Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Gold Standard

As amazing as this NFL season was for witnessing historic levels of play, records being broken is not why I'll remember it so fondly.  I'll remember this season fondly because of what happened in San Francisco.  Now normally I wouldn't feel the need to write about a team that I personally support.  But I feel compelled to write about them, because this isn't just about my favorite football team.  This is about my favorite team of all-time.  Of any sport.  Of any year.  I've had other favorite teams win championships, but following the 2011 49ers tops them all.  As a sports fan, there are two types of teams that I root for: my favorite teams that I support year in and year out and teams that are brilliantly constructed (like the Thunder).  It just so happened that those two things coincided this year with the Niners, which led to an unbelievable experience. 

Coming off of last year's disappointing season, in which arguably the best play of the year happened in the preseason, I think many Niner fans were looking for some big moves from management that could provide some promise for the future.  When the decision was made to do an in-house hire for the vacant General Manager position, with the promotion Trent Baalke, I think a lot of people were skeptical that it was just business as usual.  Hiring Jim Harbaugh was a step in the right direction (obviously), but there was still a lot of work to be done with the roster.  Many, including myself, were calling for the team to make a strong push for Asomugha.  For years, cornerback had been a weakness.  Signing Asomugha would be addressing that weakness, while signaling to the fans that management was serious about making the team better.  As that option seemed less and less likely, with Asomugha eventually signing with Philly, the hope for the team's season dimmed a little bit.  This was a team coming off a 6-10 season, with a lot of key players becoming free agents (Smith, Franklin, McDonald, Spikes, Baas, Goldson, Lawson), yet still wasn't doing very much.

They came up short in the Asomugha sweepstakes and had lost David Baas and Takeo Spikes to free agency.  Meanwhile, they had only re-signed Alex Smith and Ray McDonald.  Bringing back a polarizing QB and choosing McDonald over Franklin (the guy who they franchise-tagged just a year earlier) weren't exactly moves that inspired confidence.  When Baalke was confronted with the criticism that their offseason moves were taking, he said, "We have been patient. We do have a plan. We’re executing the plan. And I guess the only thing that’s going to tell is the test of time, and how successful this plan is will be measured with how successful we become on the field."  I remember reading this quote at the time and pretty much rolling my eyes.

Turns out they did have a plan.

They replaced Baas by signing Jonathan Goodwin, Spikes by promoting NaVorro Bowman,  Lawson by promoting Ahmad Brooks, Franklin by moving Sopoaga and promoting Ray McDonald, they re-signed Goldson, cut Clements, traded Mays, and signed Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Braylon Edwards, Blake Costanzo, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant and David Akers (among others).  With the exception of Edwards (which looked so promising at the beginning), every move Baalke made in free agency paid off.  When you combine that with the drafting of Aldon Smith (which, at the time, was received with a collective "Huh?"), Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller, Collin Jones, and Colin Kaepernick (time will tell), his whole offseason was a home run.

Watching a GM construct a team like that is easily one of the best aspects of sports.  The only thing that tops it is when a coach capitalizes on the talent assembled.  And that's exactly what Harbaugh and his staff did.  They guided Alex Smith to the best year of his career, while vastly improving upon Singletary's offensive philosophy.  It was still a power-run offense, but it had creativity (a pass to the left tackle, a pass to the nose tackle, a fullback wheel route, a fly sweep - even doing a fake field goal).  It was no longer one-dimensional. 

On the defensive side of the ball, sliding Sopoaga over to replace Franklin and starting McDonald proved to be ingenious.  Couple that with the usual brilliance of Willis and Smith, the great play of Brooks, the development of Bowman into an All-Pro linebacker (even resembling Willis as a play-maker), and the tandem of Haralson and Aldon Smith, the Niners had the best front seven in the league.  Solidifying that is the fact that Ricky Jean-Francois and Larry Grant started games - due to injuries - and the team didn't miss a beat.  In the secondary, the additions of Rogers and Whitner, the re-signing of Goldson, the promotion of Brown, and the drafting of Culliver provided great improvement.  In fact, Rogers, Goldson and Brown combined for more interceptions than last years entire team. 

