A Red ( And Gold ) Letter Day

December 5

Back in the dark days of 49ers football — you know, way back in the mid-oughts — none of this seemed even remotely possible.

You remember the days of Dennis Erickson, then Mike Nolan, then Mike Singletary. The days of “salary cap hell” with the in absentia GM Terry Donahue.

Days when fans were so hungry for offense they lustily cheered Cody Pickett when he threw for a first down. Days when the 49ers had one of the worst offensive lines in the history of the NFL. Days when a road trip meant another 41-6 loss.

Those were the days when the 49ers struggled to beat teams in the weak NFC West. Then they would pull the old ‘back-door cover” with a couple of late wins to give fans false hope, and repeat the cycle the next year.

Those days are long gone.

On Sunday the 49ers clinched the NFC West by smothering the Rams 26-0, claiming their first division title and first playoff appearance in nine years. It’s been a long, long nine years.

At the start of the season, Fitz and Brooks asked me how I thought the 49ers would turn out in their first year under Jim Harbaugh. Because of the lockout and the return of Smith many predicted gloom and doom. I didn’t think it would be that bad — I thought there would be fewer in-game coaching mistakes, a bit more imagination of offense, and an 8-8 finish.

Well, I was right on two of three. I didn’t think they would be this good. Really, who did outside of Jim Harbaugh ?

When Mike Singletary was fired, it became clear what the 49ers had to do. Although they played hard for Singletary and occasionally played good defense, their inconsistency was maddening — largely because their quarterback play was so dodgy.

I was one of several voices on KNBR who said the new head coach would have to understand quarterback play in the NFL. The team simply had to get better play at that position. That’s one reason Jim Harbaugh became such a hot property.

Sure enough, the 49ers have received much-improved play from the quarterback position, but no one thought it would come from the same quarterback. At the start of 2011 it seemed unthinkable that Alex Smith would return. Maybe Harbaugh knew better than all of us.

Indeed, it was Alex, Part VII. I remember doing a Sportsphone 680 show last winter after reading a very insightful article by Mark Purdy of the “Mercury News” which laid out the reaason why it was quite possible Smith would come back. Most fans howled in protest, but all you had to do was connect the dots.

During the lockout no one was sure how free agency was going to pan out, and when Harbaugh was hired, he and Smith struck up a solid relationship. Smith had the playbook and an understanding of the offense, very important given the abbreviated offseason.

Last spring, he embarked on Camp Alex. At the time many reporters used that title as a pejorative term.

As with many long-time observers of the 49ers ( and I go back to the days of John Brodie ), I was highly skeptical that Smith could get the job done. Sure, he had been given several lousy hands (and some claimed he had small hands ), but conventional wisdom is that truly great talents rise above their circumstances. Smith had done precious little of that.

As a #1 overall pick, Smith had not been a bust, but had certainly been a disappointment. He didn’t force anyone to pick him first but was clearly overmatched for several years. Worse yet, the 49ers passed over Aaron Rodgers — a Chico kid who played at Cal — and he’s only become the best quarterback in the NFL.

In fairness, there was a heated back-and-forth at the time about who the ‘Niners should pick, and I challenge all those with 20-20 hindsight to be honest aboout what they were saying six years ago when Smith was drafted. It’s also fair to say Smith has endured some of the worst circumstances of any quarterback this side of David Carr.

Whatever, Harbaugh seemed to have an understanding of what Smith can or cannot do. He fashioned a game plan that would allow Smith to be reasonably effective while cutting down on turnovers, and leaning heavily on Frank Gore. That, with an improved defense and special teams unit has been a winning combination.

There is Smith, the eight-rated passer in the NFL, with just five interceptions — second best among starting quarterbacks who have played all season. He trails only, ahem, Aaron Rodgers. Leading a team to a division title has to be sweet vindication for Smith, who has gotten it done without a top-shelf assortment of receivers.

Smith’s improvement parallels the rise of the 49ers, but it’s not the only reason they are playoff-bound, with a chance for a first-round bye. It’s easy to point to Harbaugh’s effect on him, and that is most certainly a factor, but that’s not a complete explanation.

Harbaugh is certainly familiar with the NFL as a longtime quarterback and assistant coach, but he is smart enough to bring along a very good coaching staff as well. I think the improvement in coaching is front and center among reasons the ‘Niners have turned things around so quickly. People such as Vic Fangio, Greg Roman, and Brad Seely deserve as much credit as Harbaugh.

