News and views: The bye week blowback
News: The Niners lead all NFL teams with five players selected to All-Pro first team.
Views: Not even in any of their five Super Bowl-winning seasons did the 49ers ever have five players receive the NFL's top individual accolade. Think about that for a moment. All of the great players and teams from San Francisco's 1980s/1990s dynasty, and the 2011 version leads every one of them in first-team All-Pros. The Niners' Fab Five this year includes linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, defensive lineman Justin Smith, punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers, tying the franchise record of five first-teamers set in 1972. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and offensive tackle Joe Staley both were voted to the All-Pro second team. Nobody can argue with any of those names, and they provide more hard facts supporting the team's return to NFL prominence. "What it says is, a rising tide lifts all ships," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said, his implication as clear as a sky-blue horizon.
News: Justin Smith becomes first player in NFL history to make All-Pro at two positions in the same season.
Views: Is he a defensive end or a defensive tackle? Just call Smith dominant wherever he plays. In the ultimate bow of respect from media that covers the NFL, Smith was voted first-team All-Pro at defensive tackle and also received enough votes to make the second team at defensive end. Nobody has ever received that dual recognition before. Technically, Smith plays right end along the front wall of San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme. So several voters wanted to stick to the premise that end is his true position. But the 49ers have always listed Smith as their right defensive tackle – on their roster, depth chart and official NFL gamebooks – so his actual position is a matter of perception. But obviously, with the way Smith performed this season, it didn't really matter where the heck he played. He was second among all vote-getters at tackle and third at end. If you think a lot of people were seeing double this year when the nonstop motor of Smith was wreaking havoc in the NFL trenches, you would be correct.
News: NaVorro Bowman takes the leap from Pro Bowl second alternate to All-Pro first team.
Views: It had to be vindication for the second-year veteran when Bowman jumped to the head of the class among NFL linebackers after being relegated to a secondary row during Pro Bowl voting. Bowman was one of the biggest factors in San Francisco's rise from good defense last season to elite defense this year, leading the 49ers and finishing seventh in the NFL with 143 tackles after moving into the starting lineup this year next to the incomparable Willis. Bowman's omission was the biggest shock when the Niners had a league-leading eight players selected when Pro Bowl rosters were announced last week. But it just goes to show voting for that honor can be a popularity contest more than based on merit. And while we're still on the subject… How many All-Pro first teams have ever had both inside linebackers come from the same team? If there was any remaining doubt that the Willis/Bowman tandem is the premier pair of inside linebackers in the NFL today, the Pro Bowl voting just settled the issue. And they are likely to be together in San Francisco for many years to come.
News: Niners spending Wild Card weekend watching and waiting.
Views: The 49ers had the look of a relaxed but focused football team this week as they conducted a team workout followed by two days of practice. Now they can sit back and watch four of the other five NFC playoff teams fight to the death this weekend before returning to work Monday. Now that it's nearing its end, there is no question what a luxury a bye week is for the 49ers at this stage, and what a reward it is for their 13-3 season, an advantageous position that was truly earned. But the Niners won't be straying too far from their objective this weekend. "4949 Centennial Boulevard," Harbaugh replied when asked where the Niners will watch wild-card games this weekend. That's the address of the team complex in Santa Clara. "We'll watch it here, as a group, until we know who we're playing and then, as soon as we know, we'll be able to get right on the game planning for that opponent." And make no mistake about it: For playoff teams, watching wild card games are infinitely better than playing in them.
News: Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams return this week to full practice.
Views: The Niners rested Ginn (ankle injury) the final two games of the season and Williams (concussion) in last week's season finale at St. Louis, taking no chances with two skill players they will need for the postseason run. Both probably could have played last week against the Rams had it been do-or-die, but now both will be ready and at full strength when do-or-die arrives next weekend. Ginn and Williams each are essential components for the 49ers, who are a bit light on offensive playmakers and will need somebody besides Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis to catch the ball and make plays in the passing game come playoff time. When the season began, who would have thought Ginn and Williams would be serving as San Francisco's Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers for the playoffs? But that's what they are now, and they will be needed.
News: David Akers closes out a historic season with NFC Special Teams Player of the Week and NFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors.
Views: In a season of firsts – and being first – for Akers, why not another to complete the greatest season ever by a NFL kicker? Akers is the first 49ers player ever to win NFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors, and he's the first San Francisco player this season to win any kind of NFC Player of the Month honors. There is no easy way to overstate the impact Akers has had in his first season in San Francisco and what he has meant to the 49ers and their turnaround success. On his way to setting a new franchise scoring record, Akers set a NFL record with 44 field goals while putting a whopping 166 points on the scoreboard, the most ever by a NFL kicker.
News: Aldon Smith wins NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for the second time this season.
Views: In the final analysis, you can pretty well say the 49ers got it right when they tabbed Smith with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Smith closed out an impact rookie season with another sack-filled month to collect the league-wide honor he also received in October. Smith had 6½ sacks in San Francisco's final five games to finish with a rookie franchise-record 14 for the season, just half a sack off the NFL rookie record. It was somewhat disappointing to see Smith not get that record last week, when he had no sacks against the Rams, only because of the way Smith had overpowered St. Louis left tackle Adam Goldberg for two sacks in the Week 13 meeting between the two teams. But the Rams ultimately got wise to that. They had veteran Mark LeVoir starting instead of Goldberg at left tackle last week. Considering the quarterbacks and passing attacks San Francisco will face in the playoffs, the Niners would like to see Smith turn it up another notch pretty much like he did every month over the final three-quarters of the season.
News: Greg Manusky axed after one season as defensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers.
Views: It's a shame to see Manusky made the fall guy for another season of unfulfilled expectations in San Diego, which had to burn somebody at the stakes after making the decision to retain head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith, each of whom had been under fire throughout the season. The rise of San Francisco's rugged defense truly began under Manusky, who was the 49ers' defensive coordinator from 2007-2010. His quick demise in San Diego – where Manusky had built his coaching reputation as the Chargers' linebackers coach from 2002-2006 before joining the 49ers – just shows how quickly a rising star can fade among NFL coaches. It was just a few years ago Manusky's name was being tossed around as a possible head-coaching candidate. Now he's looking for a job. But you can be sure Manusky will land on his feet and be heard from again in the future.
News: Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo selected as a finalist for the Hall of Fame.
Views: It's about time. What else is there to say? If any owner personified an era when the NFL became king of the sports world, it is DeBartolo. His Niners never lacked for anything, and that is why San Francisco became the gold standard of NFL franchises while building one of the greatest enduring dynasties in the history of professional sports under Eddie D's watch.
News: Niners a ratings hit among NFL viewers.
Views: The 49ers' Week 10 game against the New York Giants ranked 12th among the most-watched television shows this past fall season with 25.9 million viewers. Their Monday night game Dec. 19 against Pittsburgh ranked third among the most-watched cable television shows of the fall. Their Week 12 Har-Bowl showdown of coaching brothers at Baltimore ranked 15th among all cable shows. It just goes to show you that the 49ers are a team to watch again throughout the football world. And you can bet the eyes of that world will be watching the next time they step on the field to begin the NFC's Final Four tournament next weekend.
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