The defense wasn't the only unit to experience an amazing year.  Special teams performed incredibly well.  Ted Ginn had a very good year, finishing 3rd in kickoff return average and 4th in punt return average.  The coverage unit - especially Blake Costanzo and CJ Spillman - seemed to be around the ball constantly.  And of course, the cream of the crop of special teams was the three Pro Bowlers: David Akers, Andy Lee, and Brian Jennings.  Akers broke the record for most field goals made in a season and most non-touchdown points in a season.  He also ended the year with a perfect passer rating, after executing a fake field goal. Lee obviously had fantastic year (as seen here), setting the record for the highest net punting average for a season in history.  And for insight into what Jennings does on a weekly basis, here's what Matt Maiocco wrote earlier this year: "Have you ever noticed that holder Andy Lee never (or rarely) has to spin the football on field-goal attempts? That's because Jennings is so consistent at making sure the revolutions of the football on his snaps are perfect so that the laces are pointing toward the goal posts."  Is there a better kicker-punter-long snapper trio in football?  I'm guessing no.

The production of this team was off the charts.  From Baalke down to Harbaugh, Roman, Fangio, Seely - as well as the rest of the staff - all the way down to the players.  The offense went from 24th in points scored last year to 11th this year and from 11th in fewest turnovers to 1st.  The defense was arguably the best in the league.  They had the best rushing defense, the most takeaways, quarterbacks had the 5th worst passer rating against them (improved from 26th the year before), and they gave up the second fewest points in the league.  Special teams was 1st in kickoff return average, 5th in punt return average, 13th in opponent kick return average, and 11th in opponent punt return average (up from 30th, 7th, 15th, and 15th the year before).  They had the most Pro Bowlers (9) and most All-Pro players (5 first team and 2 second team) in the league.

But as amazing as the talent and production of the team was, there's another component to why this is my favorite team of all-time.  It's the emotional investment I have in the players.  I liked all the players on the team this year, but there's a handful of them that stand out.  For starters, there's Frank Gore, Andy Lee, and David Akers.  Coming into the year, Gore's future with the Niners was uncertain.  Thankfully, a contract extension was agreed upon; which was welcome news, because he's one of the best running backs in franchise history.  He's been integral to any of the success they've had over the years (as little as it's been at times), so it was nice to see him rewarded with an actual winning season.  The same goes for Andy Lee.  In many years where there were few bright spots, he was consistently one of them; the only silver lining to the team's frequent three and outs was watching him punt.  For the last five years, he's been in the top 4 in punting average every year and he's been in the top 5 in net average every year but one (only Lechler's been better).  The guy has been spectacular.  He's got to be the best punter in franchise history.

Now Akers is a little different.  Obviously he hasn't been on the team a long time. And while it's easy to like someone who's making field goals in bunches and perfectly executing surprise onside kicks, that's not the only reason I'm mentioning him.  The reason I feel differently towards him than a bunch of other players is because of Rick Reilly's piece on ESPN.  That column came out after the season was almost over, but it gave me a retroactive appreciation for him.  After reading what he had gone through the previous year, it added so much sentiment to his season.  What he accomplished this year was already something special to have witnessed.  For him to have done it after what he had gone through only made it exponentially more meaningful.

Finally, the four guys that I feel invested in the most: Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Vernon Davis, and Alex Smith.  Patrick Willis is the face of the franchise.  He's the best player on the team, and has been ever since he stepped onto the field.  Here's a quick comparison to Ray Lewis' first five years:

16 sacks, 9 INTs, 0 TDs, 0 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 590 tackles, 4 Pro Bowls, First-team All-Pro (2x), Second-team All-Pro (2x), DPOY, approximate value- 72

17 sacks, 5 INTs, 2 TDs, 41 passes defensed, 12 forced fumbles, 542 tackles, 5 Pro Bowls, First team All-Pro (4x), Second-team All-Pro (1x), DROY, approximate value- 77

