The 49ers’ winning season got a little sweeter Tuesday, as eight players were selected to the Pro Bowl, the most from any NFC team and tied with the New England Patriots for most in the NFL.
Linebacker Patrick Willis, running back Frank Gore, defensive tackle Justin Smith, kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee each make a return to the game, while safety Dashon Goldson, cornerback Carlos Rogers and tackle Joe Staley were selected for the first time.
“It’s an awesome thing to have some friends there,” Lee said. “Hopefully we won’t be there, and we’ll be in the Super Bowl.”
Frank Gore’s third selection comes in a season in which he set the 49ers’ franchise records for career rushing yards, currently at 7,616, and total 1,000-yard seasons with five. It’s also a season he felt he had something to prove after missing five games in a disappointing 2010.
“Coming off my injury, I was hungry and I wanted to show a lot of people that I will be back and able to play this game like I have before,” he said.
Credit for the turnaround by the team and by individual players has been given all year to coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff for changing the culture of the a franchise that had not had a winning record since 2002.
“As a team, I feel that we’ve always had the talent,” Gore said. “Now, we have the right guys in front of us who can lead the way.”
Rogers echoed Gore’s sentiment.
“Once you add winning to it and then the season that I’m having and the coaching staff and ownership, all that plays a part,” he said. “This is the most fun I’ve had in my seven years playing.”
Rogers was ushered out of the Washington Redskins organization after six years, and said coming to a new team gave him all the motivation he needed.
“That makes it a lot better, especially coming to a team that it’s your first year on the team — it’s your only year on the team — and to have a season like that, not knowing what’s going to come out of it,” he said, “you want to have a really good year and try and impress your team and let them know they didn’t make a mistake with that pick.”
Willis becomes the first 49er to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons, and ranks second on the team with 115 tackles despite missing the past three games with a hamstring injury. He has also set a career high in forced fumbles, fumbles recovered and passes defended while leading the stingiest defense in football.
“My hat goes off to this team and what we’ve done so far,” he said, “but I know it’s not the end of what we’re trying to do.”
In addition to the eight starters, 10 other 49ers were selected as alternates.