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The 2011 San Francisco 49ers: How Did They Get Here?

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has propelled the 49ers to unseen heights. (Photo Courtesy AP)

In previous years, going into a bye week would be a welcome reprieve, the dream of a successful season – let alone a playoff berth – having been crushed weeks before.

This year – to everyone’s surprise – the Niners couldn’t be flying higher.

The San Francisco 49ers are 5-1 heading into their bye week. Any 49ers fan would be lying if they thought that would be a reality two months ago. While the charismatic Jim Harbaugh – brought in from Stanford to replace the equally-charismatic, yet inexperienced, Mike Singletary – was the marquee hire of the offseason, it was still unclear what he could do with a team that finished an uninspired 6-10 in 2010. After all, with their NFC West counterpart Arizona Cardinals making highly-publicized moves, getting Kevin Kolb and drafting DB Patrick Peterson, Niner Nation was expecting the team to make moves of their own.

They didn’t. Other than drafting little-known DL prospect Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft (much to many pundits’ surprise), San Francisco moved forward with a roster not very different from the previous season. The defensive unit was promising – armed with All-Pro LB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith – though the offense was spotty, at best.

RB Frank Gore was starting to look washed up, even at only his sixth year in the league. Other than Michael Crabree at WR, and Vernon Davis at TE, there wasn’t much in the passing game to be afraid of.

Finally, with Harbaugh rolling with QB Alex Smith – a franchise signal-caller who everyone all but gave up on – fan forums were starting to speculate that Harbaugh was willing to tank 2011, hop on the #SuckForLuck train, and get the QB he coached at Palo Alto.

You could hear the collective facepalms of a million 49ers fans.

O, Ye of little faith.

The 49ers opened some eyes with an opening weekend win against the rival Seattle Seahawks, 33-17. It was an opening salvo for Harbaugh’s Niners, as they used two return TDs by Ted Ginn, Jr. to beat his old Pac-10 rival, Pete Carroll, at home. After an overtime loss at home to the Dallas Cowboys – a game that saw them lose a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter – many weren’t sure what they had in the red and gold.

Harbaugh, however, didn’t flinch, and that was reflected in his team. In a 13-8 slugfest against the Cincinnati Bengals, that saw the offense hold the ball for over 35 minutes, the 49ers showed some resiliency – even against a team in the Bengals that, at the time, no one took seriously.

The real test came against a dangerous Eagles squad that, at 1-2, was still considered an NFC juggernaut, just waiting to snap out of a slow start. Despite the 49ers’ strategic measure of staying in Youngstown, Ohio to offset the effects of a long Eastern road trip, It seemed to happen all at once for the Eagles, jumping out to a 23-3 lead in the third quarter, and all seemed right with their world. That is, until Harbaugh lit a fire under the 49ers offense, and, led by Alex Smith’s 2 TD passes, came roaring back to cold-cock the Eagles in Philadelphia, 24-23. It showed something not seen in 49ers teams of the past 8 years – a true belief in a winning attitude. Not just a desire to win, but believing that they could.

It was truly exemplified in the weeks following the Eagles comeback win. Showing that there was no “big win” hangover from the previous game, the 49ers came home and, led by Alex Smith’s 3 touchdowns and an INT return for a TD by CB Carlos Rogers, laid waste to a promising young Buccaneers team, 48-3. It was their most lopsided victory since Super Bowl XXIV – a 55-10 romp against the Denver Broncos – 22 years ago.

The 49ers’ stingy defensive front is one of the main reasons they are 5-1 heading into their bye week.

Then came a showdown against the undefeated Detroit Lions at Ford Field. With QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, and a defensive line anchored by DT Ndamukong Suh, there was little reason to believe the 49ers could win. It didn’t help matters when the Lions jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first quarter.

A 47-yard scamper by Gore set up a 2nd-quarter touchdown, to cut the lead to 3. A rare safety by Aldon Smith put the score at 10-9. After a battle of field goals to give the 49ers a 2-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Lions seemed to take control with a Stafford touchdown pass to WR Nate Burleson, giving Detroit a 4-point lead. As the score remained at 15-19 late into the game, the 49ers had one last shot to take the lead.

As they started a final drive, thanks to a 40-yard Ted Ginn punt return, in Lions territory, no one really knew what to expect. Despite what the 49ers have done so far, it was easy to believe that the odds were stacked too high against them to win. This was especially true, as it came down to one last play – a fourth-and-goal at the 6-yard line, with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. But, thanks to Harbaugh, this was a different Alex Smith. This was a different offensive team.

This was a different San Francisco 49ers.

“Watch this, haters.”

Smith weaved a perfect pass to a cross-cutting TE Delanie Walker for the touchdown to take the lead, 22-19. After stopping the Lions on fourth down on their subsequent drive, the 49ers all but sealed the win with a late field goal. With a 25-19 victoty, the 49ers walked off Ford Field with an improbable 5-1 record, knocking Detroit from the unbeaten ranks.

Despite a post-game scuffle between Harbaugh and Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz, that was talked about ad nauseam, and ultimately overshadowed the game, the 49ers eventually got the credit where credit was due. They are currently 4th in ESPN’s NFL Power Rankings – a position they haven’t held since 2002. NFL.com has them at a consensus rank of 4th overall.

Then again, it’s hard to overlook the team’s newfound success. Alex Smith is not only starting to look like a serviceable quarterback, but a playoff-caliber one. While his statistics may not be the most impressive, he seems to have gotten back the swagger that many may not remember, but had back in 2006, under offensive coordinator Norv Turner. He is confident in many of his throws, and – as he showed on Sunday – can rise up in clutch situations. Frank Gore, meanwhile, is fifth in the league in rushing, with 541 yards through 6 games. The defense is one of the stingiest in the league: they currently rank fourth in points allowed per game (16.2), and third in rushing yards allowed per game (74.7). Aldon Smith – the defenseman many didn’t even know when he was drafted – is fifth in the league in sacks (5.5), and is creating buzz for defensive Rookie of the Year.

And, again – this was a team that went virtually unchanged since 2010. It shows the amazing difference a new coach can make. After all, under their former head coach, Mike Singletary, the team seemed like they were in all kinds of disarray, and, more importantly, without a leader. Sure, Singletary was a great at motivation tactics – but, as this blog by Mike Sando has pointed out, they could have only gone so far without the on-the-field tactics to back it up. That is what Harbaugh has brought – along with the player’s mentality that has rubbed off on his players.  Just take a look at Harbaugh’s postgame speeches, that are now viral among the Niners community: it reflects the team’s newfound attitude. A growing number of experts believe that, if projections hold, they could be a force in the postseason.

After their bye week, lets hope the rest of the season brings more unexpected success.

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