1. Back in the playoffs
The year 2011 saw a return to glory for one of the NFL’s most decorated franchises, as the 49ers shocked the league to dominate the NFC West and clinch their first division title and playoff berth since 2002. The 49ers, winners of five Super Bowls, had fallen off the national radar, but thanks to a reborn Alex Smith at quarterback and a ferocious defense, San Francisco is back. Whether or not they can recapture the postseason success of the past remains to be seen in the coming weeks.
2. Iconic Davis dies
Often ridiculed, never pushed around and always his own man, Raiders owner Al Davis died in October at age 82. Davis, who was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, was one of the most influential men in NFL history and played the role of owner, coach, general manager and AFL commissioner in his illustrious career. He guided the Raiders to three Super Bowl titles and established a “commitment to excellence.”
3. Harbaugh at the helm
The year started off with a bang for the 49ers as they hired Bay Area native Jim Harbaugh away from Stanford in January to be the team’s head coach. And in one season at the helm, the turnaround as been nothing short of remarkable. Harbaugh has instilled a physical style of play and an infectious winning attitude that has catapulted the Niners to become an elite team in less than 12 months. The Bill Walsh comparisons have been coming fast and furious.
4. Busted-up Buster
In the blink of an eye, former USF and Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins became enemy No. 1 in San Francisco. Cousins plowed into Giants catcher Buster Posey in late May, tearing ligaments and fracturing the fibula in Posey’s left leg. The 2010 Rookie of the Year’s season was over and it was the beginning of the end for the defending World Series champions. The Giants, who were in an even brighter spotlight due to the Showtime series “The Franchise,” couldn’t stay healthy and never found the magic that sparked the team’s 2010 postseason run.
5. Cardinal rule
Andrew Luck still has one game left in his Stanford career, but his legacy will already go down as one of the greatest college football players to ever come out of the Bay Area. Luck led Stanford to an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech in January 2011, finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting for the second straight season and has his team poised to play in the Fiesta Bowl next week. And to top it off, the talented quarterback is expected to be the top pick in April’s NFL draft. He turned a downtrodden program into a national power.
6. Carson Palmer off the couch
When Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a broken collarbone in the middle of October, Oakland wasted little time in finding a suitable replacement. The Raiders traded for veteran Carson Palmer, who was in “semi-retirement” after he vowed to never play for the Cincinnati Bengals again. Some balked at the price — a first-round and second-round draft pick — but the Raiders were adamant about trying to capitalize on their playoff chances this season.
7. Beltran’s big bat
The Giants, desperate to squeeze back into the postseason for a chance to defend their World Series title, coughed up one of their top prospects in Zack Wheeler to the New York Mets for veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran on
July 28. Beltran hit .323 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs in 44 games with the Giants, including a stint on the disabled list. The push wasn’t enough to get the Giants back to the playoffs, and Beltran signed with the Cardinals as a free agent on Dec. 23.
8. New point man
In an effort to rebrand a team that has made the playoffs only once in the past 17 seasons, new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber brought in first-time coach Mark Jackson to replace Keith Smart, who filled in after Don Nelson departed. Jackson enjoyed a very successful 17-year career in the NBA and has spent time as an analyst for ESPN and ABC. Jackson came into the organization preaching the necessity of defense, and faces a tough challenge due to the lockout-shortened 66-game season that started on Christmas.
9. Drowning Sharks
The story of the Sharks is becoming a broken record — great regular-season success followed by heartbreak in the postseason. And 2011, unfortunately, was no different. Joe Thornton and the Sharks did reach the Western Conference Finals for the second consecutive season, but the team’s inability to reach the Stanley Cup Finals is becoming increasingly frustrating for hardcore fans. It led to an offseason shake-up that saw high-scoring Dany Heatley traded to the Minnesota Wild for Martin Havlat, though Havlat will miss up to eight weeks with a hamstring injury he suffered Dec. 17.
10. Final Four — again
At this point, the Stanford women’s basketball team must be starting to feel like the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s. The Cardinal reached their fourth straight Final Four in 2011, only to fall short once again. Stanford appeared to be primed to capture its first national championship since 1992 after it ended UConn’s 90-game winning streak during the regular season. But the Cardinal came up agonizingly short in a 63-62 loss to eventual national champ Texas A&M in the national semifinals.