The 2012 San Francisco 49ers ended their season as NFC champions and Super Bowl representatives.
It was a remarkable season for a team that fought tooth and nail to compete for a Lombardi Trophy. As one of the most storied franchises in sports history, it was inspiring to witness their return to prominence.
The Niners finished the regular season with an 11-4-1 record.
They made incredible improvements on the offensive side of the ball, concluding the year 11th in total offense. In the second year under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers revealed one of the highest-volume playbooks in the NFL—particularly in the run game.
Once again, San Francisco fielded a top-ranked run unit spearheaded by the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore.
The team also returned all 11 starters on defense, which allowed for them to have consistency in that regard. With six Pro Bowlers on that side of the ball, they finished third in total defense. They were a complete unit, ranked No. 3 against the pass and No. 4 against the run
Throughout the season, this 49ers team demonstrated leadership, brotherhood and heart. Regardless of the individual talent on the roster, it was about humbly working together to achieve a common goal.
Let’s take a look back on the 49ers’ crusade to Super Bowl XLVII.
Coming off a 13-3 performance in 2011, the 49ers were pitted to select near the end of Round 1. With how their season concluded in the NFC Championship, it was clear that the team needed to upgrade their passing offense.
The popular mocked position for the Niners was at wide receiver.
A majority of the draft experts had the 49ers linked to Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill. This pick made sense because the 49ers lacked a big-bodied pass-catcher who could take the top off the defense.
San Francisco went off the radar when they made Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins the 30th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. There were almost no mocks projecting Jenkins as a first-rounder, so this was a bit of a surprise.
In the second round, San Francisco drafted a live wire when they selected LaMichael James 61st overall. During his time with Chip Kelly at the University of Oregon, James became one of the most prolific runners in the NCAA.
He was a Heisman finalist, Doak Walker Award winner and All-American who finished his collegiate career with 5,929 all-purpose yards. He would join a dynamic backfield featuring Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
Jenkins and James were followed by mid-to-late round picks, OL Joe Looney, S Trenton Robinson and LB Cam Johnson, who were committed to understudy roles.
Linebacker Darius Fleming unfortunately tore his ACL on the first day of minicamp. Upon his return next season, the fifth-rounder from Notre Dame could develop into a special-teamer while providing depth at the LB corps.
49ers sixth-round pick Jason Slowey, an offensive lineman from Western Oregon, did not impress the coaching staff and was given his release. He was among the first 12 players cut from training camp.
After a transitory retirement, the San Francisco 49ers were able to lure Randy Moss to the Bay Area.
Dodging the media whenever possible, Moss has deferred comments regarding his one-year hiatus but appeared glad to be back on an NFL team. At age 35, the future Hall of Fame receiver joined a new organization with the understanding that he’d assume a unique role that he was unaccustomed to.
With this knowledge, he signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
Moss only wound up playing 40.4 percent of the snaps in the regular season. But come game day, he was efficient on the field and on the sideline. Throughout the season, No. 84 was roaming around talking to players, motivating and giving sound technical advice.
And his advice was not strictly limited to the receiver group. As a 14-year veteran who has competed with and against some tremendous players and coaches, Moss has a world of knowledge.
When Moss stepped on the field, he was selfless—especially blocking in the run game. He also impressed as a receiver, finishing the season with 28 receptions for 434 yards and three touchdowns. He was a great addition to this roster and had a tremendous impact on this locker room.
The Niners also signed two former New York Giants in Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. The 49ers staff witnessed these two perform up close and personal in the postseason. Manningham turned out to be a solid addition but was still developing within the offense before he was lost for the season.
Meanwhile, Jacobs struggled to crack the 45 active players on game day.
And after a stellar year in 2011, general manager Trent Baalke brought back the entire defense. The 49ers head of personnel prioritized the retention of this top-ranked unit by restructuring deals and dedicating cap to that side of the ball.
The team applied the franchise tag to Dashon Goldson and re-signed Carlos Rogers to a four-year, $31.3 million contract.
Not long after the conclusion of the 2011 season, linebacker Ahmad Brooks received a six-year, $44.5 million extension. And finally, they were even able to lock up All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman on a five-year, $45.25 million deal.
Week 1 to Week 10
The 49ers had zero leeway for a slow start, as Week 1 of the 2012 regular season would be no easy task. To kick off the year, Harbaugh’s Niners would travel to Green Bay to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field.
This was arguably the toughest challenge for any team transitioning into the regular season.
