In celebration of the 49ers remarkable turnover this season, Niner Noise has reviewed each position and handed out grades. Today also marks the one year anniversary of the hiring of Jim Harbaugh. Who would have thought the 49ers would be in the playoffs as a second seed and winners of the NFC West a year ago from today?
The 49ers season of revival in 2011 was engineered by Harbaugh as he brought in the right coaches, kept the rights one from the previous regime, and installed the offense, defense and special teams. No matter how good the coaches or the system a team sets up, you have to execute everything on the field when it counts. The 49ers at all positions this season accomplished this. A perfect storm of the right coaches, players peaking with career seasons that included players already on the roster, along with the free agents signed by the 49ers, came together to catapult them back into the playoffs. Here is a look back at the 49ers 2011 season:
Special teams reviewed by Jared Quan
Click read more to view the quarterback’s season review:
Overall Quarterbacks Grade: B+
Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien
Unlike last season when the 49ers had a quarterback carousel, Alex Smith started all 16 games for the first time since 2006 and played well. So well that rookie QB Colin Kaepernick only saw action in garbage time and third stringer Scott Tolzien was not needed all season. Many teams this season had to start their second and some even third string QB’s because of injuries and ineffectiveness. This was not the case for the 49ers even though quarterback was the biggest question mark during the lockout.
In the off-season Niner fans expressed their disapproval of Harbuagh’s decision to bring Smith back at quarterback. Many fans wanted the team to go in a different direction. When no other potential starting quarterbacks were signed, the 49ers Faithful did not have much faith in the offense heading into the season because of Smith. At some point in the season I thought Smith would be replaced by Kaepernick because of his previous season failures. In my season preview I wrote the following,
At the very least this season we need a reliable quarterback who can utilize the 49ers offensive weapons to keep the offense on the field for more than three downs and put the team in position to score points. Smith showed last season and this past preseason he is not that reliable quarterback we need and he will cost the 49ers wins this season.
This was further from the truth for Smith. He stayed healthy all season and led the 49ers to 13 wins. Niner fans realized how good of a coach Harbaugh was as the team entered the bye week in week seven with 5-1 record and on a four game winning streak, with three of those wins coming in the Eastern Time Zone.
For the first time in his career, Smith played like a franchise quarterback and had his best season of his career with 3,144 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. In Smith’s previous two seasons he had 22 interceptions. Smith finished the season with a career high in completion percentage (61.3), completions (273), attempts (445), passing yards (3,144), average yards per completion (7.1), and passing rating (90.7).
If not for the lack of scoring inside the red zone Smith would have received an A for the quarterbacks. But the red zone struggles were not necessary the Smith’s fault but the lack of a go to receiver who was tall and could jump over defenders on fade passes in the end zone. It also did not help that the offense went conservative after entering inside the 20.
When the season started Smith was excited to have a legitimate red zone threat with WR Braylon Edwards who could double as a deep threat. Instead Edwards was released after catching zero touchdowns and 15 passes. Edwards’s lack of production started with his injury in week two of this season and he never recovered from his knee surgery which ultimately led to his release.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman indentified Alex Smith’s weaknesses and corrected them like being turnover prone and his lack of confidence. Smith did take a league high 44 in sacks absorbed however unlike previous seasons Smith finally learned when to just take the sack, rather than forcing a pass down field resulting in a turnover.
Many pundits labeled Smith, and some still do, as just a game manager saying he could not come through in the clutch. Smith’s break out game was against the Lions in week six. The game is remembered for Handshake Gate but after being down 19-12 against the Lions, Smith engineered a game winning drive resulting in a fourth-down, 6-yard pass to TE Delanie Walker giving San Francisco the go-ahead touchdown with 1:51 left in the game. Smith did not have his best game with only 125 passing yards, an interception and a lost fumble, but he came through in the clutch. At the time both teams had a 5-1 record and the 49ers were looking to extend their winning streak to four games heading into their bye week. Smith’s leadership in the game enabled the 49ers to continue their winning streak which lasted eight games.
The biggest surprise at quarterback this season was Smith not turning over the football. The limited turnovers however made the offense go conservative when they entered inside the red zone. The 49ers offense had a great kicker to bail them out but even when the team started to take chances down field in the second half of the season, the offense still failed inside the red zone. The 49ers offense was the third worst in the league inside the red zone. It was not all was Smith’s fault but with only scoring on 22 of the 54 times they went inside the 20-yard line, the quarterback will take his share of the blame.
Even with the 49ers lack of success inside the 20, Smith finished the season with an NFL low in interceptions. The offense relied heavily on the ground game led by Frank Gore that resulted in the eighth ranked running game. This allowed Smith to not have to go deep often in games. With the lack of scoring inside the 20, Smith did have eight touchdowns and only one interception all season when entering the red zone. Still, the lack of an efficient offense resulting in touchdowns inside the red zone is a concern for the 49ers in the playoffs. Smith has one last chance in the playoffs to prove the 49ers can score when they cross the 20-yard line.
Despite might what happened in the playoffs for Smith, the former number overall pick earned the right to come back next season to lead the offense again. Even though it took six seasons, we finally saw the potential in Alex Smith come out. We now know what is he can be cable of and another year under Harbaugh; the sky is the limit for Smith.