The San Francisco 49ers were 6-10 and just a game out of the cellar in the NFC West, a division that many thought was the worst in the NFL. The hiring of head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011 was the catalyst to one of the most successful and immediate NFL transformations in recent memory.
The 49ers are 24-7-1 in the regular season since Harbaugh took over, and they twice played in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers claimed back-to-back division crowns, are 3-1 in the postseason, and a young roster shows no clear sign of weakness.
Success hasn't come without controversy in San Francisco. But Harbaugh is anything but conventional. Witness his decision to bump incumbent starter Alex Smith at quarterback after he suffered a concussion Nov. 11 against the St. Louis Rams. Harbaugh gambled on the dual-threat capabilities of Colin Kaepernick, the raw, gifted player many viewed as a longer-term project.
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Scouts questioned whether Kaepernick's gaudy statistics -- he's the only quarterback to ever pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in college -- were grossly inflated by Chris Ault's "pistol" offense at Nevada. Critics pointed to the lack of NFL success of past Nevada stars and to Kaepernick's elongated three-quarters release. Some even questioned whether the 49ers favored TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, who was selected one pick earlier by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Kaepernick has become an instant sensation. It's impossible to argue with Harbaugh's decision. At the time, of course, the move was highly criticized. Smith had led the 49ers to a 20-6 record in his two seasons with Harbaugh, with 35 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions.
The man once known as Captain Comeback played the game fearlessly as a quarterback. As it turns out, he coaches that way, too.
Some point to Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman's willingness to allow Kaepernick to use his dynamic athleticism in the read option as the turning point in San Francisco's 2012 surge. Adding the wrinkle to the time-tested power running game Harbaugh had implemented with great success at Stanford resulted in Kaepernick shattering the record for most rushing from a quarterback in the playoffs with 181 yards (and two scores) against Green Bay in the divisional-round victory.
The reason for San Francisco's ascent can't simply be attributed to one or two additions to the playbook, or the evolution of the coaching staff.
The single most critical ingredient in San Francisco's recipe for success is much simpler -- the 49ers are tougher than their opponents.
That is a tribute not only to their players and coaches but to the evaluations by their scouting staff, most notably general manager Trent Baalke.
Baalke, who has the final say in personnel matters, has presided over the past three drafts, a haul that includes Kaepernick and Pro Bowlers Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Mike Iupati.
Like his team, Baalke's climb has been sudden.
He entered the league as a scout with the New York Jets (1998-2000) before jumping to the Washington Redskins. In just four years he rose from area scout to the team's scouting director. Baalke joined the 49ers in 2005 as their West Regional scout. Two years later he was promoted to director of player personnel. In 2010 he moved up again, this time to Vice President of Player Personnel. When then-general manager Scot McCloughan and the 49ers abruptly parted ways in March 2010, Baalke took over control of the personnel department.
Since gaining control, Baalke and his staff have shown a willingness to search for talent outside the traditional FBS powerhouses. Kaepernick (Nevada) and Iupati (Idaho) are the most prominent of the 13 players among San Francisco's current active 53-man roster who played their collegiate football at programs other than BCS automatic qualifiers.
Balke and his scouting staff have proven similarly undiscriminating in free agency, using the franchise tag last year to keep Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson in town, and re-signing cornerback Carlos Rodgers, quarterback Alex Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks, among others. Baalke was also able to extend the contract of All-Pro inside linebacker Bowman, a bit of a surprise since some anticipated that he'd want to escape Willis' shadow and test free agency. Instead, by getting Bowman to re-sign, Baalke assured that the 49ers most talented unit -- their linebacking corps -- would remain under contract until at least 2015.
Baalke aggressively searched out more weapons for the passing game, signing Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham away from the Giants and taking a chance on retired legend Randy Moss.
Not every foray into free agency has panned out. Veteran wide receiver Braylon Edwards and safety Madieu Williams were each lauded as potential starters when signed in 2011 but quickly fell out of favor. Edwards caught just 15 passes for 181 yards and no touchdowns in nine games and was released during the final week of the regular season. Williams started three of the team's first four games in 2011 as Goldson and Donte Whitner recovered from injuries but was relegated to special teams duty upon their return. He signed with the Washington Redskins a year later, where he went on to start all season, posting his best numbers since 2004.
Whether via the draft or free agency, Baalke has continued the focus on physically and mentally tough players that his predecessor, McCloughan, had put in place when he served as the team's lead scout for nearly six years.
While he might never live down choosing Smith out of Utah over Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers (taken 23 spots later by Green Bay) with the first pick in 2005, McCloughan, now a member of the Seattle Seahawks' scouting department, has developed a reputation as one of the league's highest-regarded talent evaluators.
Despite McCloughan leaving San Francisco nearly three years ago, 11 of the team's 22 starters were acquired under his reign. McCloughan oversaw a scouting department that was remarkably successful with their first-round picks, landing Smith (2005), Vernon Davis (2006), Patrick Willis (2007), Joe Staley (2007), and Michael Crabtree (2009) and showed an ability to uncover "diamonds in the rough," as well, landing future Pro Bowlers in running back Frank Gore in the third round of the 2005 draft, fullback Michael Robinson (fourth round, 2006) and Goldson (fourth round, 2007). McCloughan also elected to sign Justin Smith, a free-agent defensive lineman from Cincinnati who has since become one of the league's elite players as a defensive end in San Francisco's 3-4 alignment.
Nine of San Francisco's starters on the offensive side of the ball are homegrown. The two exceptions -- 34-year old center Jonathan Goodwin and the 35-year-old Moss -- provided needed guile to units otherwise very young. The average age of San Francisco's other four offensive linemen -- Staley, Iupati, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis -- is just 25. Crabtree (25) is backed up by the team's first-round pick from a year ago, 23-year-old rookie A.J. Jenkins.
The dynamic play of Kaepernick robbed attention from a stout San Francisco defense that has been among the most dominant units since Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio arrived.
Fangio's group led the NFC in total yards allowed each of the past two seasons, giving up an average of just 301.3 yards per game during that time.
The consistency is remarkable considering that the 49ers have supplemented their own draft picks with free agents on this side of the ball. Brooks, who, like Smith signed with the team after being drafted by Cincinnati, will never get the attention of the three Pro Bowlers he lines up with, but has developed into a fine pass rusher.
Half of San Francisco's secondary arrived in free agency, with the 49ers receiving better play from former first-round picks Carlos Rogers (Washington Redskins) and Whitner (Buffalo Bills) than they'd given their initial teams.
The turnaround in San Francisco is complete, and the 49ers have the talent and youth to remain on top for quite some time. Consider that their two most dynamic players -- Kaepernick and the NFC's leading pass rusher Smith -- are just wrapping up their second season in the league.
Not coincidentally, so, too, is the head coach leading the charge.