The San Francisco 49ers' performance last season was nothing short of sensational.
With Alex Smith, who was known as an average quarterback, and a brand-new coach in Jim Harbaugh, nobody expected the 49ers would conclude their season within tasting distance of a Super Bowl appearance.
Injury after injury limited the ability for the Raiders to compete, and they slowly faded from playoff contention losing four out of the final five regular-season games, including an agonizing loss in the potential playoff clinching game to the rival San Diego Chargers in Week 17.
If the injury bug leaves the silver and black alone, there are ample reasons why the 2012 Raiders will be better than the 2011 49ers.
It starts with the quarterback: Carson Palmer has had a full offseason to get re-acclimated to the football environment and find his sanctuary in the Black Hole. He has the ability and weapons to return to the success he enjoyed early in his career with the Bengals.
He has put together 25+ TD seasons and 4,000+ yard seasons (before 4K became a mark hit by all of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league).
As outstanding as Alex Smith performed in the playoffs, the 49ers utilized Smith mainly for conservative play-calling where Harbaugh just hoped that he wouldn’t turn the ball over. And Smith didn’t—throwing merely five regular season interceptions and zero during the playoffs.
Carson Palmer will definitely throw more interceptions than Smith did last year, but that is because he will be trusted to make big plays. But he will put points on the board, something the 49ers were not the greatest at in 2011.
Moving on to the running back position, Darren McFadden is a better all-around threat (and I have outlined his strengths both here and here). Again, this is not to discredit anything Frank Gore has done.
Gore proved to have been one of the best in the league last year, but McFadden would have had a shot to lead the league in rushing yards had he not gotten injured midway through the season.
He will come back hungrier in the fall and the Raiders will be more careful to allocate his snaps appropriately.
And while Vernon Davis put up numbers that any Raiders TE can only dream of having, the Raiders have a better receiving corps than Crabtree & Co. had last year.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford and Juron Criner make up deadly home-run threats and some size that will serve them well in red-zone opportunities.
Defensively, it isn’t much of a comparison. The 49ers were very likely the best defense in the NFL last season. There isn’t much more to say here.
An advantage on special teams can be what puts a team over the top in close games. Although Andy Lee and Shane Lechler are nearly identically elite punters, Sebastian Janikowski certainly has an edge over David Akers.
Again, Akers is no slouch, but when you have someone that can boot 60-yard field goals, that relieves your offense of the pressure to drive deep into the opponents’ territory.
The final area of comparison is coaching. Jim Harbaugh may be an interesting character, but there is no doubt he is an outstanding NFL head coach and was worthy of the 2011 AP NFL Coach of the Year Award.
How he transformed San Francisco was incredible and it was only his first year in the NFL.
The Dennis Allen experiment in Oakland will be a show to grab some popcorn for. The 39-year-old has never been a head coach at either the college or pro level.
He will need to earn the respect of an NFL locker room, which is why veteran Richard Seymour’s support of his new leader may be an indication of the success to come.
Few people outside of San Francisco expected the 49ers to conclude the 2011 regular season with a 13-3 record. Why expect anything different for the Raiders this year?