49ers' long journey to NFC West title


49ers' long journey to NFC West title

SAN FRANCISCO -- Running back Frank Gore carried the 49ers' flag for the previous six years during a time when the franchise averaged nearly 10 losses a season.On Sunday, it was only appropriate that Gore carried a giant 49ers flag into the locker room as the team celebrated its first NFC West title since 2002.The 49ers' defense dominated the St. Louis Rams in a 26-0 victory at Candlestick Park. But while the 49ers were pitching a shutout, they also removed a void in the careers of Gore and quarterback Alex Smith."I'm probably the No. 1 fan of Alex," Gore said. "I'm very happy for Alex. He had some tough times here. Being the No. 1 pick, he had a lot of tough times, ups and downs. Just seeing him just sticking it out. . . he wanted to stay here and be with us. When you see that, you know we have the right leaders."Smith and Gore came to the 49ers in the same 2005 draft. Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in that draft, agreed to remain with the 49ers after the 2008 season when he agreed to a sizable pay cut. Smith also eschewed the chance to test free agency this offseason, to sign a one-year contract.Gore lobbied for a contract extension during training camp because he had no desire to become a free agent at the end of the season. He agreed to a three-year contract extension before the start of the regular season."This is where I want to be," Gore said. "I have great guys who I am very close with and I knew that we had the team to do what we are doing now."Now, both players will experience the playoffs for the first time in their seven-year careers."This is the first step that we had to do," Smith said. "Obviously, it hasn't been done around here in almost a decade. So we talked about it since I've been here, and it's no different this year."Gore reached two significant milestones on Sunday. In addition to helping the 49ers punch a ticket for the playoffs with a 10-2 record, Gore also officially became recognized as the 49ers' all-time rushing leader.Gore gained 73 yards on 21 rushing attempts to eclipse the total Joe "The Jet" Perry accumulated during his 12 seasons after the 49ers became an NFL franchise. Gore, who needed 22 yards to surpass Perry, now has 7,417 career rushing yards."Got to see Frank get the record and you clinch the division," Smith said. "So, yeah, pretty sweet."Smith also reached a milestone, as he recorded his highest career passer rating (142.3) in the victory. Smith completed 17 of 23 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.Smith threw a perfect 52-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, who caught four passes for 96 yards. Kyle Williams, who got additional playing time with Braylon Edwards resting his ailing knee and shoulder, turned a short hitch pattern into a 56-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.As much as it might seem like nice closure, though, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said this movie has yet to reach its conclusion."I don't think that's what our team's about," Harbaugh said. "I don't think we're a Hollywood team. It's a blue-collar team."Since the 49ers' last playoff appearance, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary have failed to go where Harbaugh has already taken the team in his first season. And he did it with a nucleus of players who have been with the franchise through some bitter times."Each year that they've been here, thinking that was going to be the year," Harbaugh said. "It's a disappointment when you don't make that. It's a whole core group of them."It feels good for them. That us new guys -- us first-year guys on the team -- could be part of this and do that for them. . . for all those strong, mighty men that have been carrying the flag for this many years."The defense did most of the heavy lifting on Sunday, and they did it without linebacker Patrick Willis, who sustained a hamstring strain in the first quarter. Willis is scheduled to undergo an MRI examination on Monday.The 49ers' postgame locker room was not as jubilant as after victories earlier this season over Philadelphia, Detroit or the New York Giants. That's because the 49ers do not feel as if their journey is complete."It feels good, but it's just another step," Williams said. "We have to keep it going. We've got to keep moving on into the playoffs, and we've got to do something in the playoffs."It doesn't end here. This isn't the end-all, be-all. This isn't extreme jubilation. We're happy. We're celebrating. But in the same breath, we've got to keep it moving."One area in which the 49ers can undoubtedly improve is in the red zone. David Akers kicked four field goals, as the 49ers have scored touchdowns on just two of their past 11 trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line.Akers kicked field goals of 36, 19, 28 and 34 yards. Akers has made 32 of 37 field-goal attempts, giving him the franchise record of made field goals in a season -- and there are still four games remaining.Although the 49ers clinched the division, they still have some work to do before clinching their playoff path. After the 49ers' victory, many players gathered around TVs in the locker room to watch the Green Bay Packers' last-second victory over the New York Giants. The 49ers remain two games behind the Packers in the race for homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.But the 49ers hold a virtual two-game lead over the New Orleans Saints for the No. 2 seed, which assures a first-round playoff bye and a home game in the divisional round. (With a victory Sunday night over the Detroit Lions, the Saints would remain one game behind the 49ers. But the 49ers would also hold the tie-breaker edge with a better conference record.)"I don't think we're in a position to rest right now," Harbaugh said. "We need all hands on deck. If we're going to get everything that's out there for us, and all that we could get, this is a time to build momentum, to improve, and to position ourselves the best that we possibly can."

