2011 was a magical year for the San Francisco 49ers. They return a strong team in 2012 that should again win the NFC West.
However, it is reasonable to expect that the 49ers will take a step back this season. The Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback situation is a dumpster fire, but the Rams and the Seahawks are solid teams that won’t present an easy out for anyone. The reigning division champs will have their work cut out for them.
A good cautionary tale for the 2012 49ers are the 2007 Chicago Bears. The 2006 Bears had a great season, finishing 13-3. Their playoff run went all the way to the Super Bowl. Rex Grossman, historically injury-prone and inconsistent, led the Bears’ offense with 3,193 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and only 20 interceptions (which, for Rex, is great). Rookie Devin Hester electrified the return game and Thomas Jones pounded the ball on the ground. A lights-out defense kept them in every game. It seemed like almost every bounce went the Bears’ way.
In 2007, it fell apart for the Bears. Injuries were a factor, but Rex became Rex again. He got hurt and only played in eight games. When he did play, Grossman wasn’t that good. The offense, coming off a plus-eight turnover margin in 2006, took a step back to minus-one. The defense became inconsistent, dominating one week and looking ordinary the next. They finished 2007 at a mediocre 7-9.
The 49ers are eerily similar in makeup and philosophy to the 2006-2007 Bears teams. While Alex Smith is not an elite quarterback and never will be, he does not turn the ball over like Rex Grossman. The 49ers will not likely have the plus-28 turnover margin in 2012 like they had in 2011, so there will almost certainly be a few games that the 49ers lose because they aren’t getting the bounces they got last year. Their schedule, on paper, looks harder than it turned out to be in 2011, so a step back is almost inevitable. But stepping back does not mean 7-9. Or does it?
San Francisco has upgraded a little on offense with the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and Brandon Jacobs, but the improvement will be minimal. Randy Moss wasn’t effective during his last season in the league, Mario Manningham has always been a No. 2 receiver at best, and Brandon Jacobs weighs 260 pounds but has shown he's afraid of contact. Not only that, but Jacobs runs high and is prone to injury because of it.
Working on the right guard situation could help the running game, but the 49ers are average at best at quarterback and relied way too much on 40-plus-yard field goals in 2011.
The 49ers will still be a top-ten team in the NFL, but they are not going to go 13-3 again. They are simply too limited offensively in a passing league.
If I seem too pessimistic, keep in mind that I predicted that the 49ers would be 4-12 in 2011 before the season started. So, maybe I’ll be wrong again on the good side for the 49ers. Maybe.