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 Wide Receivers/Tight Ends season review:
Overall grade for the 49ers WR’s and TE’s: B
Michael Crabtree: A-
Crabtree finally stepped up in the second half of the year, progressing into the number 1 wide receiver the 49ers hoped he would become when they drafted him 10th overall in 2009. He started slowly again in 2011 after sitting out his third straight training camp with a broken foot sustained in an off season “Camp Alex” workout. In addition to missing camp, Crabtree questioned whether Alex Smith was in fact the 49ers starting quarterback despite the fact that Coach Jim Harbaugh had all but named Alex the starter and Smith was personally organizing off season workouts to teach the team the new offensive playbook. All signs pointed to Crabtree having another mediocre year and worse, he seemed to be earning the “diva” label that had been thrust upon him when he held out to begin his career in San Francisco. All that disappeared as the season progressed. He caught 9 balls in a huge road win in Detroit which was a promise of things to come. During the last 7 games of 2011 he caught 42 passes for 525 yards. He finished the season with a flourish against the Rams, grabbing 9 balls for 92 yards and 2 touchdowns. All this despite the fact that Brett Swain and Joe Hastings were the only other Niner wide outs to dress that day. One play in the crucial second to last game of the season showed the true progression Crabtree has made into a legitimate number 1 NFL receiver. The Seahawks had just scored a go ahead touchdown and the Niners were now down 2 points in Seattle with 6 minutes to play. They faced a 2nd down and 18 deep in their own territory. This is the point of a game when 49er teams of recent years would completely fold under the pressure of the moment. Needing a play in the worst way Alex Smith dropped back and heaved a ball down the left sideline in Crabtree’s direction. Despite being double teamed, Michael gave the corner a subtle (enough that the ref didn’t notice) shove, leaped up and snagged the ball out of the air for a 41 yard gain and a first down in Seahawks territory. 4 plays and 7 yards later David Akers kicks the game winning field goal, preserving the second seed, home field advantage and a bye week. A huge moment for the franchise and for Crabtree one of the team’s finest plays of 2011.
Braylon Edwards: D-
Braylon’s 2011 season was the polar opposite of Crabtree’s. Edwards signed with the Niners one week into training camp for a base salary of just $1 million. The contract jumped up to $3.5 million if Edwards caught 90 balls or made the pro bowl. At the time of his signing these feats seemed highly unlikely considering the question marks surrounding the potency of the 49ers offense. Braylon came into camp and immediately ingratiated himself to the team, making a point of putting in extra work after practice to build a rapport with Alex Smith. He made an amazing one handed catch on a deep ball from Smith in the second pre season game vs the Raiders. This only seemed like the tip of the iceberg of Edwards injecting life into the Niners passing game. However, as soon as the season started the wheels began to come off for Braylon. After a quiet season opener, Edwards suffered a torn meniscus in the second game vs the Cowboys that required surgery. He would miss the next 5 weeks before returning to take on his old team, the Browns, on Oct. 30th. He continued to struggle with his knee injury before developing a second injury, this time a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. In late November he stated publicly that he was going to “concentrate on being healthy for the playoffs.” This chance would never come as his contributions to the team continued to plummet. This culminated in Braylon being inactive for the team’s huge Monday night battle versus the Steelers. At the time Coach Jim Harbaugh stated that he would start whoever “gave the team the best chance to win, based on practices and game performance.” This seemed to indicate that the coaching staff was not pleased with Edwards overall effort. He was never able to get involved in the offense and this was backed up by the terrible numbers he was putting up, managing to play in just 9 games and only catching 15 passes. The franchise finally gave up on Edwards when he was released on December 27th, despite having only 2 healthy WR’s to suit up for the forthcoming game vs the Rams. The team only invested $1 million into the Braylon Edwards signing, so it was not a huge risk, but it’s safe to say that it ending up being a failure.
Kyle Williams: B+
Williams showed a ton of promise in coming on strong in his sophmore NFL season. After an injury filled rookie season that featured Williams catching a whole 1 pass for 8 yards, not much was expected out of the 2010 6th round draft pick. WiIliams showed a glimpse of promise early in the season, making a beautiful touchdown grab in the back of the end zone vs Dallas in week 2. His breakout game came in week 11 vs Arizona when he caught 5 passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. 2 weeks later vs the Rams he turned a simple 5 yard pass into a blinding display of speed, blistering the entire Rams secondary for a 56 yard touchdown. In the same game he had a run play that went for 25 yards as well, showing the offensive coaches felt confident enough in his abilities to design plays for him. 4 catches in each of the Steelers and Cards games continued his late season push. When stellar return man Ted Ginn went down with an injury, Williams stepped into receive kicks and punts and the return game didn’t miss a beat. Williams ripped off a 36 yard punt return in one of his 2 chances filling in for Ginn, showcasing his potential as a returner. It will be interesting to see if the youngster can continue his strong late season play in the pressure cooker of the playoffs.