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

SANTA CLARA -- Tight end Vance McDonald became aware of a report the 49ers had engaged in trade talks involving him at his brother’s wedding in Austin, Texas.

But McDonald said he did not give it much thought because he had another immediate priority.

“I still had my best man’s speech to do,” McDonald said.

Later that evening during last month's draft, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan called McDonald to keep him in the loop. There was no trade, and McDonald returned to Santa Clara on Monday to continue participation in the 49ers’ offseason program.

“The first thing I told him was, ‘Man, there aren’t a lot of coaches that would do this,’” McDonald said of his talk with Shanahan. “He just wanted to fill me in.”

Nearly four weeks later, it is as if nothing ever happened.

“The only trade discussions we had was when another team asked us about Vance on draft day,” Shanahan said this week. “And after a team asked us about Vance then we asked other teams if they’d be interested in that same thing.”

McDonald said he completely understood why the 49ers would check with other teams around the league to see what they could acquire in a trade.

“Basically, it’s just like any other team in the NFL would do,” McDonald said. “If you’re a 2-14 team, obviously, there are a lot of things you can improve on, a lot of spots that need to be filled. There are a lot of things you need to improve upon in the offseason. So if teams are going to call and inquire about you, then obviously the next step is to … call around to every other team.

“So that’s exactly what happened to me. It isn’t like they don’t want me here. There was never a lack of communication on any level.”

Even before he knew his immediate future with the 49ers, McDonald said he tried to maintain the proper state of mind.

“I had the mindset this isn’t going to change anything,” McDonald said. “I’m going to end up where I end up and I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing, which is do everything to be a better football player.”

McDonald enters the fifth year of his NFL career after signing a new deal in December that amounts to a three-year, $19.7 million extension. Three days later, the 49ers placed McDonald on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

McDonald was on pace for his best season as a pass-catcher. In 11 games, he had 24 receptions for 391 yards and four touchdowns.

Now, he is competition for a spot in the 49ers’ offense, along with fifth-round draft pick George Kittle, undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

McDonald said he likes what Shanahan has brought to the 49ers, including added responsibilities of the tight end position.

“Last year, all we talked about was how fast our pace was,” McDonald said. “With Kyle, it’s insanely quick. He’s a very detailed guy. It’s interesting to hear him present information. You try to apply it and play with the same mindset that he has. It’s a task that we all enjoy doing.

“We (tight ends) are the end of the line. There’s communication with us and the wide receivers and running backs. We’re also in command with receiving corps. There are a lot of things on our plate. Hopefully, this doesn’t get back to the wide receivers, but we’re supposed to be smarter than them. It’s a fun job to have. We don’t try to rub it in too much.”

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly is back in college football.

The former Oregon coach, who served as 49ers head coach last season, signed a multiyear deal as an ESPN analyst, the network announced Friday morning. He will work predominantly on pre-games, halftimes and in studio wraps each Saturday on ESPN2.

“Over the last 30 years, I have experienced football from one perspective – as a coach,” Kelly said in a statement. “Working in television will allow me to see the game from a different angle; simultaneously, I‘ll provide viewers an insight to the mindset of a coach and team while offering alternative views of various situations.

“Once I decided to make the move to TV, my familiarity with ESPN, combined with their high-quality production and vital role in college football, it was easily the best network suited for me.”

Kelly, 53, was fired on the evening of the 49ers’ season finale. The 49ers went 2-14 under Kelly and set the franchise record with 13 consecutive losses. Their only victories came against the Los Angeles Rams. Kelly also auditioned with FOX for the analyst job vacated when John Lynch became 49ers general manager, sources told NBC Sports Bay Area.

Kelly served as Oregon’s head coach from 2009 to ’12. His teams compiled a record of 46-7. Under Kelly, the Ducks advanced to the 2011 national championship game, losing to Auburn 22-19.

Kelly won the AP College Football Coach of the Year. He twice won the Pac-10 coach of the year. He left Oregon to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. After his first two NFL teams went 10-6, Kelly was fired in 2015 with one game remaining in the season. The Eagles were 6-9 at the time of Kelly's firing.

“Chip is one of the most innovative football minds of our generation,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting said. “As a coach, he saw the game from a unique perspective, never afraid to take an unconventional approach. We want him to bring that mentality to our college football coverage each week, offering fans a varying viewpoint outside of the conventional thought process.”