I heard Steve Young say on KNBR last week that Singletary deserves some credit for putting in place a defense that has allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. I suppose that’s partly true, but it’s also true that the 49ers made some subtle but important upgrades in the secondary, adding Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner.

Nate Clements and Manny Lawson were among those to say goodbye, but the 49ers have added a dose of youth in Aldon Smith, Navarro Bowman, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown, to name a few. The front seven is as good as they come in the NFL, with Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga getting more playing time along Pro Bowler Justin Smith.

Twelve games into the season, and the 49ers have still not allowed a rushing touchdown. The record for an entire season is four. We’re talking about a defense that is not only good this year, but moving into the “historically good” category.

Special teams, which were a disaster in recent years, have been rock-solid this year. Punt returns used to be an E-ticket ride for the 49ers, but now it’s that way for the opposition. Ted Ginn, Jr. turned around the season opener with a punt return and kickoff return for scores, punter Andy Lee is as good as ever and placekicker David Akers might have been the team’s best offseason acquisition.

Trent Baalke also deserves some credit. When he was promoted to General Manager last winter, there was general skepticism. Some wondered how an in-house functionary from the previous failed regime would succeeed. My take was, “I don’t know” because it was hard to tell how much credit he should have received for any of the good moves the ‘Niners had made in recent years.

It hasn’t hurt that the NFC West nearly assumed room temperature by Thanksgiving. This is a bad, bad division, but the 49ers didn’t just feast on divisional foes. Road wins in Cincinnati and Philadelphia and a home win against the schizophrenic New York Giants were arrows in their quiver. Lousy division or not, 10-2 is good enough to win anywhere.

Linebacker Patrick Willis’ hamstring injury was the only thing to mar an otherwise perfect Sunday. Frank Gore set the franchise record for rushing yards ( although they don’t count Joe Perry’s stats from the All-American Football Conference ) and David Akers set the franchise record for field goals made in a season. Jim Harbaugh marveled at how his fleece sweatshirt successfuly warded off the moisture from the Gatorade bath.

Now the 49ers will try to solidify their position as at least a second seed, earning a first-round bye and then a home playoff game. They remain a game ahead of the Saints for the #2 slot, and hopefully do so while giving Willis time enough to mend.

They will also try to work on their remaining weaknesses. The offense is clearly not up to snuff in the red zone. Akers has the field goal record because the 49ers can’t punch the ball into the end zone enough. Piling up field goals won’t work against such high-powered teams as the Saints and Packers in the playoffs.

It would help Smith and the offense if Braylon Edwards could get healthy. Nagging knee and shoulder problems sidelined him Sunday, and he has been almost invisible when he has played. His size and strength can be very effective on fade routes and lob passes in the end zone — if he’s 100 percent.

The good news is that Michael Crabtree has stepped up and is playing the best ball of his three-year career with the 49ers. He seems to have good mental telephathy with Smith, and on Sunday he caught a 52 yard touchdown. He isn’t known as a speed-burner but he got behind the Rams’ secondary for a score that basically nailed down the title.

In addition, Kyle Williams has stepped into the void and become a potential game-breaker. He took a slant pass and outran the Rams for a 56-yard touchdown. Williams has made the loss of Edwards and Joshua Morgan much easier to take.

Smith had a 142 passer rating for the day, which would have been even higher if Vernon Davis hadn’t dropped a pass that landed right in his breadbasket in the end zone in the first half. As Smith said, the 49ers are still leaving some points out there, but they will need to continue to throw deep and connect on a few if they want to reach the next level.

Whoa, whoa, you’re saying. Next level ? They just won the divison. One step at a time. The 49ers have already done something pretty remarkable this season.

We have a pretty good idea of who they are now. They have great defense and special teams, and they do just enough on offense to get the job done most of the time, especially at home. Their success is coming just in time, as the franchise tries to build momentum toward a new home in Santa Clara.

I’ll go back to the early-season analogy: they remind me of a certain baseball team that went all the way in 2010. Now, I wouldn’t expect the 49ers to win the Super Bowl this year. An appearance in the NFC Championship game would be amazing enough. Then again, they’ve been exceeding everyone’s expectations all year.

Then, would anyone question Smith’s return NEXT year ?

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