Here are my full season grades for the 2011 49ers.
Alex Smith: A-. He’s a ‘B’ quarterback who had an ‘A’ regular season, an ‘A+’ divisional playoff game against the Saints and a ‘D’ championship game against the Giants. The ‘D’ performance knocks his overall grade down to an ‘A-’ for the season. You can’t finish flat like that and get an ‘A.’
Here’s what we know about Smith: He’s smart efficient, he’s careful, he’s tough, and he’s athletic. He usually executes exactly what Harbaugh asks him to execute. He still struggles to see the whole field. He’s a ‘B’ quarterback who can play like an ‘A’ quarterback, but rarely two weeks in a row. He’s inconsistent but he’s still improving. He was bad on third down and in the red zone all season long. If he can improve big-time in these two areas next year, he will be a Pro Bowler.
He gets major bonus points for his performance against the Saints and his leadership in organizing ‘Camp Alex.’ With a full season and an offseason of experience under Harbaugh, plus some new receivers, Smith should be a 28-year old ‘A’ quarterback next season, as well as a Super Bowl winner. If he falls short, then he’s holding his team back and the Niners will have to turn to Colin Kaepernick or find someone else.
Offensive line: B+. They were bad at the beginning of the season, but they improved dramatically. Yes, they gave up 44 sacks, tied for seventh most, but a lot of those came because Alex Smith held onto the ball extra long instead of throwing a pass into coverage. They were good at opening running lanes both inside and outside. Every member of this unit is athletic enough to pull. They’re young and they should be a strength of the team in the future.
Running back: A-. Frank Gore had one of his best seasons as a pro despite being injured in one way or another for most of it. Kendall Hunter had a terrific rookie season. He was so good you could argue he was under-utilized, especially on screen passes. Anthony Dixon seemed to be improving as a short yardage runner, but he failed to pick up a third and short against the Giants. Still, I think he has a bright future.
Wide receiver: D. There just isn’t much talent here. Michael Crabtree is a good starter in the league and he had a good regular season, but he did nothing in the playoffs. Joshua Morgan got hurt in Week 5. Braylon Edwards got hurt in Week 2. Ted Ginn Jr. isn’t a wide receiver – he’s a special teamer. Kyle Williams is a good little 23-year-old receiver who’s already had four concussions and who can never return a punt again for this franchise, so his future Niner value is questionable at best. Then there’s Brett Swain and Joe Hastings, who have no business playing on Sundays. It’s imperative for the Niners to get at least two new receivers for next season, maybe three.
Tight end: A-. Vernon Davis took almost all season to become comfortable with Harbaugh’s huge offensive playbook. But he was consistently a great blocker, and in the playoffs he was unstoppable as a pass catcher. He was the Niners best receiver this season and he will continue to be that guy next season. He’s so good that if you don’t throw about ten passes his way in a game, you aren’t giving yourself the best chance to win. Look for him to get much more involved in the pass game next season.
Delanie Walker had a good season until he broke his jaw. Justin Peelle was nothing special as the third tight end. Konrad Reuland and Nate Byham will compete for the third tight end job next season.
Defensive Line: A+. One of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Justin Smith is the best defensive player in the league and Ray McDonald is excellent, too. Aldon Smith had a great season (14.5) sacks, and he didn’t even start. Expect him to be a team-MVP candidate for the next decade. Isaac Sopoaga was a terrific nose tackle, too.
Linebacker: A+. Patrick Willis is the best middle linebacker in the NFL, and NaVorro Bowman had 46 more tackles than him. Backup Larry Grant is the hardest hitting linebacker on the team, and he played very well as a starter when Willis was hurt. Ahmad Brooks played almost every defensive snap this season – he’s never done that before in the NFL.
Secondary: A-. They gave up a good amount of yards, but they didn’t give up a lot of touchdowns. Before the year many people thought this unit would be a weakness of the team, but they were far from it. Carlos Rogers had an outstanding year and established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL because he can cover the slot and a corner, which is rare, plus he can actually catch – he caught six interceptions. Tarell Brown was better than solid and he’ll be a starter next year, too. Chris Culliver had an excellent rookie season considering he played free safety in college. He’ll eventually take over for Rogers as the team’s No. 1 corner. And the team really likes Tramaine Brock, the corner. Shawntae Spencer hardly played and he’ll most likely get cut, and the Niners will probably fill his spot with Curtis Holcomb (7th round pick in 2011) or Corey Nelms (practice squad).
The safeties, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, both had excellent seasons. They’re fast, they cover a lot of field and they hit hard. Actually, they don’t just hit hard. They’re good tacklers and they hurt people. They make the Niners secondary not only good, but fearsome, which is a rare combination in today’s watered down NFL.
Special teams: A. They’d get an ‘A+’ if “The Kyle Williams” game never happened. David Akers had an all-time great season and so did Andy Lee. The coverage team is the best in the NFL – they didn’t allow a single return for a touchdown. And Ted Ginn Jr. proved to be a very valuable member of the team just as a returner. As badly as the offense performed against the Giants, the Niners probably still would have won had Ginn been healthy enough to play.
Vic Fangio: A+. He was the best defensive coordinator in 2011. He made any number of brilliant decisions with his defense. He didn’t like Shawntae Spencer – he preferred Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver at cornerback. That was the right call. He liked Parys Haralson as a starter and Aldon Smith as nickel-formation pass rusher. He liked NaVorro Bowman as a starter and a No. 1 tackler, which allowed Willis to blitz and cover tight ends more. That may have been the most brilliant call. Now, the Niners may have the two best inside linebackers in the whole league.
Greg Roman: B-. He designs creative, unique, effective run plays. At the beginning of the year he was winning games with these (the Kendall Hunter sweep against the Bengals, the Kendall Hunter counter against the Giants in Week 10). Roman seemed clearly better than Jimmy Raye, who called just one run play – Gore up the middle. But Roman’s pass plays were a different story. They were never very good. In fact, they seemed worse than Raye’s for much of the season. He never figured out what to call on third down or in the red zone. He doesn’t get credit for the Niners biggest red zone plays – the run and the throw late against the Saints. Other coaches designed and called those plays.
It’s as if he understood midseason he needed to improve his pass plays, so he focused on them to a fault down the stretch. Against the Giants in the NFC championship, running the ball with Frank Gore was working and he didn’t call those simple plays enough. Gore was averaging almost five yards per carry Roman only gave him 16 attempts. It didn’t take a genius to understand that Gore needed at least 25 in that game – that was the obvious game-winning strategy. It became obvious in the first quarter when it was working. Then Roman went to his pass plays and the Niners lost. As much as the Niners need to improve their wide receiving corps, Greg Roman needs to improve his play calling.
Jim Harbaugh: A. He had the best rookie head coaching season in NFL history, but he flopped the last game of the year so he doesn’t get an ‘A+.’ He should have torn up Greg Roman’s offensive game-plan and insisted on a meat and potatoes, run-run-play action approach. And he should have replaced Kyle Williams at punt returner with Reggie Smith. Without these rookie mistakes, the Niners would be in the Super Bowl.
Trent Baalke: A-. His draft and offseason moves were brilliant. But his in-season moves were not. He never properly replaced wide receivers Joshua Morgan and Braylon Edwards, as if the team didn’t need talent at that position, just ‘consummate teammates.’ That approach finally hurt the Niners in the last game of their season. Like most of the faults with 2011 Niners, Baalke’s falls under the category of ‘rookie mistakes.’ It’s reasonable to assume the Niners will learn from these and become the Super Bowl team next year they thought they were already this year.