Improving upon a stellar 2011 season will be no easy task for the San Francisco 49ers.
In many ways, it was a year that may never be matched. Records were broken, and expectations were undeniably exceeded.
Best of all, the NFC West was won.
However, as any team that has failed to claim the Lombardi Trophy can attest, the season was not a complete success. At some point down the road costly errors were made, and the year was cut short.
Unfortunately for San Francisco, the 2011 season ended an overtime shy of Super Bowl XLVI. The 13-3 record, a league-high five first-team NFL All-Pros and being crowned as NFC West Champions were all reasons for hope by the bay. But in 2012, the 49ers are only interested in claiming one title: world champions.
So how does one go about completing this task?
Over the next five slides, you'll see how the 49ers can improve upon a spectacular year and finish the 2012 season with a celebration by the bay.
In 2011, the San Francisco offense managed to find the end zone just three times in the opening quarter.
In fact, the 49ers managed to score just 45 of their 380 total points in the first 15 minutes of football. The shortened training camp only made matters worse, causing a rather conservative early-season approach.
Thanks to a consistently-elite defense, and the sudden late-game heroics of quarterback Alex Smith, the wins were still piling up. But even the creativity of the offensive-minded Jim Harbaugh couldn't completely mask the resemblance to the painful offensive performances of years past.
Perhaps a full-length training camp under Harbaugh's watch, and a slight face lift to the receiving corps, will be enough gas to fill up the tank on offense for 60 minutes.
The 49ers seemed to pick up steam on offense after their bye week, releasing Harbaugh's offensive intuition onto the field and thus creating some impressive overall performances in big games. The big-play abilities were put on display for a national stage in the NFL playoffs, and as we all saw, Vernon Davis was a huge factor in the excitement.
Despite the star power at tight end, the wide receiver position was a disaster in the postseason, as well as the majority of the year. The next slide provides a few ideas on getting the position up to speed.
Unfortunately, the 49ers' receiving corps failed to claim any of the accolades earned during the 2011 season.
If you watched the games, you know why.
Braylon Edwards was signed to a one-year deal in efforts of providing Alex Smith with the big-bodied receiver he'd lacked his entire career. That experiment was short-lived, as injuries and lack of performance caused management to send him packing before even reaching the playoffs.
Josh Morgan, who began the season as the team's No. 2 option, broke his leg in a Week 5 blowout of the Buccaneers.
Ted Ginn, Jr. has blazing speed and is an asset in the return game, but his suspect hands ease the minds of opposing defenses in the passing game.
Then you have Michael Crabtree. Drafted in 2009 with hopes of becoming an elite NFL receiver, Crab is yet to experience a single NFL training camp. Just as he and Smith seemed to finally grow comfortable with one another during the 2011 season, Crabtree completely vanished in both playoff games.
With that said, he has improved greatly as a blocker and can clearly pluck the ball out of the sky when he's on his game. Perhaps a healthy and productive offseason will provide more consistency as a receiver, but until then, he can't be counted on as a No. 1 option moving forward.
There are multiple options at wide out in free agency, as well as a plethora of prospects in the NFL draft.
He may be hard to get, but I think the best-possible scenario would be to sign Marques Colston via free agency. His big body (6'4", 225 lbs.) and well-rounded skills are assets the Saints would hate to lose, but with other stars from the 2011 roster waiting for paychecks as well, he just might slip from their grip.
There are other options like Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson that would certainly bring talent to the No.1 slot, but would come with character issues as well. With five 1,000-yard performances in six years with the Saints, Colston undeniably has my vote for top free-agency priority this spring.
The prospect of an improved San Francisco defense is frightening for the rest of the NFL.
If the 49ers' defensive performance in the 2011 NFL playoffs didn't silence enough critics, there will be a plethora of opportunities to do so in 2012.
Thanks in part to claiming the NFC West, San Francisco will face Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England during the '12 season. And those are just the notable road games. The 49ers will also host Matthew Stafford's Detroit Lions and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants at Candlestick Park next year.
Matchups against basically all of the NFL's elite quarterbacks should provide plenty of chances for the defense to continue to shine on a national stage.
Perhaps the what the rest of the league should fear most about the 49ers defense is that the majority of its stars have yet to reach the primes of their careers. Defensive end Justin Smith is the only member of the defense currently over age 30. The 49ers defense had arguably the best performance in franchise history in 2011. It accomplished endless personal and team feats, and did so in its first season with Vic Fangio, the team's defensive coordinator.
The 49ers will finally have a full training camp to digest Fangio's defense in 2012. The awaiting schedule shows that they'd better make the most of it.
Kendall Hunter's impressive rookie season provided hope for a breakout year in 2012.
It's safe to say the 49ers struck gold in the 2011 NFL draft. And that assessment extends far beyond Rookie of the Year runner-up Aldon Smith.
San Francisco received contributions from several rookies during the season. Kendall Hunter (fourth round, Oklahoma St.) was an extremely consistent complement to Frank Gore throughout the season, as his 473 yards on 112 carries will attest. His unique stature and explosiveness in open space should provide him with plenty of touches in 2012, and there is nothing to suggest he won't make the most of them once again.
Another key first-year performer came in the most unsuspecting of ways. Bruce Miller (seventh round, Central Florida) was a blessing in disguise when the defensive end-turned-fullback replaced an injured Moran Norris on offense, and never did give the job back.
Miller has a relentless motor, which is something Harbaugh covets. His future at the position seems like a lengthy one and the 49ers could part ways with Norris soon, a potential move that would free up even more money for a No. 1 receiver via free agency. Perhaps a receiver like, oh I don't know, Marques Colston? Come on, his jersey number his open and everything.
What Miller completed in his first year at the fullback position was simply amazing. Not even he believed such an impact on offense would come so soon. A full training camp to prepare could work wonders for the fullback's involvement in the offense, and he's a beast on special teams as well.
Cornerback Chris Culliver was yet another notable rookie for the 49ers in 2011.
Continued development from these young players should provide stable depth for the squad moving forward, and allow them to attack more pressing needs throughout the offseason.
Clearly the 49ers franchise is heading down the correct path on its return to greatness.
However, next year the 49ers will be taken very seriously from Week 1 and each day after, and a tough schedule only reduces the margin for error.
With that said, the future of the team is in good hands under the leadership of guys like Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh. Players and management both share the same vision of where this team needs to be, and now understand what it takes to get there.
2011 was great, despite the abrupt ending. Now, nothing short of a sixth Lombardi Trophy will suffice.