The San Francisco 49ers make their long-awaited return to the playoffs this Saturday as they host the New Orleans Saints in a divisional round matchup. This is the 49ers first playoff game in nine years and caps off a single season turnaround that is one of the best in recent memory. The 49ers are one of six teams to make the 2012 NFL playoffs after sitting out the 2011 NFL Playoffs, but they also boast the biggest turnaround improving their 6-10 record to 13-3.
In this lockout-altered season, new coaches were supposed to struggle due to the absence of a sufficient practice time. The 49ers were not only implementing a new system of offense and defense, but they were doing so with only backup QB David Carr under contract. Coming off a 2010 season that began with high expectations and ended at 6-10 with a fired Mike Singletary, 49ers fans could not be blamed if they were a bit gun-shy about the coming season.
And yet, here we are and the 49ers are coming off the biggest turnaround of the year, getting ready to host the New Orleans Saints in a playoff game. In light of the expected lockout troubles, how exactly did this come to pass?
49ers fans will point to two days in January that were the impetus for the turnaround. After firing Mike Singletary following a Week 16 loss to the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers began a full-on seach for a new GM and head coach. The search culminated in two decisions. On January 4, 2011, the 49ers announced the promotion of Trent Baalke from VP of Player Personnel to General Manager. Three days later, they announced the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as head coach.
Jim Harbaugh has received most of the credit to date, and he is most definitely worthy of praise. He has brought a positive energy to the team that has created an us-against-the-world mentality. Just as important, he compiled a strong coaching staff, primarily bringing along his Stanford football coaching staff, but also making the wise decision to keep several 49ers assistants. This coaching staff has brought teaching skills that are more than just telling players what to do. It has engaged the players to better understand the game plan and schemes being used.
While Harbaugh and his staff have been pivotal in helping the team execute the game-plan week in and week out, Trent Baalke's offseason plan set the 49ers up for the success they have had all season long. Harbaugh gets most of the praise from the mainstream media and is virtually a lock to take home NFL Coach of the Year. However, Baalke has put together a body of work that should earn him a nod as NFL Executive of the Year.
A look at every move the 49ers have made under the direction of Baalke, dating back to the 2011 NFL Draft, will reveal as close to a perfect performance as any GM can put up in the NFL in this day and age. Here is a rundown of those moves:
2011 NFL Draft: WR Ronald Johnson (sixth round pick)
In free agency, aside from inexpensive busts in Braylon Edwards (injuries) and Antwan Applewhite (training camp release), the 49ers hit on just about every one of their free agency signings. Guys like Carlos Rogers and David Akers are having the best seasons of their careers. There were some question marks when they selected Aldon Smith in the first round, but the young pass rusher is a co-favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Just as important as these signings were some of the decisions the 49ers made with their own free agents. The 49ers elected to let nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and linebacker Takeo Spikes leave in free agency and their response to those departures have taken the defense to a whole new level. Second year linebacker NaVorro Bowman replaced Spikes next to Patrick Willis and proceeded to have an All-Pro year. In place of Franklin, the 49ers moved left defensive end Isaac Sopoaga over to nose tackle and then signed backup defensive end Ray McDonald to a five year contract extension to take over at left defensive end. Again, both moves paid off.
The whole situation presents a sort of chicken/egg conundrum. Did Baalke and the front office make the moves that put Jim Harbaugh in a position to succeed? Or did Harbaugh's style and leadership make the front office moves look all the better?
In reality it is a mix of both as Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke have worked together in near perfect harmony. 49ers President and CEO Jed York led the search for a new GM and head coach, but then upon hiring the two men declared that he would stay out of the way as they worked to rebuild the franchise. He has stuck by that decision and it has paid immediate dividends.
While many bemoaned the unfairness of the lockout and built in the ready-made excuse for failure, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh's competitive drive never let that enter the discussion. These are two men who will stop at nothing to win. The players have to execute on the field, but Baalke and Harbaugh have done everything in their power to put this team in a position to succeed. The team does not have the eye-popping stats of the Packers, Saints or Patriots, but they have gotten the job done as a team. The team mentality starts from the top and while it sounds incredibly cliched, it has been as important as anything in the 49ers turnaround.