After ruling the Bay Area sports landscape in 2010, things went a little differently for the San Francisco Giants in 2011. They started out the year basking in the afterglow of their first World Series win since moving to San Francisco, taking their trophy on a tour that covered two states: California and New York, their former home. The Giants rode their 2010 glory to a sellout season in 2011, but ultimately fell short offensively and in the standings.
Another team that disappointed was the Oakland Athletics, who appeared to be following the Giants' blueprint of building around a blue-chip pitching staff. While the franchise was indirectly brought into the spotlight with the Moneyball movie that critics adored, A's fans grew more disillusioned by the team's direction as the year went on and that guy Brad Pitt played dealt away Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney in a 3-week span. The A's remain in a holding pattern until their stadium situation gets sussed out somehow, which is hardly guaranteed in 2012.
The San Francisco 49ers appear closer to a new stadium in Santa Clara than ever now, in the same year they won the NFC West. After the NFL season looked to be in jeopardy, the 49ers had their first division championship, first winning season ... pretty much their first good anything since 2002. 2011 was also the best year for the Oakland Raiders since 2002 on the field, but in the process they were asked to overcome the loss of owner Al Davis. Unlike the 49ers, the Raiders need help on the first day of 2012 to make the postseason.
All this playoff talk is old hat for the San Jose Sharks, who made the postseason for the 7th straight season and the 12th time in 13 years. After taking down the Detroit Red Wings in a classic 7-game series, the Sharks lost to Vancouver in five in the Conference Finals.
The Golden State Warriors have a new coach and what looks like a new lease on life heading in to 2012. But isn't it just like Warriors fans to get their hopes up so high after starting out 2-1 after a short training camp and preseason that followed a really, really long lockout? Then again, Sacramento Kings fans almost lost their team to Anaheim and they're buying more merchandise than they have in years (due to a certain rookie named Jimmer).
But as we head to our "best of 2011" awards and biggest moments of the year, we'll start by focusing on something that doesn't get too much of the spotlight around these parts: college sports.
Most Dominating Performance in a Game: Stanford Cardinal's Win Over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl
We knew that Stanford was for real, but this was when the rest of the nation found out. The Hokies were the poor souls to learn of the Cardinal's dominance firsthand, as Stanford outscored Virginia Tech 27-0 in the second half to win 40-12 in their first ever Orange Bowl. Stanford's balanced attack was on full display as they gained 287 yards through the air and 247 on the ground, with Andrew Luck passing for 4 scores. Speaking of Mr. Luck...
Most Surprising Decision: Andrew Luck Staying for his Junior Season
Luck's choice to remain in school raised eyebrows everywhere, but served as a post-holidays gift to everyone on The Farm (everyone who cares about the football team, anyway). Luck maintained his status as the near-consensus No. 1 pick whenever he enters the draft, but he wasn't able to lock down that elusive Heisman Trophy. After finishing second to Cam Newton in 2010, Luck was the runner up again in 2011, this time losing out to Robert Griffin III.
Breakthrough Team: San Francisco 49ers
Young kids throughout the Bay Area might have no idea, but the Niners used to OWN this region, and it wasn't even close. After years of poor football and overmatched head coaches, the 49ers broke through in 2011. 12 wins, doubling their total from 2010 (with a game still remaining in the regular season). Eight players named to the Pro Bowl. As 2012 approaches for this young team on the rise, the ceiling is so high that even Andy Lee couldn't touch it with his best punt.
The Cool Kids: All-Rookie First and Second Teams
All-Rookie First Team:
- Logan Couture, Sharks
- Aldon Smith, 49ers
- Jemile Weeks, Athletics
- Denarius Moore, Raiders
- Chris Culliver, 49ers
- Bruce Miller, 49ers
All-Rookie Second Team:
- Stefen Wisniewski, Raiders
- Kendall Hunter, 49ers
- Fautino De Los Santos, Athletics
- Ekpe Udoh, Warriors
- Brandon Belt, Giants
- Demarcus Van Dyke, Raiders
Injury of the Year: Buster Posey's Ankle
The A's lost multiple starting pitchers and had plenty of players on the DL in 2011, but no injury rocked the Bay like that night when Scott Cousins of the Florida Marlins sped toward home, barreled into Posey and ... we've all seen the collision replayed about 100 times too many, let's move on.
Biggest Waste of Time and Money: The Barry Bonds Trial
After an 8-year investigation and a trial where his former best man testified against him, Bonds was sentenced to a month of house arrest for obstruction of justice. Then he appealed. Our tax dollars at work, indeed.