After an offseason of working on their imperfections, the spotlight was on Alex Smith and this offense. With Randy Moss and Mario Manningham now aboard, there would be no excuses for a lackluster performance.
San Francisco’s remarkable season began almost immediately, as the 49ers took an early lead over the Packers and never relinquished it. A red-zone TD to Moss lit a fire under this offense, which eventually led to five straight scoring drives in this game.
This enabled the Niners defense to put the clamps down on the reigning league MVP. The corners were taking away the deep throws and the pressure was affecting Rodgers’ rhythm in the pocket.
In the battle of 2005 first-round QBs, Rodgers was bested by Smith, who finished with a 125.6 rating and the win.
San Francisco going on the road and convincingly knocking off the Packers was a colossal statement to commence 2012.
Their journey continued, and along the way, the team suffered losses to the Giants and Vikings. In hindsight, it was not as bad, considering one was the defending Super Bowl champion and the other made the postseason in 2012.
Both falls were gut-wrenching for their own reasons, but nevertheless, the Niners maintained a winning record.
During this time, Alex Smith was one of the most proficient passers in the league. On Monday Night Football against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8, Smith went 18-of-19 for 232 yards and three touchdowns. It was nearly a perfect game.
Following the bye week, the 49ers (6-2) entered Week 10 for a divisional match against the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams came out very disciplined and very focused under new head coach Jeff Fisher. It was clear that this was not the pushover Rams team the 49ers had faced in years past. They were competitive and muscled the Niners into the league's first tie in four years.
The spotlight moment of the game, of course, was when Alex Smith folded underneath linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The Niners QB left the pocket and received a blow to the back of the head, which would remove him for the remainder of the game.
Smith left Week 10 with a 104.1 rating on the season.
The only two quarterbacks in the NFL who finished with a higher rating were Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. At that point, it seemed a quarterback change would have only endangered the 49ers' chances going forward.
But as if it were written in the stars, No. 11 lost his job on 11/11 and witnessed the transition into the next QB era in Week 11.
In 2012, linebacker Aldon Smith transitioned from a situational player to a full-time role, doing so quite gracefully. In the nine contests leading up to Week 11, San Francisco’s rush LB had amassed 9.5 sacks.
Smith was also riding a three-game sack streak with the Bears shaky offensive line on the schedule.
This was good news because with Alex Smith (concussion) sidelined, the 49ers were counting on strong contributions from their defense. After finishing against the Rams a week prior, Colin Kaepernick would get his first career start against a feisty Bears defense.
Kaepernick’s first start would be his official coming out party. He finished 16-of-23 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, shocking the Bears in a 32-7 rout.
Beyond the numbers, his poise in the face of this defense was the most remarkable part about his performance. He looked calm and focused, echoing the composure of a 10-year veteran.
This Bears defense came after him, but he didn’t flinch. But Kaepernick also received tremendous support from the defense.
LB Aldon Smith went off against the Bears offensive line, racking up 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. It was the most dominating defensive performance by an individual in the history of Monday Night Football. The stars of the game were truly the 2011 draft picks for the Niners.
Kaepernick and Smith led unstoppable performances on both sides of the football.
When the clock struck zero and everyone realized what just took place, it was easy to anticipate a changing of the landscape in San Francisco.
Explosive Offense: The Read-Option and Michael Crabtree
From this point on, the 49ers made the leap from a conservative, proficient approach to an explosive attacking style of offense.
They already possessed a multitude of offensive packages, but Kaepernick’s athleticism and throwing ability unlocked the entirety of the playbook. It also opened up a realm of possibilities that would not have existed with a less gifted player under center.
San Francisco incorporated the read-option as a wrinkle to their already illustrious catalog of innovative plays.
Behind the team’s punishing Pro Bowl offensive line, Kaepernick and the running back corps were able to chew out defenses. The fact that the play is improvisational in nature makes it incredibly difficult to defend.
Kaepernick’s ability to tuck it and take it the distance also adds a dimension opposing teams haven’t solved yet. No. 7 being a true-to-life dual-threat—able to run and throw—makes him virtually unstoppable.
But once you get past the sub-4.5 speed, Kaepernick has a big league arm.
While he added a layer to this top-ranked rushing attack, Kaepernick also kick-started this passing offense. His most notable contribution in that regard was finally giving this team the deep-ball threat.
He has a powerful cannon of an arm and can put the ball anywhere on the field. In a short period of time, Kaepernick displayed the ability to push the ball through the defense and consistently make tight-window throws.
