NFL predictions thrown out in June should be taken with a grain of salt. However, what else do we have to do in this down time? Rosters have pretty much been filled, draft picks have been scrutinized and obvious contenders for the Super Bowl have jumped above the rest of the league.
Of course things can change over the next few months, but barring unforeseen circumstances we have a good idea of what players teams will be fielding in September to start the 2012 season.
Consequently, it is time for me to provide you with my first "bold" prediction of the 2012 season as it relates to the San Francisco 49ers.
They will be bringing home the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans come February 2013 and here are the reasons why.
The San Francisco 49ers went into the 2009 and 2010 seasons as favorites to win the NFC West. This was due to a combination of talent on the 49ers roster and the lack of talent within the division outside of San Francisco.
It was cautious optimism from the national sports media that led to these predictions. The 49ers fell flat on their face both seasons due to a combination of horrible coaching and untimely mistakes from the players on the field.
The 49ers came into the 2011 season behind the proverbial "eight ball." They had almost an entirely new coaching staff, a new scheme on both sides of the ball and players that had not performed up to par all throughout the roster. Couple this with the fact that new head coach Jim Harbaugh was unable to implement his system in the offseason due to the lockout and you had the makings for a down season by the bay.
We all know how that turned out. San Francisco won 13 games and nearly made their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 seasons. At one point the 49ers won eight straight games.
The natural progression for this team is to be considered one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl in 2012. San Francisco added a myriad of different weapons on the offensive side of the ball, while retaining all 11 starters along one of the best defenses in the entire NFL.
This might fly under the radar in the grand scheme of things, but it is extremely important. As I mentioned before, the 49ers were under the eight ball last season due to the lockout. Harbaugh and company were unable to work with their players in implementing an entirely new scheme.
I fully understand that other teams were in the same situation, but here's how they fared. The Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos won eight games and the Cleveland Browns finished in the cellar. In total, San Francisco was the only team with a new head coach to finish above .500 last season.
This is a testament to the coaching staff and their ability to work with the players to create cohesion and scheme in relatively short order.
This also wont be an issue in 2012. The 49ers are currently in the midst of their first OTA under Harbaugh. They will be able to fully implement his complex playbook prior to the start of the preseason in August.
You have to remember that the 49ers were unable to utilize their full playbook last season and were still calling "new" plays in the postseason. Just imagine what this offense can do with the entire playbook at their disposal.
Continuity on Defense
The 49ers return all 11 starters from a defense that ranked among the best in the entire league last season. In addition, they added a couple promising components in the form of Perrish Cox and Cam Johnson at positions of relative strength.
Aldon Smith returns for his second season after dominating the league as a raw rookie in 2011. San Francisco expects him to get more snaps and become a full-time player in 2012. This only adds to the dimension that he brings to the table and will help San Francisco acquire a more consistent pass rush on every down.
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, both All-Pro performers in 2011, will be returning for their second season together as one of the most dominating linebacker tandems. Expect both to get a better understanding of one another and to be stronger together, if that is even possible.
The only question mark on defense is the backup safety spots. Both Madieu Williams and Reggie Smith departed via free agency and leave a tremendous void if either Dashon Goldson or Donte Whitner miss time.That being said, expect the 49ers to go out an add a veteran presence at safety this summer.
Overall, San Francisco's defensive unit promises to be better in 2012. All the major contributors return, youngsters gain more experience and they have months to work on the scheme, something this unit did not have in 2011.That is a scary proposition for opposing offenses on the 49ers schedule.
New Dimensions on Offense
One thing was evident last season as it related to the 49ers. They just did not have the play-making ability on the offensive side of the ball. Whether or not you believe Alex Smith is a good starting quarterback really isn't the point here.
Your receivers cannot combine for one reception in a playoff game if you expect to win the Super Bowl. This is what happened against the New York Giants in the 2011 NFC championship game.
Additionally, the offensive line struggled a great deal early in the season before getting it together big time as the year progressed.
These two areas are going to determine whether or not the 49ers are truly favorites to bring home the Lombardi in New Orleans next February.
San Francisco went out and added Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in free agency. While there are question marks in regards to both players, you cannot question the success that each has had throughout their careers in the NFL.
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers have had nothing but great things to say about Moss during camp over the course of the last two weeks. It seems that he has the motivation and skill to make an impact in 2012. Manningham had a down season in 2011 before coming through big time in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. He figures to be an immediate upgrade over Kyle Williams in the slot.
San Francisco also went out and drafted A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James with their first two picks in April's draft. Both add speed and explosiveness to an offense that was lacking that dimension last season. James should be able to come in and make an instant impact behind a solid 49ers' run-blocking offensive line. Moreover, he represents the type of player that that can break a big run at any time.
Brandon Jacobs gives San Francisco a solid short yardage option outside of Anthony Dixon, who struggled a great deal in that aspect last season. The 49ers skill positions are not only deep but stacked with actual skill.
Putting Numbers in Place
The 2011 San Francisco 49ers seemingly proved the entire football world wrong with the way they won games. This is a team that ranked 29th in passing offense and struggled a great deal on that side of the ball a majority of the season.
They won with mistake free football on offense, opportunistic takeaways, tremendous special teams and stout run-defense.
These all figure to play an important role heading into the 2012 season if the 49ers are going to live up to expectations.
The major change here and the reason why I believe the 49ers are clear favorites to win the Super Bowl is the additions they have made on the offensive side of the ball. Defenses are not going to be able to stack the box against the run with the likes of Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins as weapons in the passing game.
Alex Smith has an entire offseason to work with the 49ers coaching staff to hone his technique and learn the playbook. San Francisco's running game promises to be among the best in the NFL with the additions of both James and Jacobs.
The offensive line improved a great deal during the last third of the 2011 season, doing a really good job protecting Alex Smith. Give the up-and-coming quarterback more time to find open receivers and you will see a much improved passing game.
The 49ers defense gave up 20 points or less 11 different times and held their opponents to less than 100 rushing yards 13 times. They forced multiple turnovers in all but one game and controlled the field position battle in every single game outside of the loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
If these trends continue there is no reason to believe that the 49ers cannot win 13 games in 2012. Their offense is going to be vastly improved and the defense should actually take another step towards being the best in the league with another season together.
These are the indicators of success. They might not be as sexy as Drew Brees throwing for 400 yards or Wes Welker catching 15 passes in a game. Instead, it is all about bringing the entire team together on the football field in order to complement one another in the best possible way.
Alex Smith is currently in the midst of one of the most shocking statistics in the world of football. Including the 2011 postseason, Smith has not thrown an interception in 231 pass attempts.
You win the turnover and field position battle and you are most likely going to win the game. This has been a growing trend in regards to the 49ers and doesn't look like it is going to change in 2012.
Adding more fuel to the fire is the fact that the 49ers are going to be fully prepared to take on the best that the league has to offer when the 2012 playoffs role around. They are going to be facing the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers during the 2012 regular season.
While this is going to be a difficult task, San Francisco has proven that they can hang with the big boys. They went a combined 3-1 against these quarterbacks during the regular season last year.
San Francisco has the roster, the talent, the coaching staff and the chemistry to dominate the NFC for the foreseeable future. For them, it starts in 2012 when they should be the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC West and take home the conference championship.
This might sound a little too optimistic, but what indicators do we have that run contrary to this point? What statistics can you provide me that supports the idea that San Francisco is going to regress in 2012?
I didn't think so.
Now it is time for you as 49ers fans to ignore the struggling of the decade prior to 2011 and move forward fully understanding that you are supporting a team that should win the Super Bowl this season.
Anything less would be a disappointment.