Most national media pundits are predicting the San Francisco 49ers to be in the midst of Super Bowl contention. For good reason. This team is absolutely stacked on both sides of the ball and is probably the deepest, one through 53, in the entire league.
ESPN has the team listed No. 5 overall in their preseason rankings.
A combination of Bucky Brooks, Daniel Jeremiah, Adam Schein and Steve Wyche over at the NFL Network all have the 49ers winning at least 11 games and the NFC West Championship.
In their first NFL power rankings installment, the Associated Press has San Francisco ranked fourth overall.
Even Vegas has bought into the optimism, as Bet Vega has the 49ers at nine-to-one odds, third-best in the league, to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
With talent and expectations come the possibility of failure and bitter disappointment. We have seen this in a never-ending cycle throughout the last few seasons.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who followed up a three-win 2009 season by winning double-digit games in 2010, fell back down to Earth last year. Josh Freeman saw his quarterback rating drop over 20 points, as he threw 16 more interceptions than the season prior.
Tony Sparano turned the Miami Dolphins into an 11-win team in 2008 after winning just one game the prior season. They did so with solid quarterback play from Chad Pennington and a stout defense. Things fell apart in 2009, as the Dolphins won seven games and failed to make the postseason.
These stories have been repeated over and over again. Could the 49ers fall into the same trap?
First, it is important to note that San Francisco was never the hunted last season. They snuck up on opponents through the early part of the year and continued to win with solid play on offense and a dominating defense.
Being the hunted is a completely different ballgame than being the hunter. This is the first time in Jim Harbaugh's short NFL coaching career that he is going to be facing incredibly high expectations.
After all, no one really envisioned San Francisco winning the NFC West, let alone 13 games and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. There really is no telling how this team is going to handle these expectations. All we have to look at is the character of the coaching staff and the players, which isn't much more than pure conjecture at this point.
Then, you have the little-known fact of veterans having career years. Joe Staley, who was considered an average starting tackle prior to a breakout 2011 season, earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time. Alex Smith had the lowest interception ratio in 49ers history, even outdoing the likes of John Brodie, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks all turned in impressive campaigns after being "considered" shaky at best in previous seasons.
What happens if these players perform up to the level that we saw prior to breakout 2011 campaigns? Is it reasonable to believe the 49ers will take that next step if this happens? I will attempt to answer these questions and more.
The Lockout Had a Major Effect
It is extremely important to note that San Francisco headed into the 2011 season with nearly an entirely new coaching staff. It did so running a new scheme and without the benefit of an offseason due to the lockout that lasted into early August. In fact, San Francisco was still running new plays out of its extensive playbook during the postseason. Talk about being under the proverbial eight-ball.
The counterargument against this point would be that every team had to deal with the lockout. Simply put, that point does not hold any ground. You cannot possibly tell me that the work stoppage affected the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, among other top-notch teams, as much as San Francisco. It isn't reasonable to believe that.
It appears that San Francisco has much more continuity and a larger understanding of the scheme that it plans to implement heading into the regular season. Of course, we haven't seen that in preseason games, but it is readily apparent in practice during training camp.
It is Hard to Discount Actual Talent on the Field
Neither The Buccaneers or Dolphins, who I mentioned above, or any other team that could be categorized in that manner, had the talent that San Francisco currently possesses. It really is like comparing apples and oranges.
We have to take into account that this was a talented but underperforming team under Mike Singletary. Veterans from those disappointing teams have blended well with youngsters and free-agent acquisitions to build one of the most talented teams in the National Football League
On the defensive side of the ball, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form the best linebacker tandem in the entire league. Both earned First-Team All Pro honors in 2011 and promise to be more cohesive after an entire offseason working with one another. Justin Smith was robbed out of the Defensive Player of the Year award when voters chose Terrell Suggs.
Smith is, by far, the most dominating 3-4 lineman in the entire league. Ray McDonald is the most underrated 3-4 defensive end in the league as well. Aldon Smith, who broke the franchise rookie sack record, will be starting in 2012 and has a strong chance to build off of what was an amazing 2011 campaign.
The 49ers secondary is loaded with premier talent, as both Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson made their first Pro Bowl teams. More importantly, San Francisco has a nice amount of young talent mixed in there.
Tarell Brown recorded 16 passes defended and four interceptions, showing everyone that he is a capable starting cornerback in the NFL after struggling with consistency in prior seasons. Perrish Cox comes over from the Denver Broncos and seems to have starter quality written all over him after major legal battles the last year or so. Then you have Chris Culliver, who is going to be a Pro Bowl player sooner rather than later entering just his second NFL season.
Offensively, it is all about cohesion and scheme. San Francisco added a ton of talent at multiple skill positions. Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James join one of the deepest backfields in recent league history.
Teaming up with them is Frank Gore, who has been one of the most productive running backs in the league over the last five seasons. Kendall Hunter, despite being smaller in stature, appears to be the heir apparent to Gore and will catch national attention if he continues to progress.
Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and A.J. Jenkins strengthen what was a weak wide receiver core last season. All three leave something to be desired, but are major upgrades from 2011. This doesn't even take into the account the return of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, both of whom will be relied on a great deal in the passing game.
While the right side of the offensive line might be somewhat shaky, the 49ers improved in this area as the 2011 season progressed. Staley is a Pro Bowl left tackle, Mike Iupati will be an All-Pro performer this year and Jonathan Goodwin is just a couple years removed from Pro Bowl consideration. Alex Boone and Anthony Davis are the wildcards here.
Career Years Might Just be a Preview of Things to Come
Skeptics will conclude that the 49ers had too many players boast career years in 2011 for them to be considered among the favorites to win the Super Bowl. That seems a bit foolish to me.
We all knew that Goldson, Whitner and Rogers had talent prior to the 2011 season. There is a reason that they were regarded as high level prospects leaving college. These three defensive backs seem to work together extremely well and will only continue to get stronger as a unit moving forward.
To suggest that a second-year player, NaVorro Bowman, had a career year is utterly foolish. He had shown the ability to be a dominating linebacker at Penn State before a myriad of different issues cost him a high draft pick. In reality, there were many that concluded Bowman had top-20 talent heading into the 2010 NFL draft.
Match him up with the best linebacker in the NFL in the form of Patrick Willis, and you have the makings for something special. The two seem to feed off one another extremely well on Sunday. The simple fact that an argument could be made that Bowman played better than Willis last season is a testament to the young linebacker.
Don't even get me started with Justin Smith. He has been one of the best defensive lineman in the league over the last four seasons, only to exist in relative obscurity because of the 49ers' lack of success. Once this franchise started to get more attention, the national media finally realized what most of us locally already knew: Smith is an absolute beast.
While it might not be reasonable to expect that Alex Smith throws just five interceptions in 2012, last season was nowhere near a fluke for the embattled 49ers quarterback. You have to go back a year or so to see progression from Smith, even with Singletary leading the team.
Even prior to 2011, the veteran quarterback was trending upwards. In his last six starts of the 2010 season, Smith threw eight touchdowns compared to a single interception and accumulated a 90.0 quarterback rating.
Overall, Smith has thrown a total of six interceptions in his last 675 pass attempts. That is one interception for every 113 passes, putting him among the best in league history over the duration of more than a season. To put that into perspective, Aaron Rodgers threw an interception every 84 times he attempted a pass in his record-breaking 2011 campaign.
It is now up to Smith to build off his last 24 starts and the 49ers to provide him with more trust in terms of airing it out. I expect to see a lot more of that this season.
2011 Schedule Wasn't that Easy
Skeptics conclude that the 49ers had an easy schedule last season. This couldn't be further from the truth. Half of their games came against team with a record of .500 or above. San Francisco won five of those matchups.
Moreover, it had a brutal three-game road stretch in which it faced teams from the East Coast time zone, a rarity in the NFL today. San Francisco won all three games, becoming the first team since the 1996 49ers to accomplish this feat. Overall opponents San Francisco faced outside of the NFC West went a combined 81-79.
While the 49ers 2012 schedule appears to be more difficult than last year, saying they had an easy schedule in 2011 is absurd.
This team is absolutely stacked from 1-53. You are looking at four running backs who could be counted on to accumulated 100 yard on any given Sunday. Brandon Jacobs, when he returns, will bring a short-yardage capability that we didn't see in 2011. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are one of the top 1-2 punches in the entire league in the backfield.
Entering the season, it appears that Kyle Williams and A.J. Jenkins will be the 49ers' No. 4 and No. 5 wide receivers. That is simply amazing considering that San Francisco had to suit up both Joe Hastings and Brett Swain in the postseason last year.
Defensively, it is even more apparent.
Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean-Francois, Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams form what has quickly become a deep defensive line. Parys Haralson will be the primary backup to both Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks at outside linebacker.
Larry Grant, who would start on over half the teams in the NFL, is tasked with backing up NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis at middle linebacker.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are stacked at cornerback. Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, two starter quality players, will be mixed in at nickel situations. Cox could even play some nickel safety in order to makeup for the lack of depth at that position.
San Francisco could withstand a couple of serious injuries and not take a dramatic step backward. You can only say that for a handful of teams around the NFL.
Being Super Bowl contenders isn't anything to take too lightly. That being said, it is pretty much conjecture at this point. We have no idea what the 2012 season is going to bring around the NFL.
Projections are made by looking at last years success and the roster as it is CURRENTLY formed prior to the start of the season. You can't take into account possible injuries, or even significant regression from certain players. Instead, you have to look at teams around the league as a full body of work with a ton of different factors involved.
Simply put, San Francisco is one of the top four or five teams in the NFL. With that comes high expectations and a Super Bowl or bust mentality. Until this team and their coaches don't give us a reason to have optimism, it would be foolish to think they are going to take a step back.