Even when his receivers are otherwise covered, Kaepernick has the confidence and pinpoint accuracy to put the ball on them. He gives his playmakers a chance to make something happen.
With this gunslinger mentality, Kaepernick instantly struck a rapport with fourth-year WR Michael Crabtree.
In nine games playing with the young dynamo, Crabtree accumulated 56 receptions for 771 yards and seven touchdowns.
Coming out of Texas Tech, Crabtree was one of the most dynamic receivers in NCAA history. He was the first-ever two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, given to best receiver in college football.
After two dominant seasons, Crabtree declared for the 2009 NFL draft, at which time he was taken 10th overall by the 49ers. For someone who was expected to be a true impact player, Crabtree had an awfully slow start to his pro career.
It has only been since Kaepernick took over as the starter that Crabtree has produced like a No. 1 receiver.
Michael Crabtree credits his emergence to Kaepernick, having showered him with praise since he took over the starting role. “You can be the best receiver in the world. If you don’t have a quarterback, those talents won’t be seen,” Crabtree said at Super Bowl XLVII media day in New Orleans (via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com).
Both at 25 years old, Kaepernick and Crabtree could evolve into quite the offensive duo for years to come.
Of course, the transition from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick would not come without scrutiny. The 49ers were winning games with No. 11 at the helm, appearing to be playoff bound for a second consecutive year.
But Smith’s knock to the head opened a small window for Kaepernick to audition for the starting gig.
Ultimately, Kaepernick’s performance in the 49ers-Bears game was too hard to ignore. And the next week, he followed it with a momentous road win against Drew Brees and the Saints. Soon, the questions began to roll in regarding who the quarterback was in San Francisco.
After weeks of deferring, Harbaugh finally announced Kaepernick as the starter going forward.
There was the initial thought perhaps Harbaugh dealt with the QB situation the wrong way. A lot of folks questioned his sincerity and how fair this was to Alex Smith.
And for some, the change was not a surprise. Harbaugh, a known QB guru, handpicked Kaepernick just outside the first round in the 2011 NFL draft. One of his first moves as the new architect of the 49ers was bringing in a franchise quarterback.
Whatever the case, Harbaugh’s gamble paid dividends, and the 49ers locker room grew stronger than ever. They continued to win games and re-established a swagger on offense for the first time in a while.
However, one player who could not seem to remain positive no matter how good things were was Brandon Jacobs:
The 49ers free agent running back struggled to find the field, listed behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon. He grew frustrated with the organization and vented publicly, particularly on Twitter.
Finally, the Niners had enough of Jacobs and suspended him indefinitely with three games remaining in the regular season. When the postseason was decided and the Giants were out of the tournament, the 49ers officially released Jacobs from the roster.
After signing a one-year, $1.6 million deal, he finished 2012 with five attempts for seven yards in two games played.
Back-to-Back NFC West Champions, Postseason Bound
Following a titanic win over Tom Brady and the Patriots in Week 15, the 49ers secured their spot in the postseason for a second consecutive year. It was another statement game for Kaepernick, and it put the 49ers in favorable position to close the season.
With two games remaining on the calendar, San Francisco only had to win one of two in order to repeat as NFC West champions. The Niners lost some air the next week when they were flattened by the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
Fortunately, they returned home to Candlestick Park to host a 5-10 Arizona Cardinals team. The 49ers steamrolled them in the season finale, as Michael Crabtree went on to catch eight passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
San Francisco would become back-to-back NFC West champs and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs—a first by the franchise since the 1994 and '95 seasons.
The team put together an 11-4-1 record, finishing with double-digit wins and a playoff berth for the second consecutive year under Jim Harbaugh. However, during the season, a peculiar pattern emerged on the team’s schedule.
It seemed that every third game, the 49ers would come out flat and unprepared. In 2012, an unusual W-W-L pattern unfolded where the team would win back-to-back but falter in the third match. From Week 1 to Week 17, the Niners were handed a loss every third contest.
And even though they had 11 victories, they did not have a winning streak longer than two games all year.
As the team looked toward the postseason—if that trend were to continue—the 49ers were slated to fall in the NFC Championship once again.
The 49ers had a first-round bye, which allowed their players to rest their bodies while the Wild Card Round was decided.
On the bye week agenda:
- Re-acclimate Justin Smith (partially torn triceps)
- Open competitive trials to determine kicker situation
- Begin preparing for the Packers
In Week 15 against the Patriots, the 49ers All-Pro defensive lineman tore his triceps, which sidelined him for the last two games of the regular season. With a top of the line arm brace, Smith was prepared to fight through the pain to compete in the postseason.
