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Before the season started, had you told me that the San Francisco 49ers would be in the NFC Championship game, I would have asked you if you had forgotten to take your medication. Yet here they are, just one glorious step away from sports' biggest stage, the Super Bowl.
What is interesting is the cast that got them to this point. As far as the roster is concerned, this team is not much different from last year's 6-10 squad. While they did make some minor improvements here and there, I honestly did not expect them to finish with more than 6 victories during the 2011 season. In fact, I would not have been shocked if they had gotten to the bye week with only one or two wins under their belts. Instead, they got to the bye week with five wins and only one loss. They won eight straight games, something no 49ers team had done since 1997. They did it with a vicious defense and a mistake-free offense.
The cast of this season's San Francisco 49ers is an interesting one. With so many factors going against them, no one could have predicted that this 49ers team would accomplish everything that it has done so far this season.
This is San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh's rookie season; however, he looks like a seasoned veteran. Despite having a lock-out shortened offseason, little contact with his players, and very little time to install his system, Harbaugh has been impressive as the 49ers' head coach. Just imagine what he can do with a real offseason. It was assumed that teams with established systems would dominate once the lock-out was over and the season started. Jim Harbaugh proved otherwise. He took his young team and quickly prepared them to compete against more talented teams. The preparation is one of biggest differences from last season. Unlike under Singletary, when the 49ers take the field, they look prepared for what they are facing.
Harbaugh has put each player into a role where they can succeed. He has gotten the most out of each of his players and they have flourished under his tutelage.
On July 26th, it was announced that Alex Smith agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal to stay with San Francisco. Fan reaction was overwhelmingly negative. There were those of us that still liked Smith, but that group was in the minority. For me, it was because I felt that Smith was never given a good opportunity to succeed and I wanted to see him do so, not because I felt he could deliver the 49ers a championship. I wanted to see Smith flourish despite the abuse he took from fans over the years. I wanted to see what he would do after getting knocked down again and again.
It was not just the fans, the media was constantly placing the team's faults on Smith's shoulders. Smith was named one of the "NFL's Biggest Draft Busts" by the New York Daily News, right up there with other quarterbacks like JaMarcus Russell, David Carr, Ryan Leaf, and others.
Here are just a few of the numerous negative headlines that appeared prior to the start of this season:
"Not sure Alex Smith will ever pan out" - NFL.com
"Crabtree not sold on Alex Smith as 49ers' QB" - ESPN.com
"Jerry Rice says San Francisco 49ers will have to carry Alex Smith, not the other way around" - The Mercury News
There was even fan talk about replacing Smith with a quarterback like Carson Palmer, Matt Hasselbeck, or even David Gerrard. Despite all of the negativity, Smith proved that this team can win because of him, not despite him. With Harbaugh in his corner, Smith has looked more comfortable in his role as the 49ers leader than at any other point in his career.
"He has hands of stone and when he does catch it, he falls after the first hit." This pretty much sums up the critique of 49ers tight end Vernon Davis prior to the season. I'm not going to argue that some of this was unwarranted. Davis was known to drop key passes and was often brought down after the first hit. However, what was not measured was his heart and on Saturday, he showed just how much heart he had. Davis was instrumental in the 49ers' victory over the Saints. His 180 receiving yards is a playoff record among NFL tight ends and he was responsible for hauling in the touchdown pass that put San Francisco on top in the final seconds of the game. "The Grab." "The Catch III." Whatever you want to call it, fans will remember it for a very long time.
Davis is an emotional player. That was made even more apparent by his reaction after the game winning touchdown. Tears flowed down his face and he was speechless as he went to hug coaches and teammates. It was reminiscent of Terrell Owens' game winning catch during the 49ers' Wildcard victory over the Green Bay Packers in January of 1999. It is a passion for the game that you don't often see anymore.
"When you want something so much, you want it for years and years and years, it builds up upon yourself," Davis said Monday. "For me, I just let it come out. You can't hold it in. You can never hold anything in like that. But it's just one of those things, you have to let it come out."
It is scenes like this that make you understand that this is more than a job to these players. Football is about life and overcoming obstacles.
