Jim Harbaugh hopes to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers finished the 2011 season with a regular-season record of 13-3. They were the surprise team of the league and advanced all the way to the NFC championship game. A couple of mistakes on special teams cost the 49ers a trip to the Super Bowl.
I was confident that head coach Jim Harbaugh would turn the team around, but expected it to take two or three years. But the 49ers are well ahead of schedule and are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The question is, are the 49ers the best team in football?
The answer is a definite maybe. The reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants are the team to beat until someone dethrones them.
There are three teams that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the 49ers. The Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Giants are also at the top of the list. In addition, the Steelers, Ravens, Texans, Eagles, Falcons and Lions are in the mix.
I have isolated five key areas where I believe the 49ers are among the NFL's best. In addition, there are two areas of concern, which I will also address.
Perrish Cox adds quality depth to the 49ers' defensive secondary
The 2012 San Francisco 49ers have improved the quality of depth in every position group. This will prove to be extremely valuable, as quality depth will allow head coach Jim Harbaugh to give his players a rest when they need one.
More importantly, a stronger overall roster enables the 49ers to better withstand injuries. In 2011, the 49ers were largely able to avoid significant injuries, but the odds of that happening again are slim. Here are some of the major improvements in depth that we will see in 2012.
At quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson and Scott Tolzein are battling for the backup job behind Alex Smith. Kaepernick and Tolzein have benefited from a year in the 49ers' system. Johnson, who signed as a free agent, worked extensively with Harbaugh when the two were at the University of San Diego.
The 49ers brought in running backs Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and Rock Cartwright, to complement Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. The running back position has been significantly upgraded to the point where Anthony Dixon, who is entering his third NFL season, is fighting to make the team.
Perhaps the greatest area of improvement is at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn return, but only Crabtree is expected to play a major role. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham join the 49ers and are likely to be the second and third receiver in the 49ers' offense.
In addition, the 49ers used their first-round draft selection on wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. Do not expect Jenkins to get much playing time, at least until the second half of the season, or maybe not until 2013.
Defensively, the 49ers did not make many changes to their core personnel. However, this unit still has the potential to improve because the players are now familiar with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's system.
That additional year of experience will dramatically improve the defense. In addition, the emergence of Aldon Smith in his rookie year moves former starting linebacker Parys Haralson into a reserve role.
The other new addition who can contribute right away is Perrish Cox. He sat out all of last season due to legal troubles, but now seems focused on rejuvenating his career. Cox will provide quality depth as a cornerback or safety. He should also see playing time in the nickel and dime defenses.
In 2011, David Akers set an NFL record for most field goals in a single season
The San Francisco 49ers have outstanding special teams, led by kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee. Akers and Lee were both first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections.
Akers set an NFL record for most field goals made and attempted, converting 44 of 52 kicks. Akers led the league with 166 points scored. He was also very solid on kickoffs, routinely booming kicks into the end zone, eliminating any chance for a return.
Lee was also stellar and was instrumental in helping the 49ers consistently win the battle for field position. His average of 50.9 yards-per-punt led the league.
The 49ers' special teams coach Brad Seely did an excellent job with the coverage units. The 49ers were very strong in containing opposing returners and minimizing big returns.
Ted Ginn Jr. did a solid job as a return-man until he was injured. This forced Kyle Williams into action, and we all saw what happened in the NFC title game. Truth be told, Williams had several close calls prior to the two costly turnovers against the New York Giants.
The 49ers will look at several return options heading into the 2012 season. In addition to Ginn and Williams, look for LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins to get chances in the preseason.
Outside of the two costly gaffes by Williams, the 49ers' special teams played at an elite level in 2011. With Seely returning to lead this unit, I fully expect the special teams to again be a a dominant force for the 49ers.
Randy Moss will stretch the field for the 49ers' offense
The San Francisco 49ers have made major upgrades to their offensive personnel since the 2011 season ended. GM Trent Baalke brought in several players designed to give the 49ers' offense a huge boost in explosiveness and productivity.
