Fooch's Note: This is a fantastic FanPost and I think a good way to wrap up last year's Cinderella story before heading back to business this weekend against the Packers!
On the eve of the 2012 NFL regular season, there is no better time to revisit the 2011 San Francisco 49ers, recollect the most heartening moments of their season, and most importantly, reconcile with how it all ended.
Admittedly, I haven’t re-watched a single play from the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants.
Kyle Williams’ muffed punt. Williams’ fumble. Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard game winning field goal.
It’s all painful and agonizing to recall, I know (and equally painful and agonizing to write about), but as any good shrink will tell you, it’s better to let it all out than to bottle it up. So for the sake of our collective mental well-being, I propose that we treat this article like a group therapy session, because I can’t be the only person to have forcefully purged all happenings of January 22nd, 2012 from memory.
FIRST THINGS FIRST…
In a season where the 49ers experienced unprecedented success short of bringing home the hardware, it’s easy to forget that before it even started, nobody - and I mean nobody - expected the squad to get as far as they did. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself…
34 "expert" predictions and not a single one got it right.
Now before you log onto your Twitter accounts to virtually crucify Peter King and Bucky Brooks, they had every reason to believe the 49ers would fall flat on their faces last season. Every team in the league was hindered by a truncated offseason due to a labor dispute between team owners and players. The lockout prevented players from working out at team facilities and prohibited coaches from communicating playbook information with their players.
To complicate matters further, the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh from Stanford University to be the team’s new head coach earlier in the offseason. Harbaugh would be the 49ers’ third head coach since 2005 and the first ‘offensive-minded’ head coach since Dennis Erickson in 2004.
(In an interview from the May 2011 issue of Northside, San Francisco…)
"When I look at what we are trying to rebuild, the legacy that my uncle started with the San Francisco 49ers and Bill Walsh, Jim understands that," begins 49ers CEO Jed York. "We’re not trying to duplicate that, but [Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke] understand the blueprint of what we’re trying to do."
York continues, "When you get into the tactical level, Jim understands offense better than most people in the world. And when you look at what he’s done with quarterbacks, how he scouts quarterbacks, how he develops quarterbacks, that’s something that’s essential if you want to compete for Super Bowls in the National Football League."
But Harbaugh didn’t have the Joe Montana or Steve Young that Walsh had. Harbaugh had Alex Smith.
As the 1st overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, hopes were extraordinarily high for the 20-year-old quarterback from the University of Utah. And in the 49ers’ quarterback-rich history, Smith was an ant in the company of giants. To say that he underwhelmed would be a massive understatement.
In Smith’s first three seasons in the NFL, he threw 19 touchdown passes to 31 interceptions with a measly 54% completion percentage. On more than one occasion, Smith would wind up to make a throw and drive his arm forward only to have the football slip out of his hand and fall behind him. For the young quarterback, it was like a comedy of errors. For the 49ers Faithful, it was a horror flick that couldn’t end soon enough.
In a span of six years, Smith played under six different offensive coordinators, lost the starting job to four different quarterbacks, had two seasons cut short due to injury, and publicly feuded with two head coaches – the latter, Mike Singletary, called Smith "meek." Out of 50 career starts through 2010, Smith would win only 19 of them.
So when Smith’s contract expired at the end of the 2010 season, it wasn’t surprising that fans wanted his bags packed and his ticket punched for the first flight out of San Francisco. Smith’s friends and family were convinced he would never don scarlet and gold ever again as they toasted to ‘new beginnings’ at the dinner table. But while the majority of the fan base, sportswriters, and previous head coaches had given up on Smith, there was one man who still believed.
"I've been studying Alex Smith and watching him, and I believe that Alex Smith can be a winning quarterback in the Nation Football League," Harbaugh claimed, with a childlike curiosity. "I'm excited to work with him, get to know him."
AND THAT’S ALL IT TOOK…
The lockout literally locked out players from team facilities, but that didn’t stop them from taking matters into their own hands and organizing private team workouts. While the work stoppage was briefly annulled for a weekend in late April, Smith stopped by team headquarters where he was provided with a copy of Harbaugh’s playbook - a mutual show of faith between the coach and quarterback.
