270sfo.htm
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/career-rushing.htm
http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-09-14/sports/17205551_1_sack-game-front
http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-11-09/sports/17180806_1_care-games-point

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