Let’s flash back to Oct. 10, 2010. The 49ers are hosting the Philadelphia Eagles for the nationally televised Sunday night football game. Quarterback Alex Smith is laying down a dreadful performance, and the crowd responds by drowning him in boos.
Suddenly the sea of boos starts to transform into a chant. The crowd is so fed up with Smith they are asking coach Mike Singletary to swap him out for backup quarterback, David Carr.
“We want Carr! We want Carr! We want Carr!”
The fans weren’t crazy enough to think Carr would give them a chance to win the game, though. They were actually requesting a loss, which is Carr’s specialty. San Francisco wanted their football team to throw away the season, ditch Alex Smith and start the rebuilding phase.
The 49ers didn’t listen. And not even two years later, they are now the best team in football — with Alex Smith as their quarterback.
The truth is, a change was truly made. But rather than dumping their signal-caller, the 49ers opted to give coach Mike Singletary his walking papers.
Enter Jim Harbaugh.
Coach Harbaugh has turned the 49ers into a different kind of beast. A Harbaugh team knows how to tackle, run the ball and keep their opponents out of the end zone. He has an old school philosophy with a modern twist.
The defense is a good place to start when dissecting the 49ers. They run a base 3-4; however, the defense attacks from multiple formations, depending on the situation.
They’re successful partially because of their stacked personnel and partially because of coaching. Even an All-Pro set of linebackers needs the scheming of a coach like Harbaugh — and, to be fair, their defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
The 49ers have the best front seven in football. Their outside linebackers refuse to let running backs get to the edge, and their down linemen destroy at the point of attack. That combination is why teams look silly when they try to establish a running game against them.
While every player in the front seven deserves their own section, there has to be room for other stories in the paper. The two that I’ll shine a light on are outside linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive end Justin Smith.
Why do people consider Aldon Smith a freak talent? Last year, the 49ers used him almost exclusively in their sub-package. This is a third down package that features only six linemen and linebackers in total. Smith played both standing up and in a three-point stance and finished with 14 sacks as a rookie.
To sum it up: Aldon Smith notched 14 sacks in his rookie season without playing on the first two downs. Freaky.
For one game — or at the very least, one quarter — I urge you to keep your eyes locked on Justin Smith. Smith is possibly the best five-technique lineman ever, and he acts as the anchor of this vaunted defense. You can line up a concrete wall in front of Smith and he’s still going to get to your quarterback. He’s that kind of a player.
Things aren’t as sexy when it comes to the 49ers’ secondary. Their role is to play man coverage and swat all deep balls to the ground. It can be a thankless job at times, but they do it awfully well.
A 49ers name to know from their secondary is nickel cornerback, Chris Culliver. Tell your friends he is your favorite up-and-coming defensive back. If they don’t know who he is, you win at football.
The 49ers have an offense as well, which the aforementioned Alex Smith leads. Coach Harbaugh instilled his trust in Smith and never looked back. He also enforced a Smith-friendly system and has surrounded his quarterback with weapons.
The new Alex Smith era is something to behold. He has forever silenced the David Carr chants. However, what the 49ers ask from Smith is nowhere near what the Patriots ask from Tom Brady. Smith is your prototypical game manager who is carefully put into positions to succeed.
Most of the credit for Alex Smith’s success goes to the pieces placed around him. His offensive line is one of the best units in the league. Behind them, the 49ers are able to wear teams down with their running game.
The true test of a “running team” occurs when they are in second-and-long situations. If the team isn’t afraid to run the ball on those downs, they get an “A.” The 49ers not only pass this test; they are re-writing it.
The lethal ground attack allows Alex Smith to operate in cleaner pockets and with softer coverage. When teams become extra aggressive in their pursuit to stop the run, Smith can shred them apart.
We often see great defensive teams fall because their offenses couldn’t score enough points. The 49ers have done everything necessary to avoid that outcome.
In 2011, the 49ers were a fumble away from making the Super Bowl. At this rate, a duffel bag full of fumbles won’t be enough to keep them from playing in the final game of the year.