The San Francisco 49ers suffered a disappointing end to a fantastic season on Sunday, losing to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship off of their own costly mistakes, among other things. While there is surely to be a bad taste left in the mouth of every 49ers fan on the planet, nobody can deny how far the team progressed in 2011 and what they have to look forward to in 2012 and onward.
No, this isn't the usual silver linings, because the 49ers came so much farther than anybody expected this past season. It's not a situation where they weren't expected to beat a team and they made the game close, it's more a situation where they weren't expected to win more than four games and they went on to finish it all off with a 14-4 record, counting the playoffs. Tell any 49ers fan a year ago that they'd lose the NFC Championship game this season and they'd probably ask where you got whatever it is you happen to be on. Some of them might try to buy it off you, too.
All they accomplished in 2011-12 was done without the aid of a full offseason with an almost entirely new coaching staff. Jim Harbaugh, in his first-ever season as a head coach in the NFL, led the team through a season in which they were doubted and underrated to the very final game. Now he get an opportunity to work closely with general manager Trent Baalke to work through an actual offseason with, hopefully, a clear plan.
There are definitely some big decisions to be made. Aside from the fact that they'll have the slate of draft picks like every other team (except, apparently, the Oakland Raiders), there's some key free agents coming up in cornerback Carlos Rogers, quarterback Alex Smith and safety Dashon Goldson, among others. Harbaugh and Baalke, along with some others, will try to keep a unit together that took the NFC West with relative ease. The prevailing theory is that this won't be a tall order, with the tight-knit group likely wanting to stick together.
We'll have updates throughout the offseason, including looks at pending free agents, the NFL draft, some grading of the 2011-12 performers and much, much more. Stick around.