Whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not, winter will be long for the San Francisco 49ers, whose dream season ended prematurely on a couple of nightmarish plays.
One game short of Super Bowl XLVI.
What this season, specifically the playoffs, taught us is this: The 49ers are a talented team capable of becoming annual postseason participants. Their defense is dominant, offense efficient and special teams superb.
However, they are a far from finished product. The 49ers have some areas that, though not completely broken, will require a little fixin' to get over the hump.
Let's take a closer look at those and examine possible solutions.
Michael Crabtree, who usually saves his Houdini act for training camp and preseason, disappeared during the playoffs. In the two biggest games of his career, the receiver grabbed a total of five receptions for twenty-eight yards and a single touchdown. A far cry from his season averages, 4.8 catches and 58 yards per game, and much too low for a supposed No. 1 receiver.
Worst of all, the rest of the receiving corps had a combined three catches for twenty-three yards during the entire postseason. Blame it on what you want (injuries, play calling, bad throws, etc.), but there is no denying that the team needs an upgrade at this position.
With Crabtree and Kyle Williams as the lone receivers under contract for next season, some crucial decisions are to be made.
1. Pursue Free Agent: The free agency class of 2012 is loaded with quality receivers. San Francisco must pursue one of the available big names to become the team's top receiver. Dwayne Bowe is someone who can do exactly that. He has been able to consistently produce big numbers for the Kansas City Chiefs and would do the same in the Bay. Other possibilities are Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Marques Colston or Stevie Johnson. All have their own troubles, but would instantly improve the 49ers' offense.
2. Capitalize on Talent-Laden Draft: This year's draft is a deep reservoir of receivers and the 49ers need to cast a line. The team currently own the 30th overall pick of the first-round and will seriously look at pass-catchers once on the clock. Alshon Jeffery, Mohamed Sanu and Kendall Wright are all players the front office would love to see fall to them. If not, they may turn their attention to finding a mid-round steal.
3. Re-sign Ted Ginn and Joshua Morgan: Morgan was on his way to a breakout season before an ankle break put him on injured reserve. He is a free agent, but both sides have expressed mutual interest in having him return, most likely on a one-year deal. Ginn is extremely valuable in the return game (cough, Kyle Williams, cough) yet shaky as a receiver. Bring them all back to compete for a spot on the roster.
This group made dramatic strides throughout the year, but remain miles away from becoming top-notch. The run-blocking lacked consistency; one minute they made lanes big enough for trucks to drive through and the next they couldn't create enough room for Calista Flockhart to tip-toe between.
And the pass protection was abhorrent at times. Alex Smith on his butt is a familiar sight for 49ers fans who watched their quarterback get sacked a league-high 44 times.
The offensive line is an area that needs some special attention during the offseason for the 49ers to have any legit hope for a Lombardi Trophy.
1. 49ers Free Agents: Guards Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder are free agents. Rachal has been an underachiever his entire stay in San Francisco and will not return. Snyder, on the other hand, was impressive since becoming a starter in Week 3. The team should lock him up if the price is right. If not, another team may scoop him up.
2. Promote from Within: The 49ers actually moved up in the 2011 draft to select 308 lb. Daniel Kilgore, a lineman from Appalachian State. He is versatile enough to play multiple positions and has had a season to learn the system. Tackle Alex Boone played well enough in a reserve role to earn a 4-year contract extension. His size (6'7" and 328 lbs.) and athleticism should increase Boone's role in the offense.
3. Addition Through NFL Draft and Free Agency: Both are loaded with players able to step in and help immediately. Chad Rinehart and Demetrius Bell (both Buffalo Bills linemen) would be instant upgrades and more than capable in both the run and pass game. Cordy Glenn, a guard out of Georgia, is a potential steal should he slide to the second round, or the team can look for later round prospects to groom.
Labeled a weak link entering the season, the 49ers' secondary proved to be anything but that.
Calling any part of that defense "weak" would be a big mistake.
As a matter of fact, the secondary helped opposing quarterbacks to a 73.6 rating and forced an astounding 23 interceptions. They were solid in coverage and even better as sure tacklers. There was an occasional big play, but the unit showed resilience in bending yet not breaking.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers was an All-Pro level, Tarell Brown developed into a solid starter and rookie Chris Culliver looks like a future star. All three are talented, but depth is always a concern.
The 49ers must do all they can to equip their secondary with quality players in order to compete with explosive teams like the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, who at any moment can line up four dangerous receivers.
Now, as the team is fully emerged in the offseason, there are decisions to make on key members of this secondary. Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson, team leaders with six picks a piece, are free agents and surely in high demand after a stellar year.
1. Re-Sign Rogers to a Three-Year Deal: Rogers was a shutdown corner and fully deserving of a new deal, but the team must be cautious. Rogers, already 31 years old, is losing more and more steps as the days go by. He'll want a deal approaching six or more years, but the 49ers should keep the offer to a maximum of four. Anything longer and he'll be too big of a liability.
2. Franchise Goldson: Goldson had a career season with plenty of crushing hits, but still struggles in coverage. His aggressive play, though fun to watch, has been the cause of too many big plays for opposing offenses. If he wants a long-term deal, then it may end up elsewhere. If he wants to stay, franchise him and see if he can make necessary improvements.
3. Use a High Draft Pick On a Corner: San Francisco, myself included, would love to see Janoris Jenkins fall into their laps at the end of the first round. The former Florida Gator, who transferred to North Alabama after being kicked out, is arguably the best corner in this year's draft. He was impressive during the Senior Bowl and solidified himself as first-round talent. Character concerns, however, may drop him more than it should. If that happens the 49ers will be there waiting to select their future shutdown corner.