My editor asked me to write a wrap-up column on the Niners' season. Wrap-up is a synonym for post mortem.
The 49ers' turnaround was incredible, as in beyond belief. Many people, me included, thought six to eight wins would be commendable, and here was a team that made it to the NFC Championship and almost to the Super Bowl. It shows what good coaching can do, and what bad coaching cannot do.
Mike Singletary had the same players with a few exceptions and couldn't deliver. Jim Harbaugh is an optimistic, fiery, demanding coach who knows the ABCs of football, not to mention the Xs and Os. Without much of a preseason, he made the 49ers an elite team in the NFL, a team that will be elite for many years.
Harbaugh is not afraid to surround himself with good coaches. Singletary was — remember Jimmy Raye? A good coach wants to hear strong, creative voices in coaches' meetings. Sometimes he wants opposing voices. Harbaugh has a flat-out great coaching staff, to his credit.
Under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the 49ers had the best defense in football, a fast, mobile, punishing defense.
The offense was serviceable, certainly good enough to win 14 games. And this combination of great defense and good offense reminds us a football team, finally, is not two teams — defense and offense. It is one team, and the Niners won as a team, and eventually lost as a team.
Harbaugh's daring paid off with bringing back Alex Smith. More on that in a moment.
This season, the 49ers became a national story and they became the No. 1 sports story in the Bay Area, as they used to be. They were the subject of a passionate ongoing conversation, which will continue through the offseason. But the final game, that painful overtime loss to the Giants, was different from what came before. It serves as a diagnostic of what the team and coaches need to do as they approach next season.
Harbaugh, after all, was a rookie coach and against the Giants he had big-time game-management issues. Harbaugh was not such a good game manager in the championship game.
People blame poor Kyle Williams for fumbling the overtime punt, which eventually led to the Giants' win. Blame Harbaugh. A coach must know whom to put in the game and when. Williams never should have been in the game fielding punts. By overtime, Harbaugh should have seen enough. He should have acted. He should have replaced Williams with someone else. He did not.
In the third quarter, Williams had to dive on his stomach to field a punt. Big red flag right there for a coach. Harbaugh should have replaced Williams as the punt returner then. When a punt hit Williams in the fourth quarter — something that never should have happened — Williams froze and didn't run after it, allowing the Giants to get it. He made two egregious mistakes on one play.
Hey, Jim, get someone else to catch punts. But Jim didn't do that. He had Williams on the field in overtime, where he mangled yet another punt, setting up the Giants game-winning field goal. Put the blame on Harbaugh, who was thinking run-back when he should have been thinking, "Just catch the ball."