Despite having a new coach who had limited contact with his team due to the lockout, the 49ers—coming off a 6-10 record in 2010—had the potential to win more games and perhaps, the experts said, compete for the NFC West title.
The fact that they came within a botched punt from making a Super Bowl appearance proved how far Niners came in 2011-12. Now, the experts wonder if the 49ers can improve on last year's 13-3 regular-season record (14-4 overall) going into 2012, with a more difficult schedule schedule—at least on paper.
Here are 10 reasons why the 49ers will improve on that 13-3 mark.
Last year, everything was new, from the terminology to the team-first mentality set by coach Jim Harbaugh.
Perhaps the best example of the latter was Harbaugh's unwavering support of quarterback Alex Smith. That support and steadiness enabled Smith to have his best year in the NFL and provided the team with a foundation for its direction.
The team accepted it and didn't change. Now, with the free-agent signings of returners Ahmad Brooks and Carlos Rogers, you see that the players are buying into the special feeling set by Harbaugh. It's not about money, it's about competing and winning rings.
That familiarity will be essential in making the Niners a stronger team in 2012.
Now that they know they can be 13-3 in a restricted offseason, the Niners will face the pressure of improving on that record. But their jump from 6-10 to 13-3 is so large that it can give them the confidence in knowing they can compete with any team at any place.
Think about it: They lost to Dallas in Week 2 on blown pass coverage. They lost in Baltimore in part on penalties and one missed deep pass play. They lost in Arizona due to a botched drive at the end.
The 49ers know they can fix those problems and beat any team.
By the end of 2011, the 49ers had no outside deep threat.
Their offense was limited, and you could see it in the final drives of the NFC Championship Game. The Giants had figured it out and shut down everything, as the team was 1-for-13 on third downs.
Alex Smith, with a year of Harbaugh's tutelage, will now feel more comfortable in taking more risks on tough throws. Instead of holding the ball or chucking it to the sidelines, he'll start sticking it when it counts. A few more key plays at critical times will go a long way toward making the Niners more dangerous.
The addition of Randy Moss (pictured), A.J. Jenkins, Mario Manningham and LaMichael James will give the Niners better big-play potential. Nothing helps an offense more than having a great player forcing the opposition into making a mistake (e.g., a missed tackle) and turning it into a touchdown or a huge shift in field position.
What's more, another year of Brad Seeley guidance for the team's kicking and return units can also make the team more dangerous. Scores on kicks tend to increase momentum or shift it away from the opponent.
I still contend that back in January 2011, when Harbaugh was considering the 49ers coaching job, he had to look over the tape of the team’s defense and say, "Wow. All that talent."
It was there—from Patrick Willis to Justin Smith to Dashon Goldson.
Harbaugh brought in Vic Fangio to run the defense. And what did Fangio do? Nothing extraordinary other than run some stunts and allow rookie Aldon Smith to use his superior athleticism to pressure the quarterback.
A tape of the New Orleans playoff game shows a team dropping deep, allowing Saints quarterback Drew Brees to make the short throws. But the fast, potent Niners defense then made their tackles for minimal gains.
It was a defense that went for basics and performed extremely well. Add a little complexity and more depth, and it can only get better—even against the Packers, the Patriots, the Saints, the Giants and all the other teams on the schedule.
The Niners offense too often resorted to Week 1 basics and the defense, too. The defense had the talent to make it work, but the offense needed more talent.
Defenses come together quicker than offenses, but now, with more tools and more time, the Niners offense will create more options for third down and within the red zone.
That will make for more scores.
With the addition of the 49ers' free agents and 2012 draftees, not to mention last year's stellar draft class, the organization is building a team that will be able to withstand some injuries. For the most part, the loss of Joshua Morgan was the most telling in the 2011 regular season; in the playoffs, it was the loss of Ted Ginn Jr.
This year, more players will be able to step up, from receivers to running backs to interior offensive linemen. The defense will be deep as well, with the exception of safety. A loss of Dashon Goldson could be critical.
The Niners know they are one of the best teams in the league, but Harbaugh will keep them on this simple tenet: The most important game is the next game.
That said, the Niners will take a singular approach to each opponent and adapt accordingly. This is a team with greater depth and flexibility, and thus should be able to handle any task at any place.
This team knows that it's being geared for success in 2012 and beyond.
No team seemed as in tune with each other as the 49ers, and Harbaugh deserves the credit. Players want to play in San Francisco.
More importantly, they think it is so special that the Niners had no significant off-season incidents last year.
Part of that is GM Trent Baalke searching for good-character players, and part of it is the culture of Harbaugh. It adds up to a special place at a special time, and the players know this. They’re going to do the most to make the most of it.
When you're good and you know you're good, it creates an aura. Other teams sense it.
It's one thing to see Patrick Willis on tape and devise a scheme, but let Willis and co. play with confident abandon, using their athletic skills to the utmost while having unique insight into the opponents' offenses. It will make the Niner defense even better.
That means more wins, even when the offense struggles.