The San Francisco 49ers 2011 season came to an abrupt and disappointing end on Sunday as they dropped one of the most heart-breaking games in franchise history. I won't try and rank it with other losses, but suffice to say it won't be forgotten anytime soon. As we move forward, there will be plenty of time to figure out what needs to be improved and who can help improve the team.
In the meantime, even as the pain lingers, there is still an opportunity to remember what was an absurdly amazing season. The 2011 San Francisco 49ers exceeded our expectations and really, truly blew us away. We try and put words to this season but as Coach Harbaugh said, this season was in a lot of ways, beyond description. While it is easy to remember the bad times, it is so much more fun recalling the highlights of a season unlikely many in 49ers history. So, for this post, it's all about the fun times we had this year.
I am normally all for debates from both sides of the issue, but for this particular post, let's just enjoy what was in many ways a spectacular season. The Giants and Patriots will take part in Super Bowl XLVI in two Sundays, but even still, nobody's got it better than us.
There is so much to be thankful for from this season. I didn't really know how best to organize this so it's basically just a rundown of some of the big names, storylines and highlights. We'll have more detailed reviews of the players and coaches in the coming weeks, so each mention is not particularly long. Also, this is not all-encompassing because that could go on for days. Throw out your favorite highlights, players, stories from 2011, whether I mention them or not.
I really don't know what else needs to be said right no. After eight years of wandering through the NFL desert, the 49ers returned to relevance in 2011. There is plenty of credit to go around, but Coach Harbaugh deserves more praise than I have to give. He did amazing work bringing this team together and turning them not only into a cohesive football team, but a tight-knit family.
We heard Jim Harbaugh refer to his team as mighty men all season long and they reached that point in part because they believed in Jim Harbaugh. He often said he was more motivated by them than they were from him, but I believe he is selling himself short. He knew exactly what buttons to push and he knew how to treat these players to get them playing at such an optimal level. Having the right coaches and right players is essential, but Coach Harbaugh's motivation and charisma and enthusiasm helped take this unit to a whole new level.
While Coach Harbaugh gets much of the public praise, Trent Baalke deserves just as much praise. The 49ers GM had a monster first year as the official GM, hitting on as many moves as anybody. He didn't bat 1.000, but given the volume of moves this team made, his success rate was unbelievable.
The 2011 draft has worked out exceedingly well with Aldon Smith, Kendall Hunter, Chris Culliver, Colin Jones and Bruce Miller all making huge contributions as rookies. The free agency class that had us all so worried early on turned into arguably the best out there. The signings (David Akers, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Jonathan Goodwin, Blake Costanzo, etc) were huge, and the decisions to let certain players walk and replace them with younger talent (Bowman-Spikes, Sopoaga-McDonald-Franklin) could not have worked out any better.
In reality the credit belongs to the entire football operations staff, but as the face of the group, Baalke is the one receiving much of the praise. He has begun hauling home some Executive of the Year Hardware and it should continue in the coming weeks.
The 49ers face numerous questions heading into this offseason, but one reason I have some level of optimism is because of the bang-up job Baalke and company did last year. You could look all the way back to the Ted Ginn trade shortly after Baalke took over McCloughan's duties. Baalke hasn't been perfect, but he's been good enough that people can have some level of confidence in the competence of this staff moving forward.
Head Coach? Check.
New Stadium? Check.
Harbaugh and Baalke took full advantage of their opportunities, but Jed York stepped up and helped change the image of 49ers ownership. The York family struggled early in their ownership, but they had begun turning the corner, and you could say they completed that turn with Jed York's 2011. He got Harbaugh and Baalke in place, and he followed that up by getting the team within shouting distance of a new football stadium. The team secured the needed loan and will likely have the official ground-breaking this spring. Not too bad a year for Jed York.
Maybe he didn't turn into a 4,500 yard, 35 touchdown QB, but he did what was required in this offense and he basically resurrected his career in stunning fashion. Given how long the 49ers held on to Smith and how badly things got in 2010, the emotional turnaround in 2011 is one for the history books. Inspired by a head coach that knew how to coach him, Alex Smith took a step forward in 2011. Whether that means anything for 2012 or beyond is for another day. We have no idea what the future holds but we'll always have The Run and The Grab (or whatever you want to call it).
The Inconvenient Truth had one of his best years since his record-setting 2006, all while dealing with a host of bumps and bruises that cost him playing time. Although he almost reached a career high in carries, the franchise is slowly beginning the transition that will eventually send Frank to the bench. It may happen in 2012, it may happen later, but however it happens, it will not replace the fact that Frank Gore will go down as one of the top running backs in franchise history.
2011 saw Gore get his first playoff appearance, but from a historical perspective, he set the 49ers NFL franchise rushing record, passing Joe Perry. He is a different kind of running back than some of the many greats in franchise history, but he is firmly in the discussion of all-time greats.
While Justin Smith's stats were not career highs this year, you could make an argument he had the best season of his career. Just look at his two monster plays in 1) tracking down Jeremy Maclin to save the 49ers-Eagles game and 2) batting down Eli Manning's pass inside the 49ers ten yard line to potentially save the 49ers-Giants regular season contest. He has almost a closer mentality for this team and it showed in the way he hammered home games.
