NASHVILLE -- San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York was all smiles as he casually hung out in the victorious locker room Sunday night. He watched his players get ready for a nine-hour flight to London, where English fans will be treated to one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
It was a stark difference from the last time York was in the 49ers locker room. After a loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 22, York spoke glumly to the media about star pass-rusher Aldon Smith leaving the team for an alcohol treatment center. The loss dropped the 49ers to 1-2 (the first time the team lost back-to-back games under coach Jim Harbaugh) and they were beaten by the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts by a combined score of 56-10.
The defending NFC champions were in a crisis and it appeared the season could be unraveling.
Fast-forward four weeks and that moment appears a distant memory. The 49ers' rebirth continued with an impressive 31-17 win at the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. The 49ers have won four straight games, scoring more than 30 points in each. It's the first time since 1998 San Francisco has accomplished that feat.
“We feel pretty good about what we are doing right now,” said quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had his most effective game of the season as a runner Sunday.
There is no reason to think the 49ers will not continue their roll. They play the 0-7 Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday in London. Yes, it’s an any-given-Sunday league, but Harbaugh’s team seems upset-proof. The 49ers should go into the bye week -- and the midseason point -- at 6-2.
Teams hope to go 3-1 every quarter of the season to get to 12-4. At 1-2, 12-4 looked like a difficult feat for San Francisco. Now it seems quite possible for the 49ers, who trail Seattle (6-1) by a game in the NFC West.
Credit goes to the organization for responding to the adversity after Week 3.
It starts with Harbaugh and his staff. It was the first difficult moment Harbaugh had in his tenure in San Francisco, which started in 2011. He and his staff handled it beautifully. In fact, the day after the Colts game, Harbaugh said he relished the opportunity to face adversity and to “whip it.” So far he and his team are beating adversity on all three scorers’ cards.
San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley said the key to bouncing back was sticking together.
"The sky wasn’t falling,” Staley said. “No one was pointing fingers at each other … We stayed together.”
And it continues to get better.
In some ways, Sunday’s win was the most impressive of the season. Tennessee is good at home and has a strong defense. But the 49ers completely owned this game.
The 49ers led 24-0 going into the fourth quarter and shut down Tennessee in all three phases of the game.
The San Francisco defense hasn’t missed a beat since Smith left the team for substance abuse treatment 27 days ago. The 49ers have allowed a combined 51 points in the past four games. San Francisco got two more turnovers Sunday and has forced 12 during the winning streak. The 49ers have turned each turnover into points -- they have eight touchdowns and four field goals after the turnovers.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick ran out of the read-option offense five times for 36 yards and a 20-yard rushing touchdown. Kaepernick had nine zone-read rushes for 14 yards this season coming into the game and ended up with 69 yards on 10 carries. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 199 yards. Kaepernick led the team to eight third-down conversions in 10 tries in the first half.
Kaepernick’s Total QBR was 99.0 out of a possible 100. It is the best mark in the NFL this season.
Will we see the 49ers use the read-option much in the immediate future? Probably occasionally. Harbaugh said it is a “club” in the team’s bag. Kaepernick said it was used because the Titans were giving the 49ers opportunities.
Still, it is also a sign things are working well. With Smith, Crabtree and Manningham all expected back at some point this season, the 49ers have the look of a team that is going to stick around for a while.
Four weeks ago, many may not have been confident in that possibility.