The San Francisco 49ers 2011 season began with great hope surrounded by as much, if not more, uncertainty, due in large to the arrival of new head coach Jim Harbaugh and the lack of an offseason for the new coaching staff to gel with its players.
By season’s end, Harbaugh had led his team to a 14-4 record, a NFC West Division Title and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
Although the 49ers became a blue collar unit focused solely on wins, individual honors were plentiful for the team in 2011.
Harbaugh was named AP Coach of the Year at season’s end and the team boasted a league-high five First Team AP All-Pros: defensive tackle Justin Smith, linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee (left tackle Joe Staley and cornerback Carlos Rogers were named to the Second Team).
The 49ers also posted a NFL-high nine Pro Bowl selections: Smith, Willis, Akers, Lee, Rogers, Staley, safety Dashon Goldson, running back Frank Gore, and long snapper Brian Jennings.
Led by Willis and Smith, both finalists for Defensive Player of the Year, the 49ers’ defense possessed the most dominant front seven in the game, a unit that produced 40 of the team’s 42 sacks and a Defensive Rookie of the Year finalist, linebacker Aldon Smith, who set the franchise’s rookie sack record (14). The unit began the year without allowing a rushing TD in its first 14 games, a feat never before achieved in league history. The defense’s NFL-high 38 takeaways allowed the 49ers to lead the league with a team-record turnover differential (plus-28). By the end of the year, the defense ranked 1st in the NFL against the run, 2nd in points allowed, and 4th in total defense.
The 49ers’ offense played a physical brand that controlled the tempo of games, rarely made mistakes and made plays when it was ultimately needed.
Six times in 2011, Gore, quarterback Alex Smith and the Niners offense mounted come-from-behind wins. The offense tied NFL single-season records for fewest turnovers (10) and interceptions (5). Gore became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher surpassing Joe “The Jet” Perry. Smith put together his finest year as a pro, finishing the season with a 90.7 QB rating, a 61.4 completion percentage and the NFL’s lowest interception percentage (1.1).
Smith also tied the franchise record with four, 4th quarter come-from-behind wins on the road (QB Joe Montana – 4 in 1989).
Special teams lived up to its name for the 49ers in 2011, as the unit finished the season ranked atop the NFL. The team featured two record-setting specialists in Akers and Lee. Akers set the NFL record for most field goals made (44) and most points in single-season, no touchdowns (166), while Lee registered a 44.0 net punt average, also setting a new NFL record.
Wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. became the first player in franchise history to record a punt return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown in the same game in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
Inside the not-so friendly confines of Candlestick Park, the 49ers posted a 7-1 record, losing to the Dallas Cowboys in overtime for Week 2, 27-24. The 49ers never trailed by more than 3 points at home all season and averaged 27.6 points per game, ranking 6th in the NFL. The 49ers also boasted a 6-2 record away from home. The 6 wins on the road were the most by the team since 1996 (6-2).
In the 49ers first postseason game since 2002, they defeated the New Orleans Saints, 36-32. Tight end Vernon Davis shined as he registered 7 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-winning 14 yarder from Smith with :09 remaining in the contest.
A magical season came to an end in the NFC Championship game, as the 49ers fell to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in overtime, 17-20.
The 49ers’ 2011 campaign was just the beginning for this high-powered storied franchise return to glory. Expect greater things from this balance team for the 2012 season.
49ers’ 2012 Schedule
The 49ers will compete against the NFC North and the AFC East. They will have some breaks within their NFC West division, but not much. Nevertheless, a Niners’ 2012 campaign could not be complete without some revenge games, as they will host the world champion Giants and travel to New Orleans.
Buffalo St. Louis
Detroit Green Bay
New York Giants New England
Seattle New York Jets
St. Louis New Orleans
(The review was assisted by 49ers’ press release)