Randy Moss heads the list of newcomers, along with fellow receiver Mario Manningham. Moss, who sat out all of the 2011 season, has a lot to prove, both on and off the field. He needs to show that he can still be an effective player and also fit into the team concept that head coach Jim Harbaugh demands.
Moss has looked good in training camp and has been a model citizen. In addition to making plays on the field, Moss has taken the young 49er receivers under his wing and has done a good job teaching them some of the finer points of being a quality NFL receiver.
Manningham was signed as a free agent after playing his first four seasons with the New York Giants. In 2011, he had 39 receptions for 523 yards and four touchdowns. He became expendable with the emergence of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in New York.
Manningham, who was one of the stars of the Giants' Super Bowl victory, will get plenty of playing time with the 49ers. He will either start opposite Michael Crabtree, or act as the 49ers' third wide receiver.
Brandon Jacobs, another former Giant, was acquired to provide punch in short yardage situations. Jacobs is an upgrade over Anthony Dixon, who tried unsuccessfully to fill this role in 2011.
The 49ers also snagged wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first-round selection in the most recent draft. Jenkins has a great deal of potential, but will not likely make a big impact this season.
LaMichael James was the 49ers' second-round draft selection. He is extremely explosive and can score anytime he touches the ball. Harbaugh will definitely find a way to utilize James' speed and quickness.
In addition to these newcomers, the 49ers return their leading wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. The 49ers have bolstered their passing attack immensely.
Frank Gore is the starting running back and had a fine year in 2011. He rushed for 1,211 yards on 282 carries and scored eight touchdowns. Kendall Hunter showed a great deal of promise last year and will also compete for playing time. As Gore's backup, Hunter rushed for 473 yards on 112 carries.
The 49ers' offense should be much improved. Quarterback Alex Smith benefited greatly by working with Harbaugh last year. Another year in Harbaugh's system should put Smith in a position to soar in 2012.
The much improved offense should be much more explosive and exciting. We should also see greater productivity in the red zone. With the wide range of weapons the 49ers' offense now possesses, opposing defense will have trouble keeping the 49ers out of the end zone.
Justin Smith is a cornerstone of the 49ers' defense
The San Francisco 49ers' defense was one of the best units in the NFL last year. It allowed only 229 points last season, an average of 14.3 points per game. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 227 points allowed, allowed fewer points.
The 49ers were also the top-rated defense against the run, allowing only 77.25 yards per game on the ground.
The 49ers were able to retain all 11 starters from this unit. The only real change is that Aldon Smith, who made an immediate impact with 14 sacks in his rookie season, takes over a starting linebacker spot. Parys Haralson, who started all 16 regular-season games and two playoff games, becomes a reserve.
The 49ers' front seven is among the best in the league. Defensive end Justin Smith and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were all first-team All-Pro selections.
The defensive backfield showed tremendous improvement as the season progressed. A major benefit was the improved pass rush, which allowed the secondary to play a tighter, more aggressive style.
Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers led the 49ers with six interceptions each. Starting cornerback Tarell Brown was one of the most improved players on the team, and Donte Whitner provided a tough physical presence in the secondary.
The 49ers' defense was extremely opportunistic last year. Combined with an offense that took care of the football, San Francisco had a plus-38 turnover margin. Although it's unlikely the 49ers can duplicate that number, the fact remains this is a championship-caliber defense.
Jim Harbaugh has made an impressive impact on the 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have assembled an outstanding coaching staff, which speaks volumes about head coach Jim Harbaugh. The group that led the 49ers to the NFC championship game last year remains intact.
Harbaugh is innovative and intense. But at the same time, he preaches discipline and demands that everyone puts the team ahead of individual goals. He is a master motivator and has the team believing in him and themselves.
The 49ers' coordinators are Vic Fangio on defense and Greg Roman on offense. Fangio runs the defense and Harbaugh delegates complete authority to him.
Fangio is a good talent evaluator and does a great job of putting his players in positions where they have the best chance to succeed. He is an excellent tactician and knows how to apply pressure and force an opposing offense into mistakes.
Roman works closely with Harbaugh in constructing the offensive game plans. He is also in charge of play-calling, although Harbaugh does lend his input in this area.
