In coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season at the helm, he and the team far exceeded all expectations. I’m not sure if many experts considered the 49ers a playoff team let alone one that was a play or two away from the Super Bowl before the season began. Harbaugh has a swagger and confidence about him that comes off to many as arrogant; take his post game exchanges that have gone awry and blowing off interviews after tough losses. As a player, he was a fierce, fiery competitor and takes that same attitude to the field as a coach. And he has found a way to instill that same attitude in his team while also dealing with the x’s and o’s of coaching.
The team has plenty to build on in the future. I truly believe the 49ers had the best overall defense in the NFL this season. The defensive line led by Justin Smith was able to bring pressure with only a four man rush. Rookie Aldon Smith proved to be a great pick, racking up sacks even though he was only a situational pas rusher for much of the season. Linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman might be the best pair of linebackers in the NFL and both are pretty young. The only weakness may have been the defensive backfield, which made big plays, but also got burned on numerous occasions throughout the season.
On offense, it was in a way a coming out year for quarterback Alex Smith. He had great games and ones where he wasn’t asked to do much. He kept his mistakes to a minimum and showed that he can win at this level. I would be shocked if the team does not resign Smith this off season. This is the side of the ball where the Niners have plenty of areas they can improve on. I like the running backs, Gore and Hunter, and tight ends, Davis and Walker. The team’s offensive line is just okay. I’m not sure they are great in run or pass blocking and they could add a piece or two to fortify the line. In terms of wide receivers, the team brought in Braylon Edwards last offseason, which proved to be a bust. They are truly in dire need of a go-to #1 wide receiver. Michael Crabtree is still developing but I’m not sure if he can ever be that guy. The good thing is there are plenty of available receivers in both the draft and in free agency.
I expect the 49ers to contend for the NFC West title for years to come. Coach Harbaugh has brought in his own program and has players that buy into his system. It was a great, thrilling, memorable season in 2011 and fans can expect more of the same next year.
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