How long has it been since the San Francisco 49ers clinched the NFC West? Last time it happened in 2002, Steve Mariucci was their head coach, Jeff Garcia was their quarterback, Terrell Owens was firmly entrenched as their leading receiver, and Garrison Hearst led a surprisingly effective ground attack. There may not be as many marquee names on the new 49ers, and this team is doing things a different way.
Instead of air power, the offense designed by first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh is very much about ground-and-pound. Instead of being led by its offense, the new team is defined by a furious defensive attack designed by Vic Fangio, Harbaugh's defensive coordinator from his Stanford days. It's a linebacker-heavy group that has not allowed a rushing touchdown all season.
In short, the 49ers team that rose from a decade of franchise mediocrity is built from the foundation up. That should bode well for future years, in that we haven't seen the full construction just yet. Right now, the 49ers are more about the efforts of individual players than specific schematic constructs, which makes them an intriguing type of team in an NFL era when everyone's trying to build a better mousetrap.
"I talk about these guys as mighty men," Harbaugh said of his 10-2 team on Sunday afternoon, after they won the division with a 26-0 thrashing of the St. Louis Rams. "They've gone through, each year that they've been here, thinking that was going to be the year. This is going to be the year that we go to the playoffs.
"And then they fight like heck every single week and it's disappointment when you don't make that. But these guys… and it's a whole core group of them, I hate to start saying particular names because you'll leave somebody out, but all those guys.
"It feels good for them. That us first-year guys on the team could be a part of this and do that for them, this step, this game, today, of all those strong mighty men that have carried the flag this many years."
That may be the most important thing Harbaugh has brought to the team — a sense of equity in winning. He talks about himself as a newcomer, and respects players like Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore and (yes) Alex Smith as those who have been through the wars. He's the architect of the franchise's first 10-win season in a decade, but he's especially appreciative of the guys who have never seen a winning record in their NFL careers.
Offensive efficiency is another area of concern for Harbaugh, and it's shown in the stats. While the 2002 squad was flashier — they ranked eighth in the league in total yards and 13th in points — this team ranks 24th in yards and 10th in points. You won't see the same types of flashbombs with Smith at quarterback, a tight-end-heavy offense, and a group of relative no-names at receiver, but the message is clear here: If you get the ball, don't waste the down and make the possession mean something.
Harbaugh will leave the empty calories for others to ingest.
"They realize that there's more out there for us and they're already in there talking about that," the coach said of his players' approach to the postseason. "They want to get everything that's out there, everything that's available, everything that could possibly come their way. So we'll keep going. Not Hollywood, but blue collar. That mentality."
That description could certainly apply to a defense that has allowed just 161 points, the fewest in the league, and the fifth-fewest yards. This is the real engine of the 49ers' resurgence, and it's as well-equipped with unheralded stars like Ray McDonald, Navorro Bowman and Dashon Goldson as it is with marquee guys like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith. Cornerback Carlos Rogers, a reclamation project from the Redskins, already has five interceptions this season — as many as he had in the last four years in the nation's capital. Tackle Isaac Sopoaga is playing well enough to keep the team from missing Aubrayo Franklin, who moved to New Orleans and took the Saints' big contract offer.
Fangio has done as well as any coordinator in the league when it comes to matching personnel to scheme — he took the abbreviated hybrid concepts of the team's past and ramped them up to an entirely different level.
"We can start talking about the guys… Dashon Goldson, I thought he played extremely well in the secondary," Harbaugh said after the Rams game. "And everybody else played really well, too. Carlos, T-Brown, Donte Whitner played extremely well. Up front, really good. Really good with Justin, Ray, Aldon [Smith]. Played extremely strong. They pretty much kind of define that, talk about strong guys."
So, where do these "strong guys" go from here? Do they try and challenge the Green Bay Packers for the NFC's one-seed, or do they start to mellow down with four games left to go and try to avoid any injuries down the stretch? Nobody familiar with Harbaugh's way of doing things would be surprised by his answer. All out, all the way.
"I don't think we're in a position to rest right now. We need all hands on deck if we're going to get everything that's out there for us and we could get. This is a time to build momentum, to improve and to position ourselves the best we possibly can. We're really not in that position."
The first point is taken. For Jim Harbaugh's 49ers, the narrative is all new from here.