Remember that Smith was an unrestricted free agent meaning he was free to sign with any team in the league. Despite this, it was Smith who would take the initiative by scheduling two weeks of informal practices for the 49ers at San Jose State University. Attendance at ‘Camp Alex’ wasn’t perfect, but many key veterans – Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, and Joe Staley - were present and accounted for. It was there that both seasoned vets and newly-drafted rookies would get acquainted with the new playbook – without the direction of team coaches.
"It makes it more difficult, not having any guidance," guard Adam Snyder admitted. "It’s nice to have the turnout we have. Everybody's out here working real hard and excited about the team and excited about the opportunity we have this season."
The work stoppage lasted 130 days before finally being lifted on July 25th. The very next day, ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton would report that Smith agreed to terms on a 1-year contract ensuring his return to the San Francisco 49ers for one more season.
From earlier in the year when Smith was rumored to be returning to the day it was made official, fan reaction was…about what you expected:
So in Smith’s seventh season in San Francisco, with his seventh offensive coordinator, under a sea of scrutinizing eyes, it began again. Coach Harbaugh had less than three weeks to prepare his squad for their first preseason game on August 12th. The 49ers would travel to the Louisiana Superdome to face the New Orleans Saints.
The blitz was relentless. Smith got knocked around and slammed into the ground time and time again while the Faithful collectively cringed and groaned. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dialed up the blitz 18 (!) times, sacking Smith six times and forcing him to fumble twice. The 49ers would lose their preseason opener by a score of 24-3.
In the days that followed, rumors surfaced that Williams was told by Saints head coach Sean Payton to ‘bring the heat’, because coach Harbaugh neglected to contact coach Payton beforehand to discuss the parameters of how to approach the game. Both coaches would eventually quash the validity of those claims, but regardless, the 49ers’ offensive line was exposed and embarrassed that day.
The criticism bled into the regular season as San Francisco’s front five put on yet another shaky performance against the Cincinnati Bengals. The 49ers’ offensive line would surrender five more sacks bringing the season total to 11 sacks through the first three games.
"Contrary to everyone’s belief, we don’t suck," stated Staley, the team’s starting left tackle. "We’re good players, and we play well. It comes down to everybody executing. It takes all eleven guys. It doesn’t take five offensive linemen to make a running play go. It takes fullbacks. It takes tight ends. It takes quarterbacks carrying out the fakes, wide receivers blocking downfield. It takes all eleven guys, and we all do our job, and we all have to do our part."
It did take the efforts of all eleven men on the field, on both sides of the ball. They all had their jobs, and they all did their part. Staley would be proven right in the weeks to come.
WHO’S GOT IT BETTER…
Week 4. October 2nd, 2011. The Philadelphia Eagles.
Halfway through the 3rd quarter, the 49ers faced a 23-3 deficit. For two and a half quarters, they were the same old sorry 49ers of seasons past, defined by mistakes and missed opportunities. Then, Smith dropped back and threw a dart to receiver Josh Morgan who walked in untouched for the score. 23-10. Later in the quarter, Smith threw a touchdown strike to Davis to close the gap. 23-17. With three minutes left in the 4th quarter, Frank Gore sliced through the arm tackle of Asante Samuel to give the 49ers the lead. 24-23. With 2 minutes and 15 seconds left in the game, Michael Vick threw the ball to Jeremy Maclin on a designed screen play. Maclin caught the pass by the 50-yard line and faltered for a second before beginning to run up field…
In 5 out of the last 6 regular seasons, the 49ers and Eagles were scheduled to face each other. The 49ers lost every single matchup. The Eagles would only need 10-15 more yards to set up Alex Henery for the game-winning field goal to extend the 49ers’ losing streak.
Justin Smith intended to break it.
In a truly herculean effort, the 285-pound defensive end barreled 15 yards up the field after Maclin, dove forward, punched his left arm through Maclin’s clutch, and dislodged the ball. Dashon Goldson recovered it for the 49ers. They held onto the lead and secured a win against the Eagles for the first time since 2003.
Week 6. October 16th, 2011. The Detroit Lions.
The 4-1 San Francisco 49ers traveled to Motown, USA to face the undefeated Detroit Lions who were 5-0 for the first time since 1956. Neither team disappointed in the matchup billed as the "NFL Game of the Week."
