Patrick Willis and Justin Smith reflect on the turning point for the San Francisco 49ers. Both men traced it back to 2011 in Philadelphia.
Every great story has a beginning.
For the reborn San Francisco 49ers team, it began on October 2nd, 2011 in Philadelphia, PA. On that Sunday, the Niners were set for their fourth regular season game under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. At 2-1, they went on the road to face a much-hyped Eagles team.
They had key pieces returning from 2010, which included Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy. They also landed the offseason's most coveted free agent when they signed Nnamdi Asomugha. But that didn't stop them from signing Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and trading for Domique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The high-powered Eagles started fast, and before the 49ers knew what hit them, they were down 20 points. This blue-collar 49ers team looked like the 49ers team of old. The went into the locker room at halftime down three scores -- stinging with that familiar feeling.
The 49ers define what followed as the turning point for the franchise.
San Francisco lineman Justin Smith touched on the subject with the media on Wednesday.
On what changed the team into a Super Bowl contender:
We go to Philadelphia, they are up 20-0 at halftime, and we are able to come back. I think it just kind of cemented this group, like ‘OK, we've got something here, let's keep rolling. We are not feeling our way through the season anymore. We are starting to believe.' That winning attitude starts coming out. Even in Atlanta, we are down 17-0, the sideline never wavered. It's just a testament to the guys and the confidence and ability of this team to come back; score, stop them and get it fixed.
Patrick Willis made it a point to mention the Eagles game a day before Justin Smith did. As the two unquestioned leaders of the team, both men were able to point to this game with some conviction and say, 'that's when it took off for us.' This is when the team really "started to believe" as Smith said.
Willis elaborated on that day.
On whether there was a moment he could see a turning point:
The turning point for me in understanding what we have - anyone can pat you on the back, laugh with you, cut up with you when things are going good. It's when you go through those hard times, when you're in the heat of battle and things aren't going so well that you really find out a true man's character. Last year we were playing against the Eagles and the Eagles jumped out on us big time. We went into the locker room down 17 points. I've been part of a locker room whether it's players or coaches where guys are pointing the finger at one another. Guys are mad and saying this and that.
For some reason, that locker room, the coaches and the players came in and we were all like, ‘We've got ourselves in this. We have to get ourselves out.' Coach Harbaugh was like, ‘They said it wasn't going to be easy, but we don't like easy. We got ourselves down we have to fight out of it.' Our defensive coordinator, Coach (Vic) Fangio came in. He had every reason to go crazy on us. He said, ‘Guys you know what we got to do. Just calm down. Settle down and let's go play.' I just remember sitting back and watching him and being like, ‘Wow.' Whether we lost that game or won that game, to me, just to have that was amazing. Fortunately, we were able to go out there and win that game. Which put in more perspective the kind of leadership we have within our head coach and other coaches.
On what changed in the second half against the Eagles in 2011:
We just came out and calmed down, but the biggest thing was having our coaches believe in us the way they did. And having the players believe in one another the way we did. That's the key. I feel like if we came in there at halftime and everybody would have been yelling at one another and coaches yelling and cutting up; I don't think we would have gone out there with that kind of mindset. Let's just calm down and focus. We all believe in one another so let's go do it as opposed to going out there mentally mad at him.
On a day where Michael Vick had 491 yards of total offense, the 49ers rose to overcome a 23-3 deficit on the road with less than two quarters left of play. The 49ers defense did not allow a single point and the offense finally found a rhythm.
Vernon Davis and Frank Gore stepped up big time for the Niners in this game, just like they did against Atlanta in the NFC Championship. Gore had 15 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown, while Davis had 4 catches for 45 yards and a touchdown.
The defense came alive, making plays in the second half. Between the tackling from NaVorro Bowman and Dashon Goldson, the Niners were swarming. Aldon Smith also finished the day with 1.5 sacks on the elusive Vick. And perhaps the game-defining play was when Justin Smith ran down Maclin and punched the ball out, sealing the game for the Niners.
One of the things we've learned about Harbaugh's Niners is that when their backs are against a wall, that's when they play their best football. It began in Philly, but we saw it happen it two weeks later in Detroit with a game-winning TD to Delanie Walker.
How about a week later when the 49ers returned home to Candlestick to host the New York Giants?
The 49ers and Giants were battling and right when it looked like Eli Manning and his squad was going to take this game back, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis combine to make the game-sealing play. Manning was looking for his tight end, but Willis jammed him -- disrupting the timing -- and Smith put his arms up to bat down the quick pass. Game over.
And I'm sure you don't need me to reiterate how things played out against the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 Divisional Round.
The 49ers are a second half football team. They simply don't quit until the clock strikes double zeros. That day in Philadelphia really changed everything and gave this team an identity.