Brad Seely coaches the special teams. I detailed his excellent contributions earlier in this article. He is also the assistant head coach.
The 49ers also have an outstanding group of position coaches, including veterans Tom Rathman, Ed Donatell, Jim Tomsula and Mike Solari.
This staff excels at making in-game and halftime adjustments. A major weakness of the 49ers under previous coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, this is now a huge strength.
Harbaugh and his staff have the players fully committed to the team. They always play hard for their coaches. They have, quite amazingly, instilled a winning attitude in only one full season with the 49ers.
The biggest compliment came from many of the players. To a man, they all say they learn a lot from their coaches. When a professional football player is comfortable saying that he is learning from his coaches, that says a great deal about the excellence of Harbaugh and his staff.
Right tackle Anthony Davis improved as the 2011 season progressed.
One of the two areas where the 49ers could be vulnerable is along their offensive line. With all of the new additions at wide receiver and running back, it will be up to the offensive line to protect quarterback Alex Smith and open holes for Frank Gore and the running game.
The 49ers lost right guard Adam Snyder in free agency, and center Jonathan Goodwin needs to rebound from a subpar season. Snyder played well when he was inserted into the lineup. His presence really helped settle tackle right tackle Anthony Davis, who struggled early on.
Alex Boone, formerly a backup tackle, is the most likely candidate to play right guard. He is a big, physical player at 6'9" and 300 pounds. Boone, who has never started a game, will be paired with Davis on the right side. How these two play will be a key for the 49ers' offense.
The left side of the line is strong with Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati, who excels as a punishing run-blocker.
The key for the offensive line will be if Davis and Boone are strong and consistent on the right side and the 49ers get solid play from Goodwin. In addition, the starting unit must stay healthy. Many of the reserves are inexperienced.
Alex Smith had a break-out season in 2011
The final area of concern for the 49ers is whether quarterback Alex Smith can take the next step in his development as an NFL quarterback. After six dismal seasons in San Francisco, Smith had a breakout year under head coach Jim Harbaugh last season. Even more is expected in 2012.
Smith completed 273 of 445 passing attempts, good for a career-high 61.3 completion percentage. He threw for 3,144 yards, also the best of his career.
Smith was also very careful not to make the big mistakes that dogged him earlier in his career. He threw 17 touchdown passes and had only five interceptions.
The most noticeable improvement we saw from Smith was his leadership. He had command of the huddle and proved himself to be a competent NFL quarterback.
In 2012, Smith will be asked to do more and make more plays. The 49ers brought in plenty of new weapons and he knows the system, so there will be no excuses if he fails to execute.
Smith most needs to improve on is his accuracy, especially on the deep throws. In order to stretch the defense and utilize Randy Moss properly, Smith will need to prove he can make that deep throw.
Smith finally has a coach who believes in him and someone who can actually mentor him. He has thrived under Harbaugh.
With his increased familiarity in the system, I fully expect Smith will take that next leap forward in his development.
If Smith is successful and the 49ers can also stay relatively healthy, there is no reason why they cannot play in and win the Super Bowl.
Frank Gore has been the heart and soul of the 49ers
The time is now for the San Francisco 49ers. They shocked the football world last year by going 13-3 and making it all the way to the NFC title game. The road will be a lot tougher in 2012.
The 49ers will not be able to sneak up on teams like they did in 2011. Teams know they're good and will be prepared for them this year.
In addition, the 49ers play one of the NFL's toughest schedules. Their non-divisional games include playing some of the top quarterbacks in the league.
The 49ers will play Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans with Drew Brees, New York with Eli Manning, Detroit with Matthew Stafford and New England with Tom Brady. The 49ers will be severely tested during the regular season. I sincerely doubt they will come away with another 13-3 record.
I do believe the 49ers will win the NFC West and finish with a 10-6 or 11-5 record. Although this may not earn them a first-round bye, this 49ers team should be distinctly better than the 2011 squad.
The road to the Super Bowl will be tough. But as long as their core players stay healthy, the 49ers definitely can do it. The 49ers' window of opportunity is wide open.
Anything less than a Super Bowl victory will be a huge disappointment.