Goodwin instead of Baas? Good thing for 49ers

The 49ers weren't going to get into a bidding war for David Baas last summer, and that's another item you can add to the long list of decisions done right by the team's brain trust. Baas is coming back to San Francisco this weekend with the New York Giants, but the Niners didn't miss him this season while saving half the cost on his replacement, Jonathan Goodwin, who turned out to be an upgrade.

So much of an upgrade, in fact, that Goodwin replaced Baas this year as the winner of the team's Bobb McKittrick Award, an honor given annually to the team's top offensive lineman. Goodwin earned the honor even though the acknowledged leader of the line, left tackle Joe Staley, was named a starter for the NFC this year in the Pro Bowl.

But the Niners knew what Goodwin meant to them and the important role he played in this remarkable turnaround season. It was much more than Baas ever meant to them during his six inconsistent seasons with the franchise after San Francisco made Baas the No. 33 player selected overall in the 2005 draft.

That was a heavy investment that looked for all too long like it might never pay off for the Niners. Baas' career in San Francisco started slowly, and the "bust" word was brought up often when Baas failed to start one game in 2006 and didn't break into the regular starting lineup until two years later on a line unit that was desperately in need of an upgrade in both talent and performance.

To his credit, Baas – who was held back by multiple injuries earlier in his career – finally settled in as San Francisco's starting left guard in 2009, then moved to center last year in place of injured stalwart Eric Heitmann, the rock of the line and the team's McKittrick Award winner from 2006-2008.

Baas had a career year while starting all 16 games last season, and it looked like he'd finally found a home at his natural position. He appeared to be one of San Francisco's top priorities in free agency last year, and Baas indicated his interest in returning by showing up for a session of player-organized workouts at San Jose State last spring during the NFL lockout, when Baas publicly stated he wanted to stay with the 49ers.

But just a few days after the lockout ended, right as the 49ers were beginning training camp, Baas left the team on July 29 to sign a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Giants.

That's top dollar for a free-agent center, and certainly overpriced for Baas considering his body or work with the 49ers. He was more a complementary part than a standout center in the line San Francisco was building. You can be sure the 49ers weren't giving him an offer anything close to what he received from the Giants, who gave Baas a signing bonus of $8.5 million and guaranteed $11.5 million of the deal.

You could just imagine Niners general manager Trent Baalke, not about to overspend for anybody while building the 2011 roster of his eventual NFC West champions, saying, "See ya and good luck."

Baalke waited patiently to find the best deal and best fit to replace Baas, then landed Goodwin to a three-year, $10.9 million deal in August that put the Niners on the hook for only $4 million in guaranteed money.

Goodwin came with a resume – which included a Pro Bowl berth and Super Bowl ring after the 2009 season – that easily out-shone Baas.' And then Goodwin went out and shined brighter for the 49ers than Baas did for the Giants this season at less than half the cost.

Goodwin started all 16 games at center for the Niners and provided the veteran stability the team needed both at the position specifically and as a veteran presence for a young unit in general. San Francisco's offensive line was a unit bordering on chaos during the first month of the season, but Goodwin helped hold things together and was instrumental in the team's growth thereafter with his veteran leadership and experience in making the line calls for the rest of the unit at the line of scrimmage.

"Those guys had a tough time with coming together in such a short amount of time," quarterback Alex Smith said, "with no offseason and adding Goody to the mix. But they've jelled quickly and just really come together, run and pass. They really set the tone for us in both those areas, really set the tone for us on offense. It all starts up front with those guys."

And with those guys up front, it all starts with Goodwin.

"He's been a tremendous player," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. "First of all, he played 16 games for us (in the regular-season). He started 16 games at, you could argue, the second most important position on the offense. He's been a block of granite up there for us. He's done a great jog communicating calls and understanding defenses as it's happening on the field and communicating that to the coaching staff on the sideline. He's just been a rock for us."

That continued in San Francisco's dramatic 36-32 victory Saturday over the New Orleans Saints, the team Goodwin played for the previous five seasons before joining the Niners.

Besides imparting knowledge during the week of practice about what the Saints might do, Goodwin displayed his toughness after suffering a leg injury midway through the second quarter of Saturday's game. It was announced after he was hurt that Goodwin was questionable to return, but the veteran sucked it up after missing a few series and got back in the lineup, playing the entire second half.

The 49ers needed him.

San Francisco was able to answer New Orleans' late flurry of two touchdowns in the final four minutes with two touchdown drives of its own to pull out the memorable victory that sent the Niners to their first NFC Championship Game since 1997.

Would the 49ers be there without the addition of Goodwin? They're glad they don't have to answer that question. He certainly has been a key factor in the Niners getting within one step of the Super Bowl as one of San Francisco's top offseason acquisitions.

And Baas? He missed five games this season to injury, including a neck issue that was causing him headaches, leaving the Giants in a lurch during a stretch that included four consecutive losses that almost dropped New York from playoff contention, a slide that began with the Niners' 27-20 victory over the Giants in San Francisco on Nov. 13.

Baas returned just in time for the four-game winning streak that got the Giants into the postseason on the final day of the season and has pushed them into the NFC title game, where Baas will get a second shot this season to beat his former team.

"It's awesome," Baas told New York writers on Monday. "It's a great opportunity. New York is my home. San Fran is in the past."

Which, as it turns out, ended up being a good thing for the 49ers.

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