Looking back at the year that was for 49ers
Best individual performance: We begin our annual honors with high praise for the youngster who was front and center in San Francisco's climb to respectability in 2006. Running back Frank Gore shredded the Seattle defense for a team-record 212 yards rushing on 24 carries in San Francisco's rousing November upset of the Seahawks, the day the 49ers came of age. Gore ran through and over the Seahawks like they were a college team, pummeling Seattle into submission with big runs of 51, 50, 23, 20 and 17 yards, and a new NFL was born. Best old-timers' passing connection: 1. Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in the corner of the north end zone at Monster Park during halftime on Nov. 5, a re-enactment of "The Catch" on which the two 49ers' greats collaborated 25 years ago to win the NFC Championship game and send San Francisco to its first Super Bowl. 2. Steve Young to Jerry Rice on Nov. 19 at Monster Park, a perfect spiral Rice caught in stride and took into the south end zone to complete a halftime ceremony to celebrate his retirement as a 49er. Worst trend: The 49ers finishing with a losing record for the fourth consecutive season. For those keeping track, that's just the second time that ever has happened in the franchise's 61-year history. The 49ers never have had five losing seasons in a row. Offensive Play of the Year: It's third-and-6 late in the fourth quarter on a cold, wet and windy December night in Seattle, and the 49ers are clinging to a 10-7 lead as they break the huddle at the Seattle 20-yard line. Quarterback Alex Smith drops back to pass, but he's a sitting duck as cornerback Kelly Herndon races in untouched on a blitz and wallops him. But Smith bounces away from the hit, weaves away from a cloud of defenders, then throws on the run to complete a 20-yard touchdown pass to Gore that left a lot of jaws dropping at Qwest Field. Best fourth-quarter comeback: In a 10-minute span of that game at Seattle, Smith guided the 49ers to three touchdowns against the shell-shocked Seahawks, throwing for the first two and then scoring the third himself on a brilliantly-executed 18-yard naked bootleg during which Smith trotted into the end zone with the ball held above his head and no Seahawks within 15 yards of him. Worst drubbing: 1. Chicago 41, 49ers 10. It was 41-zip at halftime, folks, and it doesn't get much worse than that. 2. Kansas City 41, 49ers 0. For starters, it was the worst shutout loss in team history. 3. San Diego 48, 49ers 19. This is what it looks like when a team is simply out-classed at home by a superior opponent. Best newcomer: Walt Harris, pleased to meet you. You had the best season by a cornerback seen in these parts in a long, long time, and you were as fine a gentleman as you were a defensive standout. Defensive Play of the Year: With Brandon Moore charging up the middle on a blitz that forced a hurried throw, Harris stepped in front of a Jay Cutler pass in the season finale at Denver, then returned his NFC-high eighth interception of the season 28 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the 49ers their first lead in what would become an exhilarating overtime victory over the Broncos. Worst reversal of fortune: The 49ers trailed Philadelphia 24-3 early in the third quarter in Week 3, but the game seemed strangely closer than that, and the 49ers were about to get back within 24-10 with plenty of time remaining when Gore went crashing toward the goal line from the 1-yard line. He was stuck in the side by Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins, ending Gore's afternoon with a rib injury, and he fumbled on the play. Philly tackle Mike Patterson emerged from a pile of bodies with the football, then rumbled 98 yards for a stunning turnaround touchdown that put the Eagles ahead by four touchdowns on their way to a 38-24 victory. On the play, 49ers' rookie tight end Vernon Davis broke his right fibula trying to chase down Patterson and missed the next six games. Best debut: On the first touch of his NFL career, Davis - the team's heralded first-round draft pick - took a short pass in the left flat from quarterback Alex Smith, shrugged off a tackle attempt, burst down the sideline, turned on the afterburners, then out-ran the Arizona defense to the end zone to complete a 31-yard touchdown play that culminated San Francisco's first offensive possession of 2006. Most improbable turnaround: After getting shellacked in Chicago to end October, the 49ers - after allowing 89 points in their two previous games - began November by shutting down Minnesota the next week and limiting the Vikings to only a field goal in a 9-3 victory. Mr. Humility Award: The soft-spoken, mild-mannered, respectful Gore never took one of his team-record 1,695 rushing yards or his NFC rushing title for granted, not after everything he's been through and the adversity he's overcome to get there. Gore never gloated about his considerable success, never let that success go to his head, and he took his few-and-far-between failures so hard that they practically left him in tears. Best rookie: A tough call this year, because neither of the top contenders really ran away from the others. But we'll go with: 1. Tight end Vernon Davis. He came on so strong at the end of the season that, if he hadn't missed seven starts due to a broken leg, he might have been a Rookie of the Year candidate. 2. Linebacker Manny Lawson. In the context of the full season, he had the biggest impact on the team. 3. Melvin Oliver. The sixth-rounder started 14 games along the defensive line, and he was no slouch. Worst post-game joy ride: We hate to kick a guy when he's down, but you've really got to wonder what Antonio Bryant was doing when he was pulled over by the law after allegedly driving his orange Lamborghini more than 100 mph on a Bay Area freeway in the wee hours following the 49ers' huge November upset over Seattle. Getting busted for suspicion of drunken driving, reckless driving and resisting arrest didn't help, either. Antonio, what we're you thinking? Best assistant coach: Norv Turner, you were just what the football doctor ordered to cure San Francisco's ailing offense. It was almost like having a second head coach who could focus on just one side of the ball. Most improved player: 1. Alex Smith. That 11-interception, one-touchdown-pass, 40.8-passer-rating rookie season seems like a long, long time ago. 2. Ronnie Fields. A big step forward in Year 2 for the emerging defensive tackle. 