It takes a long time to build a championship team. The 2012 San Francisco 49ers didn’t seize the opportunity to complete that journey. I was at that game, in the stands behind the end zone where Jacoby Jones scored those touchdowns and Colin Kaepernick threw those final three passes to Michael Crabtree, surrounded by Ravens fans chanting “Seven Nation Army.” The 49ers played most of that game as if they knew they’d get at least two more shots at it, and their post-blackout flurry wasn’t enough. Despite carrying a very strong team into the 2013 season, Seattle’s ascendance proved too much to overcome. The Seahawks gained homefield advantage that year, and slammed the 49ers’ oft-mentioned “championship window” shut.
The 49ers surprised the nation in January of 2012 when they edged the Saints in the Divisional round and took the Giants to overtime at Candlestick Park in one of the most frustrating NFC Championship Games for a franchise that has suffered more than its fair share.* But the feeling was so positive, even after Kyle Williams’ mistakes and all of those late three-and-outs, because we saw a different kind of greatness than in years past. This wasn’t a fluke. This was a team. A deep, punishing team that had just started to realize what it could achieve.
* The 49ers have lost nine conference title games, including four in an eight-year span in the 1990s.
This isn’t another article about decisions made by Jed York and Trent Baalke. This isn’t about coaches, either. This is about four men who were at the peak of their powers during that 2011 season.
Four Mighty Men
Frank Gore (2005): He wasn’t known for outrunning defensive backs in the open field, but he could do everything else. He had moves, vision, patience, leverage and toughness. He noticed and anticipated certain things during games that his coaches couldn’t hope to see or predict in real time, hours before they could watch the film when it would’ve been too late. He was short with bad knees, and at times he blocked as well as any tight end in the league. He was equal parts confidence and insecurity, with his brain carrying the names of the running backs drafted before him on speed dial.
Patrick Willis (2007): Such a weak, nondescript defense the 49ers had in the mid-2000s. They finished last in the NFL in points or yards allowed in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Willis won Defensive Rookie of the Year, and the team followed his lead with incremental defensive improvement in each season before becoming a top-five unit in 2011. Willis was around to wreak havoc, clean up teammates’ messes, and crush unaware receivers in the middle of the field. If a tailback was tackled within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Willis was either making the play or right there.
Justin Smith*** (2008): It seemed like the 49ers went a little overboard when they took Smith on a helicopter visit around The City during his recruiting visit. By 2011, it was clear that something clicked — Smith went from being a very good defensive lineman to the most disruptive defensive force that season. He was double-teamed with regularity, so maybe that’s why he made First-Team All-Pro as a defensive tackle and Second-Team All-Pro as a defensive end in the same season.
*** There’s still a chance Justin Smith will come back and play for the 49ers for one more year (or partial-year), but it’d probably be in a part-time role. He clearly wasn’t anywhere near his former self at the end of the 2014 season.
Mike Iupati (2010): Don’t draft a guard that high, some said. Others noted how Iupati was enormous and seemed to knock defenders back with rare force. One scouting report said “once he gets his hands on opponents it’s pretty much all over.” Yep. It would’ve been something to see Smith and Iupati face each other during this period.
Harbaugh got an enormous amount of credit for molding this group into a winner without much in the way of an offseason, and he and his staff deserve their fair share. But football puts coaches on pedestals that can sometimes be too high — it also takes talented, smart players who are honest with themselves and each other to create a team strong, nimble, cohesive and fearless enough to survive and win games in a brutal league where parity is a constant.
Of the many cheesy phrases Harbaugh trotted out on a weekly/daily basis, one that truly hit the mark at that time was “Mighty Men.” This was indeed true of the team as a whole, and the four players listed above in particular. With Willis’ retirement, Iupati reporting this week that he played with a broken foot last season, the utter shock many observers display that Gore is still in the league at his age, and the missed practices and lengthy list of injuries sustained by Smith, that 2011 team seems like the end of an era for the sport. The NFL made a show of how they were going to start legislating certain types of violent acts out of the game more than ever around this time, but the 49ers had no such worries in 2011. They obliterated people and loved it. Alex Boone — not a 49ers figure on par with the four above, but a mauler in his own right — described the trend toward a “safer” kind of NFL quite well, and somewhat angrily, in a rant back in September. The 2011-12 teams were built for any era, except perhaps the one that immediately followed.
