Bless me, football gods, for I have sinned. It’s time that I, a lifelong 49ers fan, admit my guilt.
This is my first article for ProPlayerInsiders so let me add context. I’m a 49ers fan who lives in Buffalo, N.Y. Bear with me. “The Catch” happened the day after I celebrated my second birthday. I was wearing a red-and-gold painter’s cap (remember those?) when John Taylor’s post pattern cemented San Francisco’s victory in Super Bowl XXIII, still the greatest game ever played. Ask me if I favor Joe Montana or Steve Young and I’ll change the subject faster than Jerry Rice turned a quick slant into six.
But that’s not my real confession. Growing up a 49ers fan in Bills country isn’t that bad.
Truth is, San Francisco could’ve lost to the New York Giants on Sunday and I would’ve been okay with it. When Mario Manningham hauled in an Eli Manning pass to put the G-men up 13-12 late in the third quarter, I shrugged. Hakeem Nicks’ momentum-turning 32-yard touchdown grab with 8:37 left? No big deal.
I’m playing with house money. I’ve always been the most optimistic of 49ers fans. The guy who runs my picks pool can attest to the fact that I’ve circled “San Francisco” every week for years regardless of their opponent or how likely it was that they’d be drafting in the top 10 the following April.
But this year was different. To be honest, I was (quietly) wondering how nobody was suspecting the Niners of tanking the season for a chance to reunite new head coach Jim Harbaugh with his former protégé and wunderkind quarterback Andrew Luck.
This is what I saw then:
- Harbaugh, a first-time coach, had only two months to acclimate his players to a new system, thanks to the lockout-shortened offseason. Even without the abbreviated offseason, a new head coach is going to have enough slack to trudge through a 1-15 season, especially if it meant landing next year’s prize rookie.
- Alex Smith was back. The former first overall pick of the 2005 Draft has symbolized failure for the Niners from the moment they decided that he was a better choice than Aaron Rodgers. Since then, Smith has lost his job numerous times to a laundry list of journeymen quarterbacks that includes Troy Smith, Shaun Hill, J.T. O’Sullivan and the immortal Ken Dorsey.
- New San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke deemed it a good idea to give Frank Gore a $21 million extension months after the running back’s 2010 season ended abruptly because of a broken hip.
- In a span of five days in August, the Niners “revamped” (notice the quotation marks) by signing cornerback Carlos Rogers and safeties Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams. Rogers was terribly disappointing as the Redskins top pick in 2005 while Whitner had been dubbed the “human speed bump” by Bills fans who didn’t appreciate his five years of service in Buffalo. Williams, while a dedicated philanthropist, wasn’t exactly supposed to make San Francisco fans forget Ronnie Lott.
- “With the 7th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select Aldon Smith, linebacker, Missouri.” Who? I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t follow college football closely but Smith was the only player taken in the top 15 that I’d never heard of. And the Niners had the nerve to list another guy on their roster as “A. Smith?”
- The cherry on top was the signing of David Akers, a 36-year-old kicker who was jettisoned after 12 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that was supposed to be an offensive juggernaut this season, and thus require a dependable marksman.
But a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity. The 49ers edged Seattle in the opener on the back of a pair of kick return touchdowns by Ted Ginn Jr. It appeared that the earth was back on its axis in Week 2 when San Fran blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead to fall to Dallas at home in overtime. The Niners rebounded for a plodding 13-8 victory over Cincinnati in a game that was no more encouraging than it was watchable.
Just when I began to wonder why San Francisco would throw away their opportunity to “suck for Luck,” the red-and-gold erased a 20-3 deficit to beat Philadelphia’s “dream team” and then embarrassed Tampa Bay, last year’s upstart, by 45 (48-3).
An Oct. 16 tilt with the red-hot Detroit Lions seemed like an opportune time for a Niner letdown. When the Lions raced to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, it looked like the rout was on. Yet Harbaugh stuck to his game plan, relying heavily on the reconstructed hips of Gore, who gashed Detroit for 141 yards on the ground. Still, when the game reached the two minute warning, the 49ers were down 19-15 and facing a fourth-and-goal from the Detroit six yard line.
Surely it was over. We had Alex Smith.
Then Smith dropped back, calmly scanned the field, and hit tight end Delanie Walker with a touchdown strike that gave San Francisco a lead they’d never relinquish. Around the same time that Harbaugh and Lions head coach Jim Schwartz were tussling about a postgame handshake, a collective “hmmm” could be heard resonating from the 49ers faithful.
Maybe this team was for real. Perhaps it was a season of destiny. Wait, were we wrong about Alex?
Fast forward to Sunday at 7:15 p.m. and the Dallas loss was still the only blemish on San Francisco’s record – after NINE games.
This is what I see now:
- Harbaugh is the runaway coach of the year. Nobody is even close (and Mike McCarthy’s Packers are 9-0). He has turned a dysfunctional franchise and undisciplined team into the darlings of the league.
- Alex Smith, he of the 95.8 passer rating, is making a strong case for comeback player of the year. Not only is Smith playing mistake-free football but he has been remarkably efficient, especially in the wins over Detroit and New York.
- The $13.5 million that San Francisco guaranteed to Gore was money well spent even if he has been nicked up lately. The University of Miami product has been the heart and soul of a team all but locked into its first playoff appearance since 2002.
- Rogers has become the lock-down corner that Nate Clements never could while, coincidentally, wearing the same jersey number. Rogers is tied for the league lead in interceptions (5) and is providing the type of blanket man coverage that 49ers fans haven’t seen since the days of Deion Sanders and Eric Davis. Meanwhile, Whitner has been solid but unspectacular while Williams has seen his playing time limited by the emergence of Dashon Goldson.
- Aldon Smith leads the team with 6.5 sacks, has won Defensive Rookie of the Week honors twice and was the NFL’s Rookie of the Month for October.
- Akers discovered the fountain of youth in the bay area. The lefty has already matched a career high with five made field goals of 50-plus yards, leads the NFL in made field goals and is on pace to obliterate Rice’s 24-year-old team record for points in a season.
Today, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves with a five game lead in the NFC West and “magic numbers” have already entered the conversation. As Jim Fassel famously once said, “This team is going to the playoffs.”
As to what happens when they get there, here’s my final act of contrition: I really don’t care. This season has been that surprising.
Something tells me Harbaugh and the 49ers aren’t thinking the same way.