After an incredible season a year ago, San Francisco’s six-time All-Pro kicker hit a rough patch in 2012. David Akers completed only 69 percent of his kicks from the field this season, which inevitably jeopardized his standing with the team.
The 49ers auditioned and signed rogue kicker Billy Cundiff, who had been cast off by the Ravens after missing a critical game-tying field goal in the 2011 AFC Championship.
The competition was closely monitored for a little over a week, and Akers eventually came out on top. San Francisco would move forward with their troubled place kicker, boasting him in front of the media in order to build his confidence.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were playing the percentages by assuming the Packers would dominate a Christian Ponder-less Vikings team. By doing this, they would buy more time to prepare for the competition.
This was good anticipation on San Francisco’s part, as Green Bay wound up strong-arming a shorthanded Minnesota team, advancing to the NFC Divisional Round. The date was set as the 49ers and Packers would face off at Candlestick Park on January 12.
This playoff game would be a rematch from the regular season, except two things would be different this time around.
First, the Niners would be the home team, whereas they were the visitor in Week 1. And second, the Packers would not be preparing for Alex Smith—they would be preparing for Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick brought more raw talent and, again, was capable of executing this offense on another plane. The Niners began to use the Pistol formation a lot more because it carried options. And having run it during his career at Nevada, Kaepernick was familiar with the package.
But perhaps most notably, San Francisco deployed read-option plays.
They flirted with the concept early in the season, back when Smith was still the unquestioned starter. Kaepernick would come in on various plays to relieve Smith and run the option. This was unpopular, as analysts believed it disrupted the flow of the offense.
The consensus was that Jim Harbaugh should start one quarterback or the other—but I digress.
For the most part, Kaepernick won five of seven regular-season starts with precision passing. The Niners had Kaepernick run just enough to see what he was capable of, and after that, they shut him down till the playoffs.
This strategic approach paid huge dividends for San Francisco in the postseason, starting with Green Bay in the divisional round.
It was a record-setting performance by Colin Kaepernick, who gashed the Packers for 444 total yards of offense and four touchdowns. His rushing show (181 yards, two TDs) was the best ever for a quarterback in NFL history.
The front seven of the Packers did not play disciplined contain on the option, and it opened holes—particularly on the edges—for Kaepernick to blaze through. When the tackles pinched and the linebackers bit on the dive, they automatically disengaged from the play, putting pressure on the back end.
This challenged the secondary to make the tackle, which is not typically the featured skill set in defensive backs.
The Packers defense could not stop the 49ers, and Aaron Rodgers could not score enough points to keep pace. The Niners ran away with it, winning 45-31 to advance to the NFC title game for a second year in a row:
After having home-field advantage in Round 1, the 49ers would travel three time zones over to Atlanta, Georgia, to face the Falcons.
The Atlanta Falcons (13-3) finished the 2012 season with the best record in the NFL, entering the postseason as the No. 1 seed. Their electric passing offense charged by a triple-threat receiving corps had them humming all year.
But the question remained, “Could they win in January?”
After five years, Matt Ryan finally got over his postseason slump by leading his team past the intensely physical Seattle Seahawks. Having fought till the very end, this Falcons team looked ready for an incoming 49ers group.
When the game began, it looked like that cursed third game was going to cut the 49ers' season short. San Francisco looked flat on both sides of the ball, and before they knew it, Atlanta was up 17-0 in the first half.
After two unanswered scores, veteran running back Frank Gore let Jim Harbaugh know he was ready to go. The Niners had been looking to move the ball through the air and it resulted in a couple three-and-outs.
On the next series, Gore received four consecutive carries, which resulted in two 1st downs. The 49ers finally got rolling on offense, and the defense made the necessary adjustments on the back end, holding the Falcons to seven points for the rest of the game.
San Francisco went on a scoring spree, jumping in front of Atlanta in the second half to win 28-24.
The special part about the comeback was that after it had been all Crabtree as of recent, it was Vernon Davis and Frank Gore who emerged to save the 49ers season. The 2005 and 2006 draftees who had endured the dark days in San Francisco asserted themselves and took the game over.
Davis and Gore are the battle-hardened veterans who have defined this 49ers era. It was fitting that they would be the ones to carry this team to their first Super Bowl since 1994.
The 49ers would advance to play the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.