What's Jim Harbaugh smiling about?
Possible answers include (and feel free to add your own in the comment section below) the following:
Alex Smith just delivered an accurate deep ball, then blew a kiss and winked in his direction.
Maroon 5's "Payphone" is blaring on the loud speakers and he's laughing at the irony that most of his players probably don't even know what a payphone is.
A reporter just asked him how much he misses having Chilo Rachal on the line.
Joe Staley just told him a funny joke: "A priest, a rabbi and Jim Schwartz walk into a bar..."
Or he's just thinking about the upcoming season.
Makes sense. There is a lot to smile about when looking at the San Francisco 49ers. Fresh off a 13-3 regular season and trip to the NFC Championship, the team returns every key contributor and added depth and talent to an already-stacked roster in the offseason.
Now onto the bold, bolder and boldest predictions for 2012.
Yes, that same Kyle Williams. The same Kyle Williams that fumbled not one, but two punts in the NFC Championship game—the latter resulting in a chip-shot, game-winning field goal for the New York Giants. The same Kyle Williams that received death threats after the devastating loss.
He's back, fighting to make the 53-man roster. He's back, not asking for you to forgive—or dare I say forget—what happened. He's back, ready to earn it.
Using the [bad] memory and the unyielding support of his teammates as fuel, Williams worked extra hard in the offseason to give himself another chance.
"It's not like you want to forget about something like that," he told Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
You want to build off of that, learn from it, take it as a mistake and build off it, you know? It was a tough time, obviously, for me and for the whole team. But the way these guys had my back, they continue to have my back. That, coupled with the work ethic, has just kind of been a good therapy for me. So I've just been going hard, and I'm ready to go. I'm ready to go now.
. . . . Ever since a week after that last game, I've been going. There was no break and I've been going full-throttle since then. I feel great.
And he's looked great, both as a receiver and—gasp—return man, throughout camp. Ideal for the slot, Williams bursts off the line and really accelerates in and out of cuts. He has sticky hands able to pluck the ball from the air on the go. As Davis and Moss stretch the field vertically, Williams will have plenty of space underneath to do damage.
In the preseason opener, the third-year receiver was greeted by a mix of boos and cheers. As he fielded two punts during the game—one for a substantial twenty-two yard gain—and hauled in two receptions for twelve yards, the boos died down.
Soon they'll be extinct.
Crazy what a full—well, "full" for Crabtree—offseason and preseason games can do.
After missing a portion of camp with an injury to his lower right leg, the fourth-year receiver returned and participated in his first ever preseason game against the Vikings. He was in the starting lineup and had one reception for three yards.
But that's hardly the story. The story is Crabtree, a top-10 pick in 2009, is finally healthy enough to even suit up before the regular season begins. That means more time to digest the playbook—no better way to learn than to do—and more time to continue to develop chemistry with his quarterback.
Crabtree had a mini-breakout season in 2011. He hauled in a team-high (and career-high) 72 receptions for 874 yards, but only scored four touchdowns—including one on a fake field goal in Week 17.
Expect that to at least double this season.
With the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins, defenses can no longer shift their focus to just Crabtree and teammate Vernon Davis in the passing game. That means more single coverage, more space for the two-time Biletnikoff Award winner in college to run his routes and gain separation.
Appearing stronger and faster than ever, Crabtree should have little trouble exploiting single coverage and finding the end zone. Davis will get his, Moss too, but Crabtree will surprisingly lead the team in touchdown receptions.
Nine is the magic number.
Last but not least, the lifting of the Lombardi Trophy. The franchise's sixth ever trip to the Super Bowl, all wins.
The defense swarms to the ball. They stuff the run, pressure the quarterback and force lots of turnovers—38 last season. The offense is not only opportunistic but it's also efficient and able to grind out yards on the ground and through the air. And the special teams are special in every facet of the game.
But it won't be easy. Expectations are high, the schedule is tough and the target is now placed squarely on their backs. That's fine. This coaching staff—the entire staff, which rarely gets the credit they deserve—will keep the team prepared and focused throughout the season and beyond.
All the way to New Orleans—site of Super Bowl XLVII.
Then, off to Disneyland to celebrate.
Tarell Brown Will Actually Lead the NFL in Interceptions
He said it first and he may be onto something.
In my humble opinion, Brown is the best cornerback on the 49ers roster. Easy. Not Carlos Rogers. Not Chris Culliver. Not Perrish Cox. Brown really started to emerge last season and has carried the momentum into camp. He has the speed, toughness and natural instincts to live up to his prophecy.
The Special Teams Won't Be as Special as Last Season
Finally, a dash of pessimism to spice this piece up.
It's hard to duplicate perfection, and the 49ers special teams were nearly perfect in 2011. David Akers converted a record-breaking 44 field goals—seven of those from 50-plus yards. Andy Lee averaged 50.9 yards per punt and had a knack for pinning opponents deep in their own territory. The coverage team was superb and Ted Ginn, Jr. returned two kicks—one punt, one kickoff—for touchdowns.
It will be a tough task to match the above performances, a task they will fail to accomplish.
Alex Smith Will Earn a Pro Bowl Invite
But politely decline, for a larger responsibility at hand—Hawaii can wait when a trip to New Orleans is on the agenda.
This is the year Smith breaks free of the "bust" and "game manager" chains, the year fantasy football experts "recommend adding Smith" to your team.
Finally comfortable and confident in an offense, he looks sharper than ever. And throwing to Moss and Manningham—along with Davis and Crabtree, both entering the prime of their careers—will only inflate his numbers to a Pro Bowl level.
For His Next Miracle, Jim Harbaugh Will Turn the Practice Squad into a Playoff Team
The way Harbaugh turned these talented underachievers into a contender in just one season, I can't help but wonder what he could do to a group of guys scraping to make the 53-man roster.