It was a battle of the trenches in every sense of the phrase. Each side exchanged blows and commanded leads before tussling into the 4th quarter with a score of 19-15. The Lions were on top, but would not stay there. The 49ers drove the ball down the field to the Lions’ 6-yard line. 4th and goal. Smith, out of a shotgun formation, received the snap, looked to his right, and fired at tight end Delanie Walker. Running a quick inside slant, Walker snagged the ball and galloped into the endzone for the game-winning touchdown.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, a notorious trash-talker, stood on the sideline stoic.
Week 10. November 13th, 2011. The New York Giants.
In the minds of many critics, this was the first true test for San Francisco, who was 7-1 on the season.
It was a fight of field goals until the 4th quarter. Vernon Davis cracked the endzone to score the game’s first touchdown making the score 20-13. After Carlos Rogers intercepted an errant Eli Manning throw, Kendall Hunter would walk in another touchdown.
The Giants had one last drive to tie the game. On 3rd and 2 with 1 minute and 19 seconds left in the game, Manning handed the ball off to D.J. Ware. No gain. The clock hit 40 seconds and continued to roll. 4th and 2, last chance. Manning received the snap and stood tall in a safe pocket. His eyes found an open Victor Cruz. Manning released the ball into the air, and again, it would be defensive end Justin Smith who would clinch the win. Smith leapt into the air to bat down the pass, and the 49ers moved to 8-1 on the season.
Living on the east coast is a bit of an issue for someone who follows the 49ers. Sure, I have to deal with drunken, unruly Eagles fans, but what’s worse – 49ers games are rarely ever televised on local channels. My options are either to drop a few hundred dollars for DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, or go to a local sports bar, spend $5 on a beer, and make it last three hours. As a poor college student who loves beer, I found both avenues equally grim, but ultimately opted for the latter.
So on every Sunday last season, you could find me at the same bar, sitting in the same spot, wearing the same 49ers cap. Lager to my left, Twitter to my right (via Blackberry). I actually enjoyed coming to this particular sports bar, because there was always a healthy mix of team jerseys in the crowd. You had the bunch of midnight greens and mustard yellows, for sure, but there were also seal browns and powdered blues. Wherever you looked, you found a group of fans for every team. But for the first few weeks of the season, I sat there by myself - the only bit of scarlet red in sight.
Then a funny thing began to happen. As the wins piled up (2-1, 3-1), I saw more scarlet (4-1, 5-1), and I saw more gold (6-1, 7-1). Before I knew it (8-1, 9-1), I was in a scarlet sea (10-2, 11-3), and the 49ers were in the playoffs (12-3, 13-3). The war cry was loud and clear.
On April 5th, 2012, months after the 2011-12 season ended, Sean Pamphilon, an independent filmmaker, released an audio tape of New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams giving an impassioned speech to his defensive unit. It was the night before the Saints were to face the 49ers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
"We don't fucking apologize for how we're going to play," Williams began. "You're here for a reason. You're here because we saw in you, and we hope we picked the right person that won't apologize for competing the way we have to compete. There may be better athletes, but not defensive football players that have to go into war tomorrow and play the way we fucking play."
What started off sounding like typical ‘coach speak’ to hype up players quickly turned into something unsettling. Instructions to hit the quarterback’s head, suggestions of hurting players in a pileup, and references to former injuries…
"Kill the head and the body will die," Williams intimated. "We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways. Little 32 [Kendall Hunter], we want to knock the fuck out of him. He has no idea what he's in for."
"We hit fucking [Alex] Smith right there," commanded Williams, as he pointed to his chin. "Remember me; I’ve got the first one. I've got the first one." Williams rubbed his fingers together in a gesture indicative of money. "Go lay that motherfucker out."
"We need to find out in the first two series of the game, the little wide receiver, number 10 [Kyle Williams], about his concussion," Williams continued. "We need to fucking put a lick on him right now. He needs to decide. He needs to fucking decide."
"We need to decide whether [Michael] Crabtree wants to be a fake ass prima donna, or he wants to be a tough guy. We need to find it out. He becomes human when we fucking take out that outside ACL."
"We need to decide on how many times we can beat Frank Gore's head. We need to decide how many times…we can fucking put Vernon Davis' ankles over the pile."
Williams proudly recollected the Saints’ first encounter with the 49ers earlier in the season.
"Alex Smith, in the preseason game, when you guys fucking avalanched that motherfucker, [he] had eyes that big. You all saw them."
"Another thing we always say, in this room, is never apologize for the way we compete. If you're in this room, you understand that. We don't apologize."
