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49ers Year-by-Year: 2006

Do you remember the overwhelming sense of optimism that was following the 49ers shortly after the 2006 season? Do you remember the adulation of Frank Gore? Do you remember the sudden wave of belief in Alex Smith? Do you remember just how good it felt to feel like the franchise was returning to a tradition of winning?

If you don't, then you should definitely read this. It might remind you.





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 10

@ Arizona Cardinals

L: 27-34



Sept. 17

St. Louis Rams

W: 13-20



Sept. 24

Philadelphia Eagles

L: 38-24



Oct. 1

@ Kansas City Chiefs

L: 0-41



Oct. 8

Oakland Raiders

W: 20-34



Oct. 15

San Diego Chargers

L: 48-19



Oct. 29

@ Chicago Bears

L: 10-41



Nov. 5

Minnesota Vikings

W: 3-9



Nov. 12

@ Detroit Lions

W: 19-13



Nov. 19

Seattle Seahawks

W: 14-20



Nov. 26

@ St. Louis Rams

L: 17-20



Dec. 3

@ New Orleans Saints

L: 10-34



Dec. 10

Green Bay Packers

L: 30-19



Dec. 14

@ Seattle Seahawks

W: 24-14



Dec. 24

Arizona Cardinals

L: 26-20



Dec. 31

@ Denver Broncos

W: 26-23



Head Coach: Mike Nolan

Key Losses: OC Mike McCarthy, RB Kevan Barlow, FB Fred Beasley, WR Brandon Lloyd, Jeremy Newberry (DNP 2006), LB Julian Peterson, DE Andre Carter, CB Ahmed Plummer, QB Tim Rattay, DB Mike Rumph, LB Jamie Winborn

Key Additions: OC Norv Turner, TE Vernon Davis, LG Larry Allen, LB Manny Lawson, CB Walt Harris, S Mark Roman, LB Parys Haralson

For Mike Nolan and the 49ers, 2005 had been a frustrating season. While the coach did his best to put a positive spin on a season that was simply spinning out of control, he was also working hard to evaluate each individual player's place on the team in his system. One of the defining characteristics of the Dennis Erickson and Steve Mariucci regimes had been one of open dissension - a trend that Terrell Owens started, but that losing and ineffectual coaching perpetuated through the post-Owens years. One of the reasons that Mike Nolan was given the head coaching job was that he came with the promise of change. His leadership came with the steadfast values of character and system. If a player lacked character or didn't fit the system, there was going to be zero tolerance.

And by the end of 2005, Mike Nolan knew which players fit and which players didn't. And he had his work cut out for him.

First, though, he'd have to deal with his coaching staff. Despite coaching one of the league's worst offenses, offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy was signed early in the offseason to be the new head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Nolan moved decisively to land coordinating legend (and head coaching chump) Norv Turner, fresh off a failed stint as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. With Norv Turner came a departure from the West Coast style offense that the 49ers had run for well over 20 seasons. Nolan believed that Turner's more traditional offense - one that he had great success running for many years in Dallas with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and company - was better suited to the skills of Alex Smith and a supporting cast that would rely greatly on second year running back Frank Gore.

The issue of the roster would not be so simple. Nolan moved aggressively, but decisively with his players. Having already traded quarterback Tim Rattay earlier in the previous season, Nolan took aim at cleaning out a wide range of roster problems. Whether he was cutting bait on players like Fred Beasley, who was openly at odds with the coach's philosophies, Julian Peterson, who was staring down a paycheck that the team couldn't afford, Andre Carter, who had never lived up to his billing, Ahmed Plummer, whose history with injuries had ruined a once promising career, or players like Kevan Barlow and Brandon Lloyd who fit any combination of these same criteria, Nolan made no apologies for his roster cuts.

But Nolan wasn't simply interested in paring down the roster. His stated aim from the very first was to win the division, and winning meant more than having bad players with good chemistry. The rebuild would require acquisitions - both through free agency and the draft.

Most significantly, Nolan signed legendary left guard - and a former player under Norv Turner - Larry Allen to shore up the offensive line. He addressed new holes in the secondary by signing veteran defensive backs Walt Harris and Mark Roman. In the draft, he made a statement on offense, snagging dynamic tight end Vernon Davis early to give second year quarterback Alex Smith a legitimate target to complement the signing of deep threat wide receiver Antonio Bryant. The losses far outnumbered the additions, but with any luck the quality of the additions - from both a talent and a chemistry level - would far outweigh that of the many losses.

The first game of the season, in Arizona against the Cardinals, had a chance to be a statement game. It ended up being a testament both to the team's progress and its continued need for vast improvement. Among the game's highlights were the play of Alex Smith and Frank Gore. Smith was 23 of 40 for 288 yards and a touchdown. It had taken him nearly the entire 2005 season to throw his first touchdown, and he had one already in the first game of the new season. Frank Gore's effectiveness in rushing for 87 yards and two touchdowns while receiving for 82 more yards was a particular highlight as memories of Kevan Barlow's inexplicable ineffectiveness were quickly washed away. However, a Kwame Harris holding penalty nullified what would have been a 50+ yard touchdown connection between Smith and Antonio Bryant. The mistake conceivably cost the game, which the 49ers lost by a touchdown.

