The San Francisco 49ers enter training camp with realistic Super Bowl expectations—a far cry from a year ago—but are not without questions. The following questions—and their respective answers—will ultimately determine whether or not the team reaches its high expectations.
Feel free to add any that I may have missed in the comment section below.
How much is left in Frank Gore's tank?
Not as much as there once was, that we know. And that's fine. Gore doesn't need to be the 20-plus-carries workhorse he once was. Not with the talented stable of running backs the 49ers now have—Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon are all battling to fill the depth chart.
The speed has been lost over the years—and through multiple injuries—but few in the business are as good as Gore within the trenches. He ducks, disappears behind linemen and hits the holes with a rare urgency. While still the clear starter, Gore will split carries with the other backs, and that should keep his legs fresh enough to stretch out what has been a very impressive career.
What Will Jim Harbaugh Do?
Or WWJHD for short—not to be confused with WWJD, though I won't be too surprised when lanyards and bumper stickers with WWJHD on them start popping up here in the Bay Area.
Harbaugh blasted into the NFL coaching scene and found instant success on a team that had not reached the playoffs since 2002. With Harbaugh at the helm, the 49ers shocked the football world, going 13-3 in the regular season and advancing to the NFC Championship.
So what will Harbaugh do in his second season as head coach—and first with a full, lockout-free offseason? Or, better yet, how can he top last season?
Well, a three-second pin down of Jim Schwartz and a Super Bowl appearance would be a good start.
Who is the Real Alex Smith?
A bust—according to many who still cling to this belief?
A middle-of-the-pack starter—according to Ron Jaworski's QB Rankings?
An elite quarterback—according to Harbaugh?
After seven roller-coaster seasons—some injury-interrupted, some not—we really don't know. That's how strange Smith's journey in the NFL has been. But now, finally with some continuity in the playbook and a healthy shoulder, we may receive our answer.
Smith soared last season, his first under Harbaugh. The still-young (just 28 years of age) quarterback threw for 3,144 yards with 17 touchdown and five interceptions and posted a career-best 90.7 rating. Surrounded by more firepower than ever before—the 49ers added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in the offseason—those numbers should gaudy up in 2012.
Is the Defense Even Better?
Is that even possible?
Yes. Simple as that. The record-breaking defense—which returns all eleven starters—is healthy as a whole, young yet experienced and well-prepared week in and week out. They stuff the run, pressure the quarterback and force turnovers at an alarming rate (38 total in 2011).
And if their domination during training camp is any indication, opposing offenses, especially quarterbacks, should be very scared.
For a closer look at each defensive unit, click here.
Can Nathan Palmer sneak into the 53-man roster?
Or is the undrafted rookie out of Northern Illinois headed to the practice squad, or elsewhere?
Palmer has been perhaps the most impressive rookie in camp, including those drafted. Coaches and teammates—including the corners who cover him during drills—are heaping piles of praise on the speedy receiver.
“I like his demeanor, athleticism, quickness, balance and ball skills, attention to detail, knowing what to do, making instinctive adjustments that you can't coach—or you can talk about coaching but not everybody gets,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman raved about Palmer. “He's gone a great job. Day-in and day-out his stock is going up.”
Only time—and a few preseason games—well tell if it's enough for Palmer to crack the final roster.
Others considered: Can Kyle Williams bounce back? How will Randy Moss impact the team? How will Aldon Smith respond—after quite the offseason—to his promotion to starting outside linebacker? Is Justin Smith really Superman, without any kryptonite? What will LaMichael James' role be in the offense and special teams?