As the current season progresses into the playoffs, fans can’t help but look towards a blue-sky future.
Despite a 13-3 season and No. 2 seed in the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers are far from a finished product. The room for improvement is what excites people most. Writers are already spitting out potential offseason moves that can thrust the team to the next level. Some of these to-do lists contain valid points and ideas, others not so much.
This is a not to do list jam-packed with caution signs.
Think of it as something similar to Highway 17.
Follow the signs of a winding, uphill path and you’ll end up at a beautiful beach on the California coast.
Take the wrong turn or make a mistake, and you may just roll down the mountain only to end up farther away from the top than you began.
The 49ers are on the right path towards a Super Bowl, but they must follow the signs while avoiding potential land mines.
Sometimes, the things you don’t do help the most.
Shakespeare said it best when he described the Smith-Harbaugh relationship as star-crossed.
Okay, he may have been writing about another pair but the two have had an equally fateful season.
On the year, Smith has completed 61 percent of his passes, thrown for over 3,000 yards, tossed 17 touchdowns to only five interceptions and compiled a 90-plus passer rating. More importantly, he’s helped the team to an impressive 13-3 record (five comeback wins) and No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Despite the success, critics doubt Smith’s ability to lead the team to a Super Bowl.
I don’t and neither does Harbaugh.
Alex Smith is the answer at the quarterback position, Peyton Manning is not.
So, do not pursue the 35-year-old fresh off multiple neck surgeries.
Don't even think about it.
With Manning sidelined all season, the Colts have struggled to a league-worst 2-14 record but have been rewarded with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
That will be spent on QB Andrew Luck.
Translation: Manning’s availability is inevitable and the veteran will surely be greeted by multiple suitors. The 49ers should not be among that group.
Solution: Manning may still have a couple years left in the tank, but that's a big maybe. Alex Smith has proven he can play well under Harbaugh. Also, Manning and Harbaugh's personalities don't mesh. The 49ers need to make sure Smith returns on a 3-5-year contract and let him continue to flourish. I believe the old saying is,“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
A former victim of stone hands, Rogers has found a remedy in San Francisco while collecting a team-high seven interceptions on the season.
It’s tempting to reward a player of such caliber with a long-term contract, but the 49ers must be careful.
Part of improving is learning from past mistakes.
Nate Clements is a mistake still fresh on the minds of many close to the team.
In 2007, the organization threw a lot of money at Clements—$80 million to be exact. The investment was a failure as Clements never lived up to his paycheck. To cut their losses, the 49ers released him at the end of last season, another disappointing one for the cornerback.
Fans cringe whenever they hear that name; I'm so sorry I mentioned it.
San Francisco learned a valuable lesson, albeit an expensive one.
Well, hopefully they did.
Solution: Rogers has been great, no doubt about it, but is climbing up the age ladder and losing a step in the process. Sign him to a three-year deal, with an option on the fourth.
By then he will be in mid-30s, thus losing another step and becoming too big of a liability to keep around any longer.
The money and promise of annual postseason trips will be enough to lure Rogers, who has already voiced his desire to return to the team.
The story of Aldon Smith’s record-breaking season began way back in April, when the team drafted the young linebacker with the seventh overall pick. There was plenty of head scratching at the selection, my own curious itch included.
Experts called it a “reach” and fans responded with a synchronized “Who?”
14 sacks later, the scratching hands have become clapping hands.
The “Whos?” have become “Wooohooos!”
In just his rookie season, Smith has displayed an uncanny ability to hit the opposing quarterback. A lot. And he does it in a variety of ways: quickness, strength and hustle. I once saw him do the robot past his defender before registering another one of his team-high sacks.
All while playing only a fraction of the snaps.
Smith has developed nicely in a reserve role, but still struggles against the run and dropping back in coverage, which is the reasoning behind the limited playing time.
Solution: Baptism by fire. He has all the tools to be a complete player in what has quietly become one of the premier linebacking corps in the league. Smith deserves to start Week 1 and continue the development.
Then, watch more quarterbacks and records fall.
The 49ers desperately need more receivers, especially after the failed Braylon Edwards experiment. Good thing they already have that receiver; he’s just limping on the sideline.
Before a leg injury shelved Morgan for the season, he was emerging as a go-to receiver and a perfect complement to Michael Crabtree.
In five games, the receiver had 15 receptions for 220 yards and a touchdown. Not overly impressive, but his 15 yards per catch were a team-high and he was just getting started. A lot of those receptions were clutch third-down conversions to keep the chains moving.
On top of that, he has built a solid rapport with his quarterback and is a great blocker, two big requirements for success in the 49ers offense. The tall, sure-handed receiver will draw plenty of interest when he becomes a free agent, but the injury may scare away a few teams.
Solution: Re-sign the man. San Francisco is already thin at the position and Morgan makes a solid No. 2 receiver. Harbaugh has vocalized plans to re-sign him, so expect it to be a top priority this offseason. If not, he may end up in another uniform.
Whether the season ends next week or with the lifting of another Lombardi Trophy, the 49ers cannot afford to become stagnant. Football is about constant improvements and adjustments. They happen in practices, during games, bye weeks and even well into the offseason.
The team is winning with an old-school approach: stingy defense, an efficient offense and excellent special teams. The balance has worked to the joyful tune of a 13-3 record and a playoff berth.
There is no need for a change in philosophy, just some further polishing.
The defense, though mostly dominant, still has some obvious weaknesses. The tackling has been shaky of late and struggles in the secondary still remain.
The offense, though very adept, still has its fair share of struggles. Red-zone scoring and third-down production have been areas of concern and require some amelioration.
The special teams, though almost perfect, could also improve. There were blocked kicks/punts and a few unnecessary penalties.
Solution: Celebrate the success of an amazing season, but don’t get comfortable. The target has now been placed squarely on the 49ers’ backs and the players must remain as hungry as ever.
If not more.