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."
Under the 49ers’ new regime, the club has already invested more in the free-agent market than a year ago under then-general manager Trent Baalke.
Just a reminder: The free-agent signing period does not officially open until March 9.
The 49ers on Friday reached a contract agreement with veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who is penciled into be a starter in the team’s new 4-3 base scheme under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
"As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement released Saturday morning. “A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league. We believe those qualities are contagious and will help to make our team stronger. We look forward to the impact Earl will have on the field, in the locker room and in our community.”
It was the first significant move under Lynch, who also signed a player with NFL experience earlier in the week.
The 49ers also added cornerback K’Waun Williams to a one-year contract. Williams served as the Cleveland Browns’ nickel back for two seasons. The Browns released him before the start of last season and he was unable to play due to an ankle injury.
Mitchell was available to be signed before the start of the new league year because the Miami Dolphins released him last week in a move to save the team $4 million in cap space.
Mitchell took four free-agent visits and after wrapping up his tour with the Atlanta Falcons on Friday, he and the 49ers quickly agreed on a four-year, $16 million contract that includes $5.5 million of money in the first year, according to a source.
Last year, Baalke did little to improve the roster for coach Chip Kelly. The 49ers, who finished 5-11 in Jim Tomsula's one season, dropped to 2-14. Just hours after the season concluded, the 49ers announced the firings of Baalke and Kelly.
The only veteran free-agent addition who stepped on the field for the 49ers last season was offensive lineman Zane Beadles. The 49ers signed Beadles in late-March to a three-year, $9.75 million contract with a $1.75 million signing bonus. Beadles had a good season for the 49ers, starting 12 games at left guard, two games at left tackle and the final two games at center.
The 49ers have already shown more willingness to be aggressive under Lynch’s leadership.
Mitchell, 29, is a seven-year veteran who began his NFL career from 2010 to ’13 with the Houston Texans. He was a rookie in Saleh’s final season as assistant linebackers coach in Houston.
Mitchell joins DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Quinton Dial on the 49ers defensive line. The 49ers view Mitchell as a high-energy player who bring good character to the locker room. The signing of Mitchell could be an indication the 49ers are moving on from Glenn Dorsey, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.
With 5.5 sacks in seven seasons, the 49ers do not figure to use Mitchell in passing situations. The club must try to bolster its pass rush in free agency or the draft. Last season, Buckner and Ahmad Brooks shared the team-lead with six sacks apiece. In 2015, Brooks and Aaron Lynch both led the way with 6.5 sacks.
The San Francisco 49ers agreed to a four-year, $16 million deal with defensive tackle Earl Mitchell on Friday, CSNBayArea.com has learned.
Mitchell, 29, will earn $5.5 million in his first year with the 49ers.
The seven-year veteran played in nine games last season for the Dolphins. He recorded 17 total tackles.
Since entering the league in 2010 as a third-round draft pick with the Texans, Mitchell has appeared in 100 games between Houston and Miami, totaling 206 tackles. He has also recorded 5.5 sacks.
#49ers reach four-year, $16M deal with DT Earl Mitchell, per source. He receives $5.5M in first year.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) February 25, 2017