3. Keith Lewis. Wide receivers of the NFL beware. Best heads-up play: While everyone else stood around as though the play was dead - thinking that Oakland quarterback Andrew Walter had just thrown incomplete on a pass that went parallel to the line of scrimmage - rookie Melvin Oliver had the wits about him to pick up the ball on a play that actually was a backward lateral. When he didn't hear a whistle, Oliver cradled the ball and headed for the end zone while the Raiders stood around beffudled, completing a 12-yard untouched jaunt to paydirt that helped put the hammer on San Francisco's 34-20 victory in Week 5. In the process, Oliver became the first rookie defensive lineman ever to score a touchdown for the 49ers. Penalty champion: Right tackle Kwame Harris defended his title, getting flagged a team-high eight times during the season. Two of Harris' penalties - a hold and an illegal hands to the face - were either declined or offsetting, but Harris couldn't get away with four other holding penalties, one false start and one facemask infraction. Red Hankie Award: Coach Mike Nolan knew when to hold 'em and when to throw 'em. Nolan ranked third in the NFL with a .545 success rate on replay challenges. Nolan was successful on six of 11 replay challenges. Only Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio (4 of 5) and Dallas' Bill Parcells (5 of 8) were better in this area. Nolan failed on five of his first six challenges of the season before getting hot, and some of his later challenges proved consequential in a good way for the 49ers at the end of the season. Best new development: San Francisco's steady influx of upgraded talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. It just goes to show you Terry Donahue really had no clue what he was doing when he gutted the franchise after the 2003 season. Three years later, the 49ers are just now recovering from that catastrophe. Worst finish: On the verge of closing out a fourth consecutive victory that would have put them over .500 in late November, the 49ers - leading 14-13 at the time - opted to go for a short field goal on fourth-and-one-inch at the St. Louis 7-yard line, then watched the Rams drive 90 yards for a touchdown in the closing minutes that left the 49ers with a 20-17 defeat from which their playoff hopes never recovered. Hit of the Year: 1. Shawntae Spencer's levitating dismantling of Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna on a corner blitz, which drew a $7,500 fine from the NFL. 2. Keith Lewis' vicious sideline whack-job on receiver Deion Branch near the end of the Seattle rematch. 3. Brandon Moore's over-the-top drilling of Denver running back Mike Bell on a first-and-goal play from the 1, knocking Bell backwards and ultimately forcing the Broncos to settle for a field goal. Kudos to all of the big boppers. Worst officiating call: There were several that went against the 49ers this year - enough that could have made a difference in their won-loss record - with referee Terry McAulay blowing several calls, including Patterson's 98-yard return of that fumble in Week 3, which the NFL later admitted was a mistake (Patterson should have been ruled down after recovering the fumble). But the absolute worst came on a play in which Walt Harris was robbed of a forced fumble, fumble recovery and touchdown return in Week 12 at St. Louis. Rams receiver Torry Holt clearly caught a pass and turned upfield before being stuck by Harris - who returned the resulting fumble into the end zone - and the play originally was ruled a touchdown on the field. But after reviewing the play, McAulay reversed it, saying Holt never had possession of the ball and ruling it an incompletion, and the 49ers went on to lose by three points. It was one of the worst reversals you'll ever see an official make on a play that was ruled correctly on the field in the first place. Best trade: 1. Brandon Lloyd to the Washington Redskins for a 2006 third-round draft choice and a 2007 fourth-rounder. 2. Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets for a 2007 fourth-rounder. 3. Ken Dorsey and a 2007 seventh-rounder to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Dilfer. It might be more accurate to call all three fleece jobs rather than trades. Iron Man Award: Bryant Young certainly isn't getting any younger, and that just makes his greatness grow in scope as he holds up to the constant double-team pounding in the defensive trenches and keeps dishing out as much punishment as he receives while continuing to make plays and perform up to the highest standards, something this 13-year veteran knows all about. Worst injury: 1. Eric Heitmann's broken right tibia. That one was ugly to watch. 2. Parys Haralson's torn chest muscle. The rookie would have been a contributor by the end of the year if not for that season-ending injury. 3. Vernon Davis' broken leg. He would have made a difference on offense in the nearly seven full games he missed to the injury. 4. Derek Smith's left eye muscle strain. The veteran's play dropped off this season, and the problems he had with his vision and headaches due to this condition probably had a lot to do with it. Best emergence: Brandon Moore went from not even starting in late October to becoming a dominant force on defense in November and December, when he became a big play waiting to happen on a weekly basis. When the San Francisco defense becomes a force again, Moore will be in the middle of it. Mr. Versatility Award: He can run (82 yards rushing), he can catch (13 receptions, 137 yards and one TD receiving), he can return kickoffs (25.1-yard average on 57 returns) and he can get defensive (a team-leading 20 tackles on special teams). Maurice Hicks may be an unsung player, but he's one guy that can do it all. Worst disappearance: Antonio Bryant vanished from the scene when the 49ers needed him most, getting hit with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy that forced him to miss the season's final two games. Bryant's replacement in the starting lineup, Bryan Gilmore, caught one pass in those two games. Team MVP: Have we mentioned that Gore kid lately? He's now The Man in San Francisco. Best finish: Joe Nedney sailing a 36-yard field goal through the uprights to beat Denver in overtime on New Year's Eve. That kick completed a rousing comeback from a 13-point deficit, bounced the Broncos from the AFC playoffs, and not only provided the 49ers with a happy ending to 2006, but also sent them off into 2007 with heightened expectations and realistic hope of better things to come.
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