From 1981 through 1998, the San Francisco 49ers were the model franchise in the NFL. Other than the strike-shortened season of 1982, the Niners won at least 10 games every year and averaged 12 wins per season (excluding ’82). They made ten NFC championship games and appeared in and won five Super Bowls. During that span, San Francisco was home to arguably the greatest coach (Bill Walsh 1979-88), quarterback (Joe Montana 1979-92) and wide receiver (Jerry Rice 1985-2000) to ever play the game. Even after Montana’s time was over, he was followed by another Hall of Famer in Steve Young. It seemed the golden era would go on forever in San Francisco. Then, it all went away.
From 1999-2010, things started to fall apart. There was a brief run of success in 2001-2002 but that major players on those teams were disbanded due to salary cap issues. In those 12 years, the team that won 10 games or more 17 out of 18 seasons (and 16 in a row) would only reach that mark twice. Overall, those two ten-win campaigns would be the only winning seasons the 49ers would have during this time frame.
It was especially dark after the firing of Steve Mariucci in 2002. The 49ers would suffer through tenures of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary that would ultimately end up being some of the lowest points in franchise history. From 2003-10, San Francisco would go 46-82 and not have a single winning season. The most frustrating part of the situation was that as the decade wore on, the team clearly had acquired a lot of talent but could not put all of the pieces together.
Considering where the 49ers came from, where they were, and where they are now only makes the job Jim Harbaugh has done look that much better. San Francisco was picked by many “experts” to finish dead last in 2011 (Harbaugh’s first season), citing that Alex Smith was not the answer at quarterback and they were just biding their time until Harbaugh could draft someone who could actually win games. The underdog 49ers would finish 2011 with a 13-3 record and come within an overtime loss of the Super Bowl. For the season, San Francisco lost four games (including the playoffs) by a total of 18 points. Two of the losses were in overtime and one was on a cross country trip for a Thursday night game in Baltimore. Riding his stout defense, creative running game, and quarterback who didn’t make mistakes, the 49ers finally had a coach who could put all of their pieces together.
The next season was more of the same until Smith got hurt in Week 9. Harbaugh inserted Colin Kaepernick at quarterback to relieve Smith, not knowing what to expect from the physically gifted signal caller. When Kaepernick excelled and showed a big play ability that Smith may have lacked, the coach made the gutsy decision to go with the younger, more talented player. The result was the 49ers’ first trip to the Super Bowl since 1994.
While the full story of 2013 is yet to be written, Harbaugh’s status in the league is etched in stone. In the 46 regular season games since becoming head coach, he is 34-11-1. That is only 11 less wins than Erickson, Nolan and Singlatary had in 81 less games (one win was credited to Jim Tomsula during his time as interim coach).
Harbaugh has also shown he has what it takes to win on the big stage. He is 3-2 in the playoffs, appearing in two NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl in two full seasons. The 49ers had only one playoff win from 1999-2010.
Looking year to year, Harbaugh has given a sense of consistency to a franchise that seemed rudderless for some time. Since he took over, the 49ers have finished second in total defense in 2011-12 and currently rank 3rd in 2013. Whether it was Smith or Kaepernick behind center, the Niners have excelled at taking care of the football. Quarterbacks have only thrown 21 interceptions in 46 regular season games and the team has a plus-46 turnover ratio overall. Currently at 1,919 total rushing yards, 2013 will mark the third straight season the team has run for over 2,000 yards.
In the NFL, a great coach can mean a lot to a franchise. When you look at the extended success a team like the New England Patriots have had, much of that can be attributed to the steady hand of Bill Belichick. Harbaugh has a ways to go before he can be compared to coaches that have championship legacies, but if early results are any indication, he could be on his way.
Photo: Getty Images
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