With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for all but two teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: A franchise reversal on all fronts. First, Jim Harbaugh transformed a disorganized 6-10 outfit into a 13-3 band of brothers. In the process, an organization formerly known for promoting offensive philosophy across the pro football landscape morphed into a defensive juggernaut of the highest order ... all instigated by a former journeyman quarterback(!). What a season for the Niners, who were legitimate contenders for the first time in a decade and a half.
What Went Right: Everything that had to do with Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense went right. Even the secondary, thought to be a weakness coming into the season, had a good year. The front seven was the best in pro football. Patrick Willis was automatic in the middle, a streamlined tackling machine with the range to cover up for those rare occasions when his immense football brain let him down. Fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman played with controlled athletic fury, making plays all over the field. Aldon Smith had 14 sacks in a brilliant rookie campaign. Defensive end Justin Smith was unblockable. Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson each made the Pro Bowl from the back four (although Goldson's selection was arguable). Donte Whitner was solid. Ditto Tarell Brown, who's injury in the NFC Championship Game put the secondary in a tough spot.
Overall, this was a defense worthy of a Lombardi Trophy, one that led the NFL in rushing yards allowed and was second only to Pittsburgh in points allowed.
On the other side of the ball, maybe this wasn't the Steve Young-led 1994 Niners. But Alex Smith did what he was asked to do, being careful with the football and hitting throws off play-action and well-timed wheel routes to Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. The unheralded Smith finished with 17 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a very respectable 90.7 passer rating (ninth in the NFL).
Smith received plenty of support from a running game that averaged 127.8 yards per game. Frank Gore was his usual productive self with 1,211 yards. Also good were the special teams, championship game aside. David Akers set a record for field goals made in a season, and was named to the All-Pro team alongside punter Andy Lee.
What Went Not So Right: Sometimes that formidable defense was asked to do too much by an offense that couldn't move the ball. The 49ers had (coincidentally enough) 49 three-and-out drives during the regular season, one of the higher totals in the league. Tack on a whopping seven more in the NFC Championship Game. On third downs, the 49ers were downright terrible, converting only 29.4 percent during the regular season (31st in the NFL). Once again, this offensive malaise reared its ugly head against the Giants, when Harbaugh's offense went 1-for-13 on third down. That's plain awful.
Some of that inefficiency was the result of hyper-conservative play calling. A portion is attributable to receiver Josh Morgan's early-season injury, mediocre wideouts, and Smith's inability to get the ball to them. A smaller part of the responsibility must land at the offensive line's feet. They were effective much of the season, but could also be beatable, particularly during the Thursday nighter in Baltimore.
Offseason Crystal Ball: The biggest issue for this organization is what to do with Alex Smith, who is a free agent. On the surface, it appears that the club would like him to come back, and Smith should absolutely re-sign with his original team. He has a coach who believes in him, and he finally made strides in his seventh year in the league. Leaving now wouldn't serve him, or the franchise, well.
The club also must decide on Morgan, Goldson, linebacker Larry Grant and Rogers. The latter should absolutely be re-signed. Grant was an excellent role player.
The offense needs more out of Michael Crabtree and whoever lines up next to him. With Ted Ginn Jr. also headed for free agency, the Niners need playmakers to complement their fantastic tight end tandem of Davis and Walker.
Team Needs and Draft: Thus, in my last mock draft, I had the 49ers taking WR Mohamed Sanu out of Rutgers. He's 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and would give Smith (or Colin Kaepernick) another big target. Other options include fortifying the interior of the offensive line, grabbing an interior defensive lineman to work in with Isaac Sopoaga, or snagging a quality pass rusher, should one fall to San Francisco. Drafting secondary help is never a bad idea, especially considering how much of the game is played in space these days.