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Three straight long playoff runs would’ve taken a physical toll, even if all three years ended in a championship. But the cumulative anguish from those losses can’t run too far behind. The “Vernon post” win over New Orleans was Smith’s first playoff victory (he was a Bengals rookie in 2001). Gore and Willis worked so hard to bring the franchise out of post-Mariucci despair. Iupati probably felt like he stepped onto the ground floor of a future dynasty and hopped into an elevator on its way up, just as the doors were closing.
It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion than this was the part of a championship core — also including Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Anthony Davis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald (sorry, but he was a part of this defense’s greatness) — that fell a quarterback short of ultimate glory. Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have their strengths. Smith is a man who’s born to fit in with just about any group, and he ran an offense with an eye toward how he could help his team’s incredible defense on just about every play (translation: don’t take risks, punt whenever necessary). Kaepernick had a built-in advantage in 2012, since the league had no idea how to defend him, and his athletic gifts took the 49ers to the brink. But no team is stacked at every position. The 49ers had good quarterbacks, not great, and very average receivers while the rest of the roster was overflowing with smart, strong, motivated and unyielding talent.
Cause for celebration
The NFL is not a league for softies. Loyalty? Ha. Fairness? C’mon. Continuity? Only for the owners and officials, pal.
Just like one can’t seriously complain that the 49ers didn’t end up with Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers during that era, it’s ridiculous to mourn this era to the point of pretending it wasn’t completely awesome in certain respects. We may never see a better run defense wear red and gold than that 2011 squad. For those who love the NFL because it’s brutal and dangerous, that year was the time when athletic prowess and the NFL’s apathy toward concussions met at its highest point. It’s awful to admit such a thing, but not one 49ers fan, reporter or employee mourned the effects of Donte Whitner’s hit on Pierre Thomas at the time.
Beyond the visceral pleasure these teams created — especially relative to how soft and weak the 49ers appeared during the Dennis Erickson years and at the beginning of Mike Nolan’s tenure — these were players who demanded respect for what they did on the field.
“Here I stand, not as a perfect man, but as a honest man.”
That’s what Willis told the world with teary eyes during Tuesday’s press conference. The words could also be stated by the other three men on this list and be equally true. We don’t know these players as people, or what they do when they aren’t in workouts, meetings, practices and games. But when Willis, Gore, Smith and Iupati prepared and played, they did it honestly. They weren’t putting anybody on when they spoke with the media, either. The feelings I got from talking to these players:
- Willis was the hard-working realist who knew his time on the field was limited by the game itself and the way he played.
- Gore was the passionate one whose feelings on football hadn’t changed since childhood.
- Iupati was the quiet giant, an observer waiting to make a joke about what he saw to his brothers on the o-line.
- Smith was the no-BS guy, the one who thought everything outside of football was a little silly and frivolous and not worth worrying about, while humoring us and our questions just the same.
On the field, it was all about kicking ass … intelligently. That’s how I feel like Smith would describe it … maybe he wouldn’t bring up the “intelligently” part, although it most certainly holds true for all four players. No dumb penalties and very few forgotten assignments from this bunch.
In an offseason clouded by egos, “class,” arrogance, money and pain, the way to take solace isn’t to “move on.” That’ll come in September, and only if the roster and the new “teachers” mold something special. It’s OK to feel badly that this group of 49ers never got to share in the glory of a big silver trophy and a parade, like the teams from two and three decades prior.
But it’s also OK to remember the physical sacrifices these players made. And the emotional drive it took to pull this team out of mediocrity and back to relevancy, tugging the fans who grew accustomed to incompetence back to the feelings of pride and superiority they experienced so many years before. And the entertainment. Each player did it in his own style, but there was a common thread. Iupati, paving lanes and smiling after another pancake. Gore, chirping to anyone who’d listen that the ball should be his and immediately proving why. Smith, pushing two 315-pound men backward and into their quarterback. Willis, chasing down a running back from behind like a tiger before the gazelle could turn the corner and escape.
This group didn’t win a championship, but they were championship players. And they will be replaced by players of similar stature, and, someday, similar talent (the 49ers hope so, anyway). But the feeling that Gore, Willis, Smith and Iupati brought to the field when they were all at their best won’t be forgotten.