This doesn't even get into his ridiculous bull rush of left tackles that pushed them into quarterbacks and allowed him to reach over the top and yank the QBs down. Maybe he should patent that move because it is absolutely filthy.
How's about that 49ers rookie class? The 49ers netted an impressive haul of playing time from their rookie class as five of the ten draft picks received extensive playing time. Aldon Smith (1st), Chris Culliver (3rd), Kendall Hunter (4th), Colin Jones (6th) and Bruce Miller (7th) were all prominently involved at their given position.
Miller was the only "starter" but the rest of that group was prominently involved in rotations. Jones was basically a special teams starter once he got off the practice squad, Smith was basically a nickel starter and Culliver operated as the third cornerback for most of the season. Kendall Hunter had his touches go up and down throughout the season, but he had a very solid year finishing with 668 total yards of offense.
There is plenty of reason for excitement in 2012 with a host of players returning from injury or potentially seeing even more playing time. Seventh round corner Curtis Holcomb and Dontavia Bogan both received a lot of praise heading into the season but had to go on IR early. Ian Williams and Demarcus Dobbs both made the 53-man roster as undrafted free agents and will look to make a further impact in their second season. Williams was inactive for all but one game, while Dobbs worked his way onto the active roster when Will Tukuafu went on injured reserve in early October.
David Akers/Andy Lee
Maybe special teams didn't quite wrap up like we would have wanted, but what else can you say about the 49ers dynamic punter and kicker? Although the glass half empty view would be the 49ers offense struggled and thus Akers/Lee were desperately needed. But even independent of any offensive struggles, they were beasts. Akers had career highs across the board, including from 50+, while Andy Lee set the single season record for net yardage.
My favorite Andy Lee story from 2011 was when he booted a punt down inside the ten but off-setting penalties forced a re-kick and he dropped the next punt down near the one. Now THAT is pretty bad-ass.
I could go into players all day long, and we'll have plenty of reviews and recaps of every single player. In the comments, feel free to discuss any and every player that did something great this year. For now though, let's move on to some highlights from a season filled with crazy games.
Ted Ginn Jr. Saves The Day
The 49ers held a 19-17 lead on the Seahawks in week one but the Seahawks had just scored and seemed to have momentum on their side. And then Ted Ginn struck. And then Ted Ginn struck again. He would not return another touchdown the rest of the season, but this set the tone for a strong 2011 campaign in the return game for Ginn.
49ers Come Back Against Michael Vick, Eagles
The Eagles jumped out early and looked like they were going to roll over the 49ers, taking a 23-3 lead in the third quarter. However, the 49ers defense adjusted and Alex Smith and the 49ers offense blew up in the third quarter to get back into this game. And of course, it was capped by Justin Smith running down Jeremy Maclin and forcing a fumble before he could go down in field goal range.
Alex Smith To Delanie Walker Stuns Undefeated Lions
I gotta say, this was one of the sweeter wins of the season. The Detroit Lions were big talkers early in the season, but the loss to San Francisco sort of put them in a bit of a tail spin as they lost four of six after this game. Alex Smith did not have a great game, but he stepped up when it mattered with a huge touchdown pass to Delanie Walker to win it near the end of regulation.
We all know of the Jim Harbaugh-Jim Schwartz scuffle that occurred after the 49ers defeated the Lions. But rather than show that video, how about three seconds with the best line of the day?
49ers Clinch Playoff Berth With Win Over Rams
The 49ers defense pitched a shutout in defeating the Rams 26-0 and clinching the NFC West title in Week 13. Here is Coach Harbaugh's speech following the game. I don't think this was necessarily his best post-game speech, but it was a fun one.
Actually, this one following the victory over the Lions is probably my favorite. To Alex Smith: CLUTCH! CLUTCH!
Aldon Smith's Coming Out Party
49ers fans knew what was up with 99 Problems long before the national audience, but his Monday Night Football performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers got him well-deserved national exposure. Aldon had 2.5 sacks fo Ben Roethlisberger using a combination of power and speed moves to fling around the huge Steelers QB like rag doll. This isn't the best video of one of the sacks, but it is all I could find.
49ers Defeat New Orleans Saints in Divisional Round Shootout
This remains my favorite video from the win over the Saints. I posted it before, but for those that missed that post, it features highlights from the game and video of 49ers fans going crazy after the Smith-to-Davis touchdown pass. It was an amazing moment and watching it still gave me the chills and left a lump in my throat.
The 49ers season did not end the way any of us hoped it would and disappointed is to be expected. During the season, when something bad happened and people would say stuff about how nobody expected us to be in that position in the first place, my general response was that expectations change and that's why people were disappointed by any failures.
Well, with the season over and time to start reflecting on what we just experienced, it is a little easier to go back and realize just how much this team exceeded expectations. It was a magical season that the team will hopefully build on as they move forward into 2012.
Just remember....Who's Got It Better Than Us?!?!