Josh Morgan: Inc.
Morgan was playing his usual brand of solid but not spectacular receiver when his year was cut short with a season ending injury in garbage time versus Tampa Bay. Morgan had 15 grabs for 220 yards during the almost 5 games he did play in this year. His biggest play of 2011 jump started the comeback in Philadelphia. With the team down 23-3 with just over 7 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Alex Smith correctly read a safety blitz and an almost telepathic Morgan broke off his route, caught a slant from Alex and beat an indifferent Assante Samuel to the end zone for a 30 yard score. The Niners would go on to complete the comeback and win 24-23. Morgan’s season would be wiped out the following week at the end of the 48-3 annihilation of the Buccaneers. Josh should be back at full strength by training camp. IF he re-signs with the team we can expect more of the same gritty consistent play he has become known for in his 4 season in San Francisco.
Ted Ginn: C
Ginn’s contributions mostly come in the return game, but when the injuries piled up amongst the 49ers wide outs, Ginn was forced into a larger role. Increased playing time arrived when Braylon Edwards was injured or in Jim Harbaugh’s doghouse and Josh Morgan suffered a season ending injury. Ginn’s most memorable game as a WR came Thanksgiving night in Baltimore. He caught what appeared to be the 49ers longest TD reception of the year but the play was nullified by a chop block penalty. Later in the game with the Niners in desperation mode and down by 10 points, Ginn dropped a 4th down pass that hit him right between the 1 and the 9. This drop ended the game and what little hope the Niners had of a comeback. One of the more effective ways the team was able to get Ginn involved in the offense was on a little run (outside of high school) play known as the fly sweep. Ginn’s speed allows him to get around the corner on the defense and pick up big yards, to the tune of 8 rushes for 68 yards. Ginn’s hands will always be a liability, but his speed can stretch the defense and prevent opponents from keeping a lid on the Niners passing attack.
Vernon Davis: B+
Vernon turned in another very good year in 2011. His numbers were slightly down from the last 2 years, but still relatively consistent. There were several games throughout the course of the year when Davis was fairly quiet. A lot of it was the opponent attempting to take away the 49ers best receiving threat, but another factor was the Niners keeping Vern in to block. He only has himself to blame for this because he is an outstanding blocker. However, when a big play was needed the Niners turned to Davis on several occasions. He hauled in a pair of touchdown passes in week 5 vs the Buccaneers including a 23 yarder early in the second half. In the much hyped matchup with the Giants in week 10 he caught a short pass on a crossing route and took it 31 yards to the house, finishing off the play with a leap from the 5 yard line over a New York defender. Week 15 brought an even more hyped game vs the Steelers and Vernon shined under the prime time lights (Insert power outage joke here). Vernon started the game changing drive by catching a 31 yard pass from Alex Smith. 3 plays later he hauled in a pass at the 13 and was pushed out just shy of the goal line. Having already accounted for 51 yards on the drive, Davis finished off the job by catching a 1 yard TD pass on a beautiful play fake. He initially appeared to be a blocker, but then broke away from the defense and caught the pass all alone in Pittsburgh’s end zone. He finished the season strong as well, catching a season high 8 passes for 118 yards, while most of the receiving corps sat on the sideline in street clothes with injuries. For the 3rd consecutive year Vernon showed he was an upper echelon tight end in the NFL with both his blocking and receiving and he continues to be one of the focal points of the 49ers offensive attack.
Delanie Walker: B-
Delanie was heavily utilized in Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman’s offense for the first half of the season. Walker had 19 catches through the first 9 games and then suddenly fell off a cliff, failing to record a catch for the rest of the season. He was mostly used as blocker and a decoy during the stretch run of 2011 before suffering a broken jaw on a vicious, though accidental, knee to the head on Christmas eve in Seattle. He caught a beautiful 29 yard touchdown on a wheel route in week 2 to break a deadlock vs Dallas. He opened the flood gates in week 5 vs Tampa Bay catching a 26 yard touchdown pass and drawing first blood for the Niners. Easily his biggest catch of the year came in the waning moments of the 4th quarter in Detroit with the Niners down by 4. Facing one last shot on 4th down from the Lions 6 yard line, Walker snagged a slant pass from Alex Smith and barely forced his way across the goal line for the game winning score. His best game stats wise came vs the Giants when he caught 6 balls for 69 yards, both easily season highs. While his 6th catch vs New York was his last of the season, he was still vital to the teams success in the run game and in pass protection. The Niners hold out hope he will be able to play in this year’s playoffs, but if he is unable to, his absence would be felt in all aspects of the offense.