He has a long way to go to be Lewis, but to even be on a similar trajectory to him is pretty impressive. When you combine his stellar play with what he's been through, how could you not love the guy?  He's an exemplary professional.  The best part?  He's not the only one.  Justin Smith is as well.  And he too is one of the best players in football.  He sealed two wins this year, when he stripped Jeremy Maclin and batted down Eli Manning's pass.  He made Aldon Smith better, by purposely drawing double teams.  And is it any coincidence that Ray McDonald had his best year, after working out with Justin during the offseason?  I don't think so.  Since his rookie season, he hasn't missed a single game.  He's the first player in history to make the All-Pro team as both a DT and a DE (yet somehow finished behind Jared Allen in the DPOY voting?).  Halfway through the year, Matt Williamson ranked the top 50 players in the NFL and placed Smith at number 10.  Mike Sando reviewed the list and had this to say: "Williamson's explanation for this choice is perfect. He asks any doubters to watch Smith play a full game. Any game. They're all outstanding."  It's true.  Watch this guy play any game.  He's unbelievable.

In contrast to the great starts Patrick and Justin experienced in their careers, the journeys of Vernon and Alex were a little different.  These guys didn't experience quality starts to their careers.  Vernon started out as a prima donna that needed to be straightened out.  Thankfully it happened.  And all the credit in the world goes to Singletary for initiating it and to Vernon for responding.  Now Singletary's tenure in San Francisco may have ended on a sour note, but I consider it a success.  Not only did he straighten out Vernon, but he also coached and mentored Willis.  And both of them went on to become the highest paid players at their positions in history.  He may not have won a lot of games, but he positively impacted their two franchise players.  That's pretty beneficial.

Unfortunately he couldn't do the same for Alex Smith, who experienced about as bad of a start to a career as you could.  He had to endure arguably the two worst coaches a young quarterback could, which included terrible teaching and terrible play-calling.  Combine that with a bad offensive line and a lack of playmakers and the guy had virtually no shot at success.  This resulted in me having a yo-yo relationship with him.  In the offseason, I would acknowledge all of the mitigating circumstances that led to his poor performance and would give him the benefit of that doubt that he would improve.  Then during the season, I would grow frustrated and think he was hopeless.  This process culminated last year.  Going into the 2010 season, I was at my most optimistic point for him to succeed.  He had the same offensive coordinator for consecutive years for the first time in his career.  Additionally, the team had drafted Crabtree the year before and had just drafted Iupati and Davis.  They had seemingly addressed a lot of the variables that had contributed to his failure.  So when he stumbled again, I wrote him off for good.  As fate would have it, the offseason I gave up on him would be the one prior to the best year of his career.  And his best year would culminate in the team’s first postseason berth in 9 years.

And what a postseason it was.  The game against New Orleans was perfect.  From the weather to the atmosphere (Bailey performing his song live and the crowd chanting along) to the energy and swagger of the players (as seen during Future’s live performance of their kickoff song) down to the actual game.  Not only was it a great game, but it could not have had a more significant ending.  If Alex Smith’s touchdown run had been the winning score, it would’ve been a great ending.  But what happened was even better.  The careers of Alex and Vernon are seemingly connected at the hip.  Alex has more chemistry with Vernon than with any other receiver and they have probably faced more adversity than any two people on the team.  For the game-winning touchdown to be a throw from Alex to Vernon could not have been more perfect.  It was poetic.  In fact, that one play did something that I never thought would happen: it made me let go of the bitterness of the team drafting Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers and made me appreciate Singletary.  To see these two men triumph made drafting Smith and hiring Singletary worth it, because those things led to this play in this game.  One play absolved the team's baggage. 

That’s what made this team, this game, this season so incredible.  It wasn’t just a fantastic team putting on fantastic performances.  It involved redemption.  Alex had been through so much.  To see him gain 327 total yards and score four touchdowns, while leading two game-winning drives, in the franchise’s most important game in nearly a decade was exhilarating.  I could not have been happier for him.  Granted, the ending of the season was painful.  Coming off such an emotional win and playing without three of their top four receivers, from their opening day roster, they still came within two mishandled punts from going to the Super Bowl.  How could it not be?

But while a Super Bowl win would've been the ultimate ending to such a magical year, it tarnishes this season in no way.  The journey this team and these players went through to do to what they did was unparalleled to anything I've experienced with any other team.  Winning championships is great.  Reviving a franchise and redeeming a career?  That's monumental.  Maybe these guys will win a championship in the near future.  But unless that happens, this is the greatest team I've ever followed.

Take it away Vernon...

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