Vernon Davis has come a long way since being thrown out of a game four years ago by then-coach Mike Singletary in front of 60,000 fans.
Running back Frank Gore was injured toward the end of the 2010 season with a fractured right hip. He worked very hard during the offseason to make a return to the team. However, there was some chatter among fans, fearful that he would not return at 100%, that felt Gore should not return. After all, the team had Kendall Hunter waiting to take over and running backs are a dime a dozen. It is certainly easier to find a franchise running back than it is a franchise quarterback.
At the end of August, Gore agreed to a three-year $21 million contract extension. His 1,211 yards rushing during the season helped him pass Hall of Fame running back Joe Perry as the franchise's all-time leading rusher. This is Gore's first time in the playoffs and he does not want to waste it.
If there was ever an unwanted man, cornerback Carlos Rogers was that guy. Fans in Washington could not get him out the door fast enough. Among San Francisco fans, he was a reminder that the team was not aggressive enough to land a big free agent corner like Nnamdi Asomugha, Johnathan Joseph, Antonio Cromartie or even Chris Carr. In Washington, he had a reputation for not being able to hang onto the ball. While his coverage skills were never in doubt, his ability to gather interceptions was. In fact, prior to his time with San Francisco, Rogers never had more than two interceptions in a season. Rogers finished 2011 with six interceptions and a reputation as one of the better cover corners in the league.
Ok, for a minute, throw out the fact that offensive coordinators like to pick on Dashon Goldson, and probably rightfully so. Quarterbacks' ratings soar to over 90 when throwing toward the 49ers' safety. However, he tends to make them pay from time to time. Goldson had picked off opposing quarterbacks six times during the season and did it again against Drew Brees on Saturday.
Goldson was very much unwanted by fans, and seemingly by the 49ers, during the offseason. He even said goodbye to fans via Twitter after the team signed safety Donte Whitner. After a frustrating search for another team, Goldson finally gave in and signed a one-year deal with the 49ers. Goldson, along with cornerback teammate Carlos Rogers, will appear in his first Pro Bowl this month -- unless the 49ers are in the Super Bowl.
With the seventh pick in the NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select ... WHO?! That was the reaction among fans when the 49ers war room selected Aldon Smith, a defensive end from Missouri. Not being one of the sexier names in the NFL Draft, fans were frustrated by the selection. After all, everyone expected the 49ers to take cornerback Prince Amukamara should Patrick Peterson, selected two picks earlier by the Arizona Cardinals, not be there. No one had heard of Aldon Smith and no mock draft had him as one of the team's selections. It was a shocker to say the least.
Smith had 14 sacks during his 2011 rookie season -- and he was not even a starter. He had another against Drew Brees on Saturday. Ben Roethlisberger didn't even want to talk about Aldon Smith in a post game interview after the 49ers beat the Steelers on Monday Night Football. The combination of Patrick Willis, NaVarro Bowman and Aldon Smith could be causing offensive coordinators headaches for years to come.
In January of 2011, kicker David Akers was singled out by coaches after the Eagles lost to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. In April of 2011, the Eagles drafted Alex Henery from Nebraska in the fourth round. That selection sealed the fate of one of Philadelphia's most beloved Eagles.
Akers' signing with San Francisco was a bit frustrating for fans. The reason was not because they felt it was a bad signing, but because it was the 49ers' first big name signing as other teams were throwing money at sexier free agents. While other teams were bringing in quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs and linebackers, the 49ers ... signed a kicker. "Championship."
David Akers, who replaced a retired Joe Nedney, had an impressive year with San Francisco, setting the record for the most field goals in a season. He went on to hit 44 of his 52 attempted field goals for the season and was selected to his sixth career Pro Bowl.
These are just a few of this season's surprising San Francisco 49ers players. No matter what happens from this point on, this team has proven a lot this season. They have proven that they once again deserve to be recognized as a dominant team. They have proven that this young team has a solid nucleus and will be competitive for years to come. They have proven that teams with heart, passion and work ethic will always go further than "dream teams" in this league. They have proven that the San Francisco 49ers are back and plan to stay. And finally, they have proven that nobody has it better than them.