Most Shocking Moment: Al Davis Passing Away
It might look weird to see an 82-year-old man's death called "shocking," but Davis seemed like he'd never die. Especially the day before the Raiders were set to play a game against the Houston Texans, a highly emotional contest they'd end up winning. The rebellious owner, who also served as the team's lead scout, general manager and almighty overseer, left perhaps the biggest mark of any Bay Area sports icon ever, both good and bad.
Runner Up, Most Shocking Moment: Bill Neukom's Ouster as Managing General Partner of the Giants
Less than a year after soaking in the love from nearly a million people during the parade that went down Market St., Neukom was hastily removed from the position he assumed three years earlier when Peter Magowan stepped down. Disheartening to many fans were the reported reasons why Neukom was shown the door: Neukom wanted to take the increased revenues the Giants enjoyed after their championship run and spend it on payroll, technology and other resources, while the rest of the owners were more interested in squirreling that money away in what was deemed a "rainy day fund."
Biggest Trade of the Year: Raiders' Acquisition of Carson Palmer
Just 10 days after Davis' passing, Hue Jackson put on his general manager's cap and mortgaged the future for a chance to keep the Raiders' season alive after Jason Campbell went down with a broken clavicle. The Raiders sent a first round pick in 2012 and a second rounder in 2013 (which becomes a first rounder in 2013 if the Raiders make it into the postseason on New Year's Day). So far, the results have been mixed. Palmer's thrown for a considerable amount of yards, but his TD/INT ratio (11/15) and the Raiders' record since he arrived (4-5) have left a lot to be desired.
Executive of the Year: Trent Baalke, 49ers
Baalke followed up an outstanding draft by adding several key pieces to the team, during a truncated free agency period when many 49ers fans were complaining about the team's lack of activity. Turns out all Baalke did was sign Carlos Rogers (starting CB in the Pro Bowl), David Akers (Pro Bowl kicker who booted the most field goals ever in one season), Donte Whitner (Pro Bowl reserve), Jonathan Goodwin (Pro Bowl reserve) and Blake Costanzo (special teams maniac). He also re-signed Dashon Goldson at a bargain price, along with several other moves. Scot McCloughan's gotten a lot of credit recently for bringing a lot of the talent to San Francisco that's helped the 49ers win as much as they have in '11, but Baalke's personnel moves fine-tuned the roster and helped create an actual team.
Athlete of the Year: Andre Ward
One of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world, Oakland's Ward has sort of been our little secret -- even though he won a Gold Medal in 2004. Not anymore, after he became the undisputed Super Middleweight champ by winning the Super Six World Boxing Classic. His 2011 fights were two wins by decision: the first in May over Arthur Abraham of Germany, the second over England's Carl Froch on Dec. 17 to win the tournament. Ward was named Sports Illustrated's Fighter of the Year, and as Chris Mannix wrote, "this has been a memorable year for Ward. But it likely won't be his last. With each win he gains more fans, his profile grows."
Bay Area Sports Figure of the Year: Jim Harbaugh
In a year where a lot changed in Bay Area sports, Harbaugh was the one constant. It started with Stanford's win in the Orange Bowl that culminated a turnaround Harbaugh started four years before, after the Cardinal went 1-11 under Walt Harris and seemed completely lost.
After the Orange Bowl the Niners' courtship of Harbaugh was the story, with the "49ers faithful" praying that the Miami Dolphins or some other team wouldn't swoop him up. No one else did. Jed York hit a grand slam when he signed Harbaugh to that 5-year, $25 million deal, a contract that looks like the biggest bargain in Bay Area sports right now. Yes, even ahead of dollar days at Golden Gate Fields.
When the NFL lockout was supposed to hit new coaches hardest, Harbaugh defied all expectations and led the 49ers to the playoffs with the kind of ferocious and physical team that Mike Singletary's (or Mike Nolan's) squads never became. Harbaugh even salvaged the career of Alex Smith, who was booed mercilessly at Candlestick Park throughout the end of 2010.
Harbaugh's style is loved by 49ers fans and players, but maybe not as much by reporters. See, Harbaugh isn't interested in letting the media know who's injured, what schemes they're going to run or adjustments they'll make (halftime adjustments are another Harbaugh specialty that Singletary couldn't even attempt, let alone master). But the media's opinion of Harbaugh doesn't matter. Not now, while he's the king and on his way to winning NFL Coach of the Year and perhaps much more in January and even February. After an amazing 2011, 49ers fans can't help but chant his oft-repeated catchphrase, "Who's got it better than us? NOBODY!" Thanks to Harbaugh, they mean it.