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Niners quarterback Alex Smith walks off the field following Sunday's NFC Championship Game loss to the Giants. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
After coming so far, so fast, the 49ers will need some time to heal.
Sunday’s sudden end to a dynamic, resurgent season for the San Francisco franchise – a 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game – hurts.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Niners safety Donte Whitner told Bay Area News Group columnist Mark Purdy Sunday night. “But right now it feels like it.”
For players, coaches and fans, the Niners’ loss was sudden and painful. The defeat, just one step away from the Super Bowl, is a hard slap in the face.
Yet on the morning after Sunday’s defeat there is hope.
In one season, general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh turned a franchise around.
After almost a decade of playoff drought, the 49ers rebounded from a 6-10 season with a 13-3 record, an NFC West title and a No. 2 playoff seed, plus a comeback victory over the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Under Baalke and Harbaugh, a new era was launched, one in which players believe they can win and the glory of years past at Candlestick has been reborn.
In speaking to reporters after Sunday’s loss, Harbaugh obviously was disappointed, but vowed to build on what the Niners created this season.
“It’ll probably take a while to get over,” Harbaugh told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But we’ll get over it. This team’s not defeated by any stretch of the imagination.”
Many times this season, former 49ers greats have said that Harbaugh’s 49ers resemble the teams of Bill Walsh and George Seifert; that the team’s intensity and focus are a reflection of a first-year coach who almost took his team to the Super Bowl.
After Sunday’s game, former Giants linebacker Carl Banks – who played against those Niners teams of the past – told the Chronicle this San Francisco team looks “a lot like they used to.”
“I’m a huge fan of Jim Harbaugh,” Banks said. “He’s fundamentally sound. … This organization has a bright future in his hands.”
Now, as the Niners move into their offseason, they no doubt have some work to do.
There will be fine-tuning. They will need to re-sign quarterback Alex Smith, and address other players who need to be re-signed or let go. They certainly will need to bring in more help at wide receiver, where the team’s weaknesses were apparent against the Giants. And they can only hope to get as much great young talent out of this April’s draft as they did in 2011.
But this offseason, there’s no demolition work needed. This offseason, the team can build on a foundation that now appears solid.
“We got to the NFC Championship Game,” defensive lineman Justin Smith told Monte Poole of the Bay Area News Group. “It gives us something to build on and come back. Hopefully, we can get back to it and win it, go the distance.”