Heading to Super Bowl XLVII, the San Francisco 49ers have returned to prominence in storybook fashion. We discuss their tale and how they got here.
Like Aaron Sorkin wrote for 2011's Moneyball, "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball" - I think the same could be said for football.
After a decade of abysmal seasons, the San Francisco 49ers have officially been resurrected under head coach Jim Harbaugh. In Cinderella fashion, this 49ers team will be going to Super Bowl XLVII to once again compete for a world championship.
From 2003-2010, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary all attempted to carry on the legacy of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports - each as unsuccessful as the next.
49ers owner Jed York has worked tirelessly, like his uncle Eddie DeBartolo had, to find his head coach. DeBartolo had gone through Monte Clark, Ken Meyer and Fred O'Conner before he found his man.
York and DeBartolo both discovered their franchise's next architect in state. With Stanford coaches Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers were able to bring in offensive minds with a tremendous ability to motivate.
They turned the entire franchise around almost immediately, setting a new standard and instilling a winning environment. And as soon as both coaches identified their team's quarterback - Joe Montana and Colin Kaepernick - they made trips to the Super Bowl.
Walsh and Montana won in 1981. Will Harbaugh and Kaepernick win in 2012?
In Week 11, the 49ers moved forward with Kaepernick at quarterback. And though he immediately added more explosiveness to the offense, Gore and Davis saw less production.
In the last six games of the regular season, Davis had six receptions for 61 yards and no touchdowns. In the last two postseason games, Davis has six receptions for 150 yards and a touchdown, averaging a whopping 25.0 yards per catch.
Gore has been running like a man possessed this postseason, totaling 257 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns.
Vernon Davis and Frank Gore have been the lifeblood of this football team and it was beautiful to see them emerge this postseason, particularly in the NFC Championship versus the Falcons.
Gore (2005) and Davis (2006) were drafted and immediately became premier role players in this offense. Gore, a third-rounder from Miami, is now franchise's all-time leading rusher, cementing him next to the likes of Joe Montana (passing) and Jerry Rice (receiving).
But together, Gore and Davis have seen some hard time. From 2005-2010, the Niners suffered six straight losing seasons, during which time they went 37-59 (.385 winning percentage).
Gore and Davis have since gone 24-7-1 (.765 winning percentage) in two seasons under Jim Harbaugh.
The system and identity
This team's identity has evolved significantly. For the past few years, this has been known as a smash mouth team led by it's defense. And while they made strides in year-one during the 2011 campaign, they are a completely different beast right now.
The most notable and impacting factor was the move at quarterback. The insertion of Kaepernick into the lineup helped this offense grow into an efficient multi-dimensional attack. They have evolved into this college-esque Kaepernick-led offense known as the Pistol, which is largely an option-based offensive package.
It allows the quarterback to read the defense and react accordingly by (1) handing the ball to the running back (2) pulling the ball and throwing it or (3) running it himself.
Between Kaepernick's physical abilities and comfort within the system, this unit has been more dynamic as a whole. In four of his nine career starts, Kaepernick put up 30+ on Chicago, New Orleans, New England and Green Bay. He has also shown his ability to respond, most notably on the late-game Michael Crabtree TD against the Patriots, following the pick-6 versus the Packers and in the NFC Championship against the Falcons.
In their last match, the Niners were down 17-0 on the road at the Georgia and it looked like all hope was gone. By returning to their roots -- ground-and-pound run game and hard-nosed defense -- the 49ers were able to make a miraculous comeback. Once again, it showed the fire and clutch nature of this team.
It reminded me of San Francisco's coming out game versus Philadelphia in 2011. The 49ers were down 20-3 at halftime (17 points), losing to a talented Eagles team. It was starting to look like the same old 49ers that we knew under Singletary, Nolan and Erickson.
But there was no quit in this team. With second-half touchdowns from Vernon Davis and Frank Gore, and some great play from NaVorro Bowman, the Niners won an unlikely game on the road. After losing games like that in heartbreaking fashion for years -- against Atlanta twice in 2009 and 2010 -- the 49ers came full circle, showing their capable of being that storied franchise again that can come from behind and win games.