The 2011 NFL season came within two field goals—one missed, one allowed—of having a Super Har-Bowl. The disappointing losses by both Jim and John Harbaughs' teams may have been nail-biting to those of us watching, but to the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, they mean one more offseason to prepare for a run again next year.
Of course, any and every team that came "this close" to winning the big game, making the playoffs, having a winning season, etc., will blame the lockout. But the lockout didn't seem to stop the 49ers' new coach from getting to the NFC Championship game with one of the worst quarterbacks currently playing. Come next year, there will have been no lockout, and there will be no excuses.
In order for the Ravens, 49ers and the brothers Harbaugh to meet in Super Bowl XLVII, there are certain things both teams and coaches must do—some obvious, some shocking.
Build an Offensive Line
Ed Reed's controversial jabbing at Joe Flacco's play against the Houston Texans is now famous, particularly for how Joe stepped it up against the Patriots despite the loss. However, what everyone neglects to see is just how terrible the O-line is in Baltimore.
To create a more sustainable offense and allow Flacco to play the way he's capable of, the Ravens need to force Matt Birk, whose contract is up, to retire or go elsewhere. Birk has been one of the greatest centers to play in the modern era, and he has done extremely well for the Ravens. But in the past two seasons he has been slow and prone to injury. Baltimore, you have a young, talented center waiting in the wings...use him.
The Ravens have also suffered from weak guard play, and though Marshall Yanda is excellent, his opposite in Ben Grubbs has been mediocre at best. Because the tandem falls apart on nearly every pass play and at least half of all run plays, it is time to say goodbye to Grubbs, whose contract is also up, and draft a decent guard, perhaps David DeCastro from Stanford.
After the personnel issues are solved, this line has to be geared and retrained to pass block. Clearly, Baltimore focuses too much on the run, and has lost touch with this pass-happy, QB-babying league. Learn to pass block, get a ring.
Improve the Secondary
This is where we're going to start shocking some people.
Let Tom Zbikowski go. His contract expires this offseason and he's done nothing for you in a whole year, especially since the new kickoff rules inherently make his special teams position useless. You have Haruki Nakamura and Bernard Pollard, so why do you need Zibby?
The Ravens will also need to pick up corners in free agency. Baltimore does not have a good track record of drafting defensive backs. Either train Jimmy Smith to cover or get rid of him. Good corners will love to come to this team, known for its big hits and timely interceptions. Lardarius Webb has done extremely well, but he can't do it all. Besides, he would make a better free safety, which brings me to my next point...
Force Ed Reed to retire. I know this sounds bad, but he simply can't do it anymore. That great game against Houston, that was a last hoorah against a third-string rookie quarterback. Don't get me wrong, Reed was great; one of—if not the—best safeties of all time. But it's time to hang it up. He is too injured, too slow, and lets too many receivers run past him in the hopes he can still jump the route. Eddy, we love you, but when you love someone, you have to let them go.
Increase Pass/Run Ratio
All season, the one statistic we heard over and over again was that "if Ray Rice runs 25 times or more, the Ravens win." That statistic would seem like you're promoting a balanced offense, if it didn't include the words "Ray" and "Rice." What analysts mean to say is "if the Ravens run the ball 25 times, it takes pressure off the quarterback, and allows play-action to develop." The problem has nothing to do with running or the use of Ray Rice. It's about how the Ravens use Ray Rice and how often they use him.
Ray Rice is not an every-down back; he cannot run between the tackles and he can't penetrate on short-yardage and goal-line scenarios. Despite all that, I still think he's a good running back—he just can't be used for every situation.
Ray Rice should be used as such: off-tackle runs, screens, dump-off short-yardage passes, play-action, and as a decoy during fullback runs. This also means that Baltimore can't run him every time he's on the field, nor can you pass every time he's not on the field. This is too obvious, and opposing defenses are not dumb.
Make use of Ricky Williams. He's talented and just as hungry for a championship as anyone else on the team. He too can do some play-action, but he's larger and more powerful, so use him for running between the tackles.
