This year is Alex Smith's final chance to prove his ability to be a NFL caliber starting quarterback of a winning team.
At the culmination of the preseason, it seems the San Francisco 49ers have slipped a little in terms of people's expectations for their season. How much of it is substantiated, and how much of it is due to the coaching staff's unwillingness to open up the playbook in a meaningless preseason game?
Pete Prisco, a CBS Senior Writer, recently ranked the 49ers at #11 in his power rankings to start the 2012 season, citing that he still doesn't believe in the passing game. I thought that was unduly low considering the team's accomplishments last season, passing game or not.
Is it even fair at this point to start making judgements about Randy Moss? Mario Manningham? LaMichael James? The 49ers have grown tremendously under Jim Harbaugh's regime. Is there any reason to think that stopped in January? I don't think so, but time will tell.
Here are five factors, I think, that have led to the 49ers being ranked behind teams that perhaps they should be ahead of in the preseason power rankings.
Harbaugh has done a lot of talking his players up this offseason and, at times, has gone overboard...or has he?
During the offseason, we've all heard many quotes from 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh about the progression of the team, and we've heard them because the media is having a heyday with them, and speculating that he may not know that now that the expectations are higher, "Who's got it better than us?" may not work anymore.
We've heard everything from Michael Crabtree having the best hands he's ever seen, to having five number-one receivers on his team, to Alex Smith knowing his offense better than he does. He even went out on a limb to criticize the media's early firsthand evaluations of this year's first-round draft pick, wide receiver A.J Jenkins.
I think a lot of people hear these comments and, among other things, place Harbaugh in with the fans who are criticized for thinking that the 49ers are great all of the sudden after having just one good season in the last 10 years.
While one or more of Harbaugh's offseason comments may contain some exaggeration, I don't think that most of them qualify as hyperbole. Of course, there's the obvious exception of five number one receivers. There's not a team on the 49ers schedule that will get caught overlooking them.
In many ways, the 2011 season for the 49ers in no way reflected the lack of an offseason coupled with a first-year head coach, however, on a deeper level, it did. The 49ers drastically improved as a team over the course of the year.
Don't believe it? Watch the game against the Saints, and then watch the first three games of the season.
In the season opener, the 49ers relied on a late kickoff and punt return for a touchdown by Ted Ginn Jr. to put the game out of reach for the Seahawks. The following week, the 49ers coughed up a game to the Cowboys after blowing a 14-0 lead. In Week 3, the 49ers needed a late TD run from backup RB Kendall Hunter to thwart a loss to the Bengals.
The Arizona game was one that they should have been able to win. Baltimore flat out beat San Francisco. I do, however, have a tough time believing that the 49ers would have lost to the Cowboys if that game were one of the final four games of the season... speculation for what it's worth.
By the season's end, the 49ers were already a feared opponent and were a few mishandled punts away from a Super Bowl appearance.
Brandon Jacobs looks to make the most of his second opportunity.
Last year, 49ers kicker David Akers set the record for most field goals in a season, in NFL history. In addition, the 49ers offense was last in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage. The 49ers were also extremely lacking on third-down conversions. These and a few other critically alarming statistics from last season don't even make sense when combined with the 49ers' regular-season record of 13-3.
The 49ers' biggest issue on offense could be summarized as one-dimensional (except for the Vernon Davis mismatch, of course). This year's 49er offense added the tools to be night-and-day better. They added the NFL's largest running back in Brandon Jacobs and the explosive rookie LaMichael James. In the receiving department, they added future hall-of-famer Randy Moss and capable veteran Mario Manningham. They have coached up defensive lineman DeMarcus Dobbs to be a capable receiving threat as well as a powerful, punishing blocker, and continue to use Will Tukuafu as a lead blocker on short-yardage running plays.
Moreover, the 49ers have gained more confidence in Colin Kaepernick's ability to manage the offense, as he poses a serious threat to running the football anywhere on the field.
Needless to say, I don't see David Akers leading the NFL in field goals this year.
There is a wide range of opinions on the magnitude of impact veteran wide receiver Randy Moss will have on the 49ers, both directly by his own stats, and indirectly by spreading the field. Some have seen his performance in the preseason and figured he will be just another guy catching short passes from Alex Smith.
When you look deeper into this story, the 49ers drafted a young, explosive in the open field Darren Sproles-esque player in LaMichael James, who didn't get any creative plays sent his way either. Significant free-agent acquisition Mario Manningham didn't even have a catch during the preseason. Moreover, this is completely understandable when you have the game of the week, possibly the game of the year, in Week 1 at the Green Bay Packers.
All evidence examined, I think it's more likely that the 49ers don't want to show any of the new wrinkles they have added to their offense.
It has recently been mentioned that Frank Gore has ran against eight men in the box for most of his career. Moss' presence will certainly make this more difficult for defenses to achieve because of Moss going deep in single coverage.
As for receiving, the bottom line is that his effort and commitment is based on that of the organization, and based on that he couldn't be in a better place.
The 49ers also have several defensive players who take offensive snaps—who knows what kind of trickery we could see from these guys.
I believe the benefit of Aldon Smith starting at OLB is often overlooked. Last season, Aldon Smith put on a clinic as a situational pass rusher. Having 14 sacks in his rookie season after a significant change from 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker has put him on the radar of opposing teams.
The one aspect of Aldon Smith that everyone covers is the impressive number of sacks by a situational player, and I believe this has led to the misconception that the reason he was a situational player was that he is only a one-trick pony. Those who consistently follow 49ers football may recall the notion that they bring him in only to "pin his ears back and go full speed after the quarterback."
The reason that Aldon Smith was used as a situational player last year was to make sure his youth and heavy pursuit were not used against him. A brief comparison of Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and Aldon Smith's statistics shows that Smith is making tackles in run support, as is Haralson, even in limited involvement in running downs.
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The biggest problem that opposing teams are going to have with Smith is the number of different ways he not just defeats, but dominates offensive linemen (all of which are on display in the above video). He has the strength to flat out overpower, the speed to go around or stunt inside and the moves and awareness to move the offensive tackle where he wants him, disengage and then get the quarterback. He also has the speed to chase down and beat quarterbacks with elite athleticism before they reach the line of scrimmage.
Aldon was described by his teammates as a humble but hungry player eager to learn; however, he was drafted based on his ambition and hunger. He told 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh that he sees himself able to achieve 25-30 sacks in a season, and his rookie year showed nothing to indicate that goal is out of reach. Due to the level of talent the 49ers have on their defensive front seven, preventing Smith from achieving that goal will often take extra help.