Divisional Round. January 14th, 2012. The New Orleans Saints.
The last time Candlestick Park tasted playoff football was almost exactly a decade before when the 49ers hosted the New York Giants in 2002.
Then, it was Dennis Erickson. Now, it was Jim Harbaugh.
For many San Francisco starters - namely Smith, Gore, Davis, and Willis - it was their first playoff game ever since being drafted by the 49ers.
"I'm excited," Smith confessed, in an interview with ABC from January 11th. "This is why you play, so you can get a ticket to the dance. We're excited to be hosting a home game. Obviously this is new territory for a lot of us, me included. To still be playing football right now is exciting."
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, on the other hand, had been there, done that. While Smith was struggling during his first six seasons in San Francisco, Brees led the Saints to three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title.
Though the 49ers had home-field advantage, the Saints were heavily-favored. New Orleans had the #1 ranked offense (net total yards) in the league. San Francisco had the #2 ranked defense (points allowed). What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object?
Saints received the ball first. It only took eight plays for New Orleans to break into redzone territory and threaten to score. Then, on 3rd and 6, at San Francisco’s 7-yard line, Brees rolled right and fired a pass to Pierre Thomas who ran the ball to the 2-yard line before crashing into safety Donte Whitner.
"...Kill the head and the body will die…we want to knock the fuck out of him…"
Thomas was stopped cold in his tracks and fell backwards as the ball left his motionless arms. Willis recovered for San Francisco.
"…We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake ass prima donna, or he wants to be a tough guy. We need to find it out…"
3rd and 4 in the 1st quarter, Smith hits Crabtree on a slant for a touchdown.
"…We hit fucking Smith right there…go lay that motherfucker out..."
3rd and 8 in the 3rd quarter, Justin Smith knifes through the Saints’ offensive line and slams Brees into the ground.
"…We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways..."
1st and 10 in the 4th quarter, Gore runs up the middle for a gain of 42 yards.
"Alex Smith, in the preseason game, when you guys fucking avalanched that motherfucker, had eyes that big. You all saw them…"
3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter, Smith runs a naked bootleg 28 yards up the field for a touchdown.
"We need to decide how many times…we can fucking put Vernon Davis' ankles over the pile."
3rd and 3 in the 4th quarter, 14 seconds left in the game. Smith hits Davis on a post route for the last touchdown of the game.
36-32. 49ers win.
Okay. One last jab at Peter King.
As I saw Vernon shuffle over to the sideline with tears in his eyes, I’m not afraid to admit that I also began to cry. Yes – despite being a grown man in the presence of grown man friends – I put my hands over my face and wept like a little girl in the middle of a sports bar. Vernon fell into the arms of coach Harbaugh and was swarmed by a slew of other teammates before running into Patrick Willis. And in that moment, as Patrick put his head against Vernon's, it was like an emotional realization, a spiritual culmination of all the hard work invested up until that point.
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)
San Francisco would advance to the NFC Championship Game to face the New York Giants. One win away from the Super Bowl. In a season that began with so much doubt and so little hope. The charismatic rookie head coach. The jaded quarterback searching for redemption. The long-suffering franchise living in the shadows of its own former glory…
Kyle Williams’ muffed punt. Williams’ fumble. Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard game winning field goal.
It was too good to be true.
"It’s a tough one," coach Harbaugh admitted, after the loss. "It’ll take a while to get over it, but we’ll get over it. This team is not defeated. A man can be destroyed, but he can’t be defeated as long as his team knows that there’s hope."
If the San Francisco 49ers believe that there’s hope, then so should the 49ers Faithful. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of hope, and for the first time in a long time, it’s justifiable. Long gone are the days of apathetic ownership and an incompetent front office. Long gone are the days of inept coaching and a non-competitive roster. This is the most talented roster San Francisco has assembled in years, and they’re only getting better. Just because it wasn’t meant to be last season doesn’t mean it never will.
In the National Football League, any promise is a falsehood; there is no such thing as a sure thing. But if you can believe in one thing heading into the 2012 season, believe in this: the 49ers aren’t finished. For now, you can shelve the mental image of Alex Smith hoisting up a Lombardi trophy under a shower of confetti, but it may become a reality sooner than you think.
Wouldn’t that be a perfect ending?
Follow Anthony Ly on Twitter: @TheBellamores