Vontae Leach never seems to get the ball. When he does, it's because Flacco is in the middle of getting sacked and he needs to get rid of it (usually for lost yards). This man needs to be your goal-line and 4th-down rusher. He is huge. He blocks for himself.
All that said, one of the operative phrases back there was "play-action." The Ravens don't do a lot of play-action, mainly because when Rice is on the field, they never decoy and always run, so no one falls for it. The great offenses in this league (minus the Manning-led Colts) are great at play-action. Even the Patriots and Packers, who have no run games to speak of, make use of play-action to thwart defenses.
With an improved front line, and more play-action, the offense will become more balanced, and will allow Flacco the time to get the ball deep to Boldin, Evans, and Smith (who needs to learn to catch, by the way). Granted, the only way you can implement this plan is if you...
Fire Cam Cameron
Baltimore's offensive coordinator is the reason the playbook is so narrow-minded. He is the reason Flacco stays in the pocket too long. He is the reason Ray Rice gets used on every first down. He is the reason your offense is stagnant.
Flacco is not Philip Rivers. Rice is not LaDanian Tomlinson. Boldin is not Vincent Jackson. After four years of trying to force a Roethlisberger-type quarterback to be a pocket passer, have the Ravens not noticed it isn't working? The reason you got rid of Brian Billick is because his play-calling was too conservative. It's not much better now. Trust me, Ray Rice and Ricky Williams make a running-back pair that seemingly pass-happy offensive coordinators like Joe Philbin can only dream of.
Along with this comes another request. Please hire a quarterbacks coach. The reason you don't have one in Baltimore is because that would mean Cameron might have to give up some measure of control. Get rid of Cameron, hire a new OC and a QB coach, then you'll really have something to look forward to next year.
San Francisco 49ers
Don't Change the Defense AT ALL
Your defense didn't allow but one rushing touchdown for an entire season. They were tied for first in takeaways and one of the best in terms of yards allowed. What ever you do, keep everyone you have, including coordinators, assistants, and position coaches.
Rebuild the Offensive Line
What is it with the Harbaughs not having offensive lines? Alex Smith may not be much better than Jay Cutler or Mark Sanchez, but without an offensive line, he looks like Ryan Leaf. Really, you need to search for a different quarterback, but if loyalty is more important to you than winning, you need a stout O-line to keep Alex Smith upright (an allow him to escape or run). This will give you more time to let plays develop so you don't go 1-for-13 in third-down conversions, and Smith can pass to someone other than Vernon Davis.
Get a Back-Up Running Back
Frank Gore is still good, don't mistake that. But he can't do everything. That's how people get injured and playbooks become predictable. Gore is a power back, so look for someone smaller and speedier in the draft or free agency.
Build Up Your Receiving Corps
Vernon Davis cannot be your only guy out there. Yes, you have Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn, but you need more possession receivers. Speed guys are great, but not if your quarterback can't throw that far. You need a few big bruiser types to open up the short, quick passing game. Right now every pass is trying to go 20 yards or more, and that will never work. Mainly because Alex Smith is not your man. What you really need to do is...
Draft Andrew Luck
I know this seems impossible to the point of it being silly, but hear me out. Alex Smith has shown time and again that he makes too many mistakes and has no arm strength. Sure, he did alright this year, but that's because he had a coach that "believed" in him, and he still wasn't that good.
Andrew Luck has a rocket arm, super accuracy, and is mobile. PLUS, your current coach was Luck's coach at Stanford...when Luck was there. Harbaugh and Luck already have a history of success and of working together. This would be a match made in heaven.
It doesn't matter what you have to do to get him—give the Colts all your picks for the next two drafts, trade ten players, sign a "poison-pill" contract that says if you win the Super Bowl with him you owe the NFL $1,000,000, whatever. Do anything it takes short of committing felonies. You must get Andrew Luck. The Harbaugh-Luck combination is to die for. You must acquire it.