By Cam Inman, San Jose Mercury News –
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The sting of an NFC Championship game defeat still reverberated through the 49ers locker room Monday as players packed up their helmets, gloves and bounty of fan mail.
Disappointment, however, was just one of many emotions coursing through players and coach Jim Harbaugh.
A sense of pride was obvious after they turned a 6-10 franchise into a Super Bowl contender. There was no finger pointing, no vocal wishes to parlay this season into a big payday elsewhere.
Support of Kyle Williams remained vibrant, some 24 hours after his two costly punt-return gaffes keyed the New York Giants’ 20-17 overtime victory.
In terms of the rest of the 49ers’ futures, there was widespread hope of keeping the roster intact. But 14 players are ticketed for unrestricted free agency, including quarterback Alex Smith, who would “love to stay here” but is “not in a crazy rush” to get a deal done.
Smith, even after delivering a thrilling win over the New Orleans Saints in the playoff opener, won’t be guaranteed the starting job ahead of Colin Kaepernick, however.
“Everything is earned, everything is competed for,” Harbaugh said. “That was the beauty of Alex Smith this past offseason. . . . That is a position that is earned. It’s never an anointed position.”
Not so beautiful in Harbaugh’s eyes was a ruling that foiled the 49ers’ fourth-quarter comeback. A potential fumble would have given the 49ers the ball at the Giants’ 20-yard line with two minutes left in regulation. Instead, officials ruled that Ahmad Bradshaw’s forward progress had been stopped before NaVorro Bowman stripped the ball.
“I’m sure the league will defend it, and the officials will defend it,” Harbaugh said. “But to me, the play was continuing, and there was still struggling going on by Bradshaw.
“… I felt it was a fumble, felt like it was analogous with the Tuck Rule.”
Ten years ago, officials nullified a potential fumble the Raiders forced on a would-be sack of Tom Brady in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots went on to prevail and embarked on a dynasty that featured three Super Bowl wins in four seasons, and possibly a fourth championship coming Feb. 5 in Super Bowl XLVI when they face the Giants.
The 49ers couldn’t help but still wonder whether they deserved that trip to Indianapolis instead of the Giants.
“The more we played, the more we got to know each other, the more confidence we built, and we came to expect that we’d be in the Super Bowl,” right guard Adam Snyder said.
Williams, for his part, showed accountability and understood the ramifications of his mistakes.
“You have to take full responsibility for it, which I do,” said Williams, who filled in as the returner for an injured Ted Ginn Jr. “It’s something I made a mistake on, and I’ll move through it. I promise you that.”
The 49ers did have nine players selected to Sunday’s Pro Bowl, although it’s doubtful running back Frank Gore will participate because of nagging injuries.
Harbaugh said he was not aware of any players who will require offseason surgery, including Ginn, whose right-knee injury was severe enough to sideline him Sunday.
Ginn is among the 49ers’ pending free agents. That list includes several starters: defensive tackle Justin Smith, Snyder, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson.
Rogers and Goldson earned Pro Bowl invitations after sharing team-high honors with six interceptions in the regular season.
“I like everything about this organization,” Rogers said. “This isn’t about me coming out saying, ‘OK, now I’m free. Let’s get the check.’ I’m thinking about the team, and this is where I want to be first of all.”
Safety Donte Whitner campaigned for Goldson to return and renew their chemistry, along with the 49ers’ team-wide promise after reaching the NFC final.
“It’s a steppingstone to come back next year and prove this year wasn’t a fluke,” Whitner said.