In week two, Smith again threw for 200+ yards and a touchdown while Frank Gore dazzled on the ground and through the air, but it was the defense that paved the way for an eventual victory in the home opener against the division rival Rams. With six sacks rattling Marc Bulger out of his rhythm, the 49ers defense kept the former Greatest Show on Turn in line on the way to the win.

It wouldn't all be so heartening, though. In the coming weeks, the 49ers suffered discouraging losses to the Eagles and the Chiefs, as weaknesses among their emerging stars were exposed by superior talent. It began to become apparent that Frank Gore might have a costly fumbling issue and that the team might need a short yardage alternative to protect against turnovers. Right tackle Kwame Harris continued to frustrate the coaches with his ineffective and often downright poor line play. Alex Smith suffered the painful reminders of his experience, as defensive pressure forced him into poor decisions and bad throws. The end result: a 1-3 record, and questions about whether the team had truly improved. Mike Nolan remained steadfast in his belief in the current roster, but couldn't help acknowledging the team's almost stunning lack of depth.

Luckily, the Raiders were worse.

Against Andrew Walter, Randy Moss, and a slapdash defense, the 49ers found their rhythm again. As Alex Smith threw for three touchdowns, Frank Gore paved the way with 134 rushing yards. On defense, it was the Walt Harris show, as the corner picked off three passes for the first time in his career. It was a convincing effort, but it was also against a pitiful opponent. If the 49ers couldn't replicate this performance against stiffer competition, the season was as good as over.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, they were about to face stiffer competition. Between the star-studded San Diego Chargers and the undefeated Chicago Bears, the 49ers held little chance of putting win number three of the 2006 season in the history books. The two losses brought natural questions from fans and the media, but - for the first time since George Seifert was the head coach, the players refused to speak negatively about each other, their coach or the overall state of the team. The locker room was still Mike Nolan's, and though results had yet to come the change was perfectly clear.

And then, at 2-5, things began to turn around.

Facing the Vikings, the 49ers' ever susceptible defense took control of the game for the first time since the second week of the season, leading to a 9-3 victory. Then Gore got going again, torching the Lions for over 150 in a 13-19 victory. Then, in the team's most complete effort of the season - including solid play from Smith, spectacular play from Gore, and a stifling defensive effort from the likes of Marques Douglas, Roderick Green, Walt Harris and Keith Lewis - the 49ers got only their second win of the season against a team with a winning record, to climb to 5-5 against the division rival Seattle Seahawks.

The win ensured that the team would have more wins than they'd had in either of previous two seasons. It capped the team's first three-game winning streak in four years. It revitalized a fanbase that was starving for a winning product. And it once again showcased the talented young pieces that it was hoped would form the core of this team going forward.

But of course, the team was young. And as they had found out earlier in the year, the team was without depth. They followed up their three game winning streak with a three-game losing streak. And they looked again for all the world like the same young team from the first half of the season just trying to find an identity. They followed a controversial loss to the Rams with a weak-willed blowout loss to the Saints, and followed that with a similarly poor effort against the Packers. The only positive following the losses seemed to be Vernon Davis's long-awaited emergence as a receiver against the Packers. Unfortunately, the loss sealed the door on another consecutive season that would end with the team at or below .500.

But just as quickly as things had turned sour, the young 49ers once again rewarded their loyal fans. With over 100 yards in the fourth quarter alone, Frank Gore powered a late win against the Seahawks, securing a season sweep of the division series. But more important than Gore's performance was that of Alex Smith. With the team down 3-7 and on the ropes in the fourth quarter, Smith took the game into his own hands. First firing an eight-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis to take the lead, Smith later extended the lead with a gutsy 20-yard touchdown pass under pressure to Frank Gore. Nearing the end of the game he iced the win with an 18-yard scoring scramble to put the 49ers up 24-7. By taking control of the game and manufacturing what was a true defeat of the Seahawks as much as it was a simple victory, Alex Smith put together what coaches and fans alike termed a career defining performance - and one that they hoped would carry him into a new era in his that career.

And amazingly enough, at 6-8 on the year, the win kept the 49ers in the playoff hunt.

Unfortunately, the playoff run was about to end, but that fact couldn't take away from the significance that the 49ers were playing meaningful football games in week 16. It had been a long time coming. And even with the week 16 loss to the Cardinals, optimism followed a team that was suddenly and clearly moving in the right direction.

Finally, in week 17, the 49ers made their final statement. Playing spoiler against the playoff hopeful Denver Broncos, the 49ers put together yet another complete effort. Another competent effort from Alex Smith and the defense were this completely overshadowed by the accomplishments of Frank Gore. On a night in which the 49ers upset the Broncos 26-23, Frank Gore rushed not only for 153 yards, but shattered franchise records in the process. His 1,695 rushing yard eclipsed Garrison Hearst's former franchise record for a single season of 1,570. Gore's 2,180 all-purpose yards also broke the team's single-season record. In only his second season, Frank Gore had become one of the most accomplished running backs in team history. To cap it off, Gore led the NFC in total rushing yards - yet another 49ers' first for the young star.

Things were looking up for the 49ers.

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