The San Francisco 49ers are embarking on a serious run at the Super Bowl during the 2012 season.
They have the tools to get there. By any measure, their defense is one of the premiere units in the NFL. A defense that was No. 1 in rushing yards allowed as well as rushing touchdowns is one that must be called truly special and powerful.
A thought that must get the attention of all of the rest of the NFL is that the entire starting unit, all 11 of them, are returning with a year’s worth of experience working together.
Their special teams put the 49ers in great field position so often that a high-scoring offense was unnecessary last year. In fact, the team won many of their games with field goals, as David Akers set a record for FGs made with 44. The special teams only looks to get better as they added some talent during the offseason.
The 49er offense, the one weak spot on a powerful and winning team, has been beefed up with speed and talent for the coming season. It promises to improve drastically from a low scoring but effective 2011 season.
The NFL has checks and balances to prevent any team from becoming too dominant. Over the long term, their strategy works pretty well. They award the top draft pick to the team with the worst record, and the last draft spot to the team with the best record. Their theory is that evening out talent should level the playing field, so to speak.
They restrict the amount of money that can be spent on players with a salary cap. That prevents one team from buying up all the top talent that is available in the free-agency market.
And they control the playing schedule to pit the best teams against each other as much as possible.
But, as in any bureaucratic system, there are ways of beating the odds. One must look at the rules and find where they are vague and take advantage of those holes. The 49ers are using many of those loopholes to produce another Super Bowl quality team.
During the offseason, they added multiple talent at both the receiving and the rushing positions of the offense. Those moves promise to open up the offensive possibilities and improve both third-down and red-zone efficiency.
As if last year was not scary enough for NFL teams playing San Francisco, it looks like they improved in nearly every facet of the game. The 49ers are poised to roll over some very tough opposition that has been placed on their schedule for 2012.
Opposing teams did not do much in preparation for games with the 49ers in 2011. With a new coach and a new scheme, the 49ers did not seem to be a threat to anybody. But teams who were surprised by them in 2011 are scrambling to find solutions in 2012.
The 49ers will not blindside anyone this year. The 2011 season was an announcement:
The 49ers are back and they mean to take it all. You have been served.
It is worth looking back at the way the team went from a decade's worth of losing seasons to going 13-3 and making a run at the Super Bowl in 2011. There are lessons to be learned by other coaching staffs here, if they would pay attention.
First off, they hired a sharp manager, Trent Baalke, who then hired an inspiring coach, Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh then put together a stellar group of coaches and instructed them to mold the players from a gaggle of talent into a cohesive, committed team.
Many coaches assume they can use the strength of their personality to inspire the guys to put out the stereotypical 110 percent. Singletary, a good man and a great player, felt all he needed to do was jar the team loose from lethargy and goad them on. That approach only yields temporary success.
Grown men playing football tire quickly of being yelled at and told how they screwed up.
So Harbaugh changed the culture.
He complimented good playing. And when he saw errors, rather than yelling at people to get with it, he taught them better techniques and gave them confidence that they could improve. Instead of pushing, he pulled.
It is also true that some teams just do not have the talent at all positions to win. Most teams have several really good players that the rest of the team feeds off of and relies on. Most coaches feel if they just had a great quarterback they can win. Or they get a wily rusher that can always get that first down. Or they hope they can win consistently with a stud defensive player.
So they spend assets acquiring the great stud, or the great arm or the great rusher, and penny-pinch on the rest of the squad.
The bald truth is that NFL football is the most team-oriented sport of all the sports in the world. Every position is important. Every starting player must not only have the team spirit, but the ability to excel in the first place. It is vital that they all play in sync, depend on each other and are themselves dependable.
The winners in the NFL are those coaches with the ability to spot players who have that talent and the ability to cooperate with their teammates, even if those skills have not yet been properly developed. How else can one explain Carlos Rogers, released by the Redskins because they felt he did not have the talent at cornerback they needed, playing in the Pro Bowl the very next year?
Or a quarterback who never had a winning season since being drafted in 2005, only to put up a 13-3 record with career highs in passing yards and QB rating?
And how can you explain a defensive lineman and an offensive lineman who each caught a pass? When a lineman reports to the ref as eligible this year, you can bet someone on the opposing team will be covering him, to the detriment of the defense as a whole.
The coaching staff saw the possibilities and made them happen.
So the 49ers hired some players that had undeveloped talent and developed them into winners. Because they had been let go from other teams, they came cheaper than if they had been bid up during free agency. The team stayed under the salary cap and acquired some highly-skilled people while doing it. And then they convinced them to act as one, to be a team, not just a group of talented guys.
The same phenomenon worked for rookies. Some came and found they were being trained for and utilized in positions they had never played before. And they excelled. A defensive back became a fullback, leading Frank Gore and creating holes and blocking blitzes during passing downs. A defensive lineman becomes a pass-rusher and hassled quarterbacks not used to being hassled.
It is simple. People will go through hell for a leader they like and admire. People will lag and resist for a leader they do not like and admire. Abuse your power and you will lose your people.
A player will subvert his personal ambition for glory if he buys into the concept of teamwork. If all the players do that the team will be more successful. If they do not buy into it they will fail.
The sum of the whole is more than the sum of the individuals.
The beauty of football is in the teamwork, not just the one long toe-tapping sideline pass or the breakaway run between the tackles or the one crushing hit. Though I will admit those plays are really nice, to be sure.
The beauty is in the way Justin Smith flushes the quarterback into Aldon Smith’s long arms, and vice-versa. Or the way Michael Crabtree blocks a defensive back so Randy Moss can break into the open. It is in the way all five offensive linemen work together to keep defensive players off the quarterback until he can get the ball away.
That is the beauty of NFL football. That is team play.
So the 49ers are poised to make a solid run at the Super Bowl this year. Everyone knows it; all the commentators comment on it.
And they got here by using creativity, a good eye for talent and true leadership. They found ways to snooker the odds set up by the NFL personnel rules.
If 2012 works out as planned, the 49ers may change the culture in the NFL.