No. 8 — 2006
Record: 7-9 (third in the NFC West)
Head Coach: Mike Nolan
Starting Quarterbacks: Alex Smith
Best Players: RB Frank Gore, QB Alex Smith, CB Walt Harris
2006 is the one season on this list which defies the “hope or despair surrounding the franchise” bit—coming off of two horrible seasons (and we’ll get to that), the 2006 season felt like the 49ers were on the rebound.
It was true, too. Second-year players Alex Smith and Frank Gore turned in very promising seasons, as the 49ers put up more wins than they had in the previous two years combined. This was the best season of the Mike Nolan era, which certainly counts for something.
It’s a bit of a Stockholm Syndrome situation, though. The 49ers were so bad in the surrounding years, that there was a bit of delusion going around that the 49ers had made any actual positive steps. The 49ers finished the year with a minus-19.4% DVOA, per Football Outsiders; sixth-worst in the league. They benefited from a very soft schedule, and their point differential of -114 was actually fourth-worst in the league. They barely squeaked by bad teams in their wins, and got crushed by good teams in their losses, including four losses by 20 points or more. When the 2006 team was bad, they were bad; only twice in franchise history has the team lost more than four of those blowout games, and both of those seasons remain ahead on this list.
Part of it was a lack of overall talent, resulting from years of poor personnel decisions. The only two real 49ers legends you can point to on the roster were Frank Gore, who was still young and had a fumbling problem, and Bryant Young, who was rapidly approaching the end of his career.
Fans got blinded by the shinier record and the hope that Alex Smith would continue his development, but with the benefit of perspective, we know that those hopes ended up not panning out.