The 49er personnel picture is a lot clearer now that free agency and the draft have passed. Now we can look at problems other than the “filling of holes” on the 49ers.
It is true that some changes are still in store. The 49ers will have to trim their personnel numbers down from the current amount to 54 before the official season begins. That means some names now on the roster will be dropped or traded before September. Predicting those is difficult; it depends so much on how well people respond to the coaches' training and how well they do in drills, tests and simulated play.
So some problems the team had in 2012 can be fixed by plugging in a new and talented replacement to replace a player who did not quite live up to expectations.
But other problems go deeper, and must be addressed by the coaches and the management team.
While I’m gladly fantasizing about a stellar 2013 season for my home team, these nagging doubts hide on the edge of my consciousness. It may be impertinent and even a bit rude to ask questions that can only be answered by a season’s performance, but these things do bother me.
The Two Wins, One Loss Pattern
First, can the 49ers shake the two wins, one loss pattern of 2012? Right from the start of the season, the 49ers established this frustrating pattern of losing every third game. The pattern proceeding up to the playoffs, winning two, then losing the third game. The 2012 record:
|1||9/9/2012||Away||Green Bay Packers||Win||30-22|
|4||9/30/2012||Away||New York Jets||Win||34-0|
|6||10/14/2012||Home||New York Giants||Loss||26-3|
|10||11/11/2012||Home||Saint Louis Rams||Tie||24-24|
Chicago Bears ||Win||32-7|
|12||11/25/2012||Away||New Orleans Saints||Win||31-21|
|13||12/2/2012||Away||Saint Louis Rams||Loss||16-13 OT|
|15||12/16/2012||Away||New England Patriots||Win||41-13|
|19||1/12/2013||Home||GB Packers NFCW PO||Win||45-31|
Atl Braves Champ NFC PO
|22||2/3/2013||Away||Baltimore Ravens SB||Loss||34-31|
Whatever the reasons, (or excuses) for the pattern, it is indicative of something coming apart within the team, the coaches and the management. If the pattern had continued one more time the 49ers would have been knocked out of the Super Bowl altogether.
The Eagles, Giants, Rams and Seahawks gave the 49ers fits. These strong teams require a 49er retooling to prevent losses in 2013. The Rams and the Seahawks, sharing the NFC West division, were particularly tough, and both improved their chances in the draft and with free agency acquisitions.
In 2012, the NFC West became the most talented division in the NFL. All of a sudden, it seemed to me, the weakest division became the strongest. The perennial NFC West doormat Rams were so tough the 49ers did not beat them in 2012. The Seahawks looked tough and mean and gave the 49ers competition that was surprisingly tough, holding the 49ers to 13 points in both season games.
I was wishing they would not have to meet again in the playoffs, because I could not honestly predict a winner of such a contest.
With two games each season with each opponent in the division, the 49ers will need to retool their strategy and tactics to get an edge over the division rivals.
One way to fix that pattern is to become a higher scoring team. To say a team “came out flat” is to say they played without enthusiasm at the start of the game. It also can be said that the opponents’ game-planned effectively against them, at least for the first half. Twice the 49ers did not score much in the entire first half. That has to change.
The 49ers will need to find ways to score earlier and more often in 2013 if they wish to eliminate that two wins one loss pattern.
Injuries To Key Players
The next problem to solve is to fix a key players’ injury problem that plagued them in 2012. Once Manningham and Williams went down with injuries, the receiver corps was depleted and rendered much easier to plan against. For 2013 they plugged in a receiver rated 34th among the top 100 NFL receivers when they signed the sure-handed Anquan Boldin. Rated very high for his hands, the new key player may bolster an injury-plagued receiver corps. It will, at least be a major upgrade from Randy Moss, who was adequate but not spectacular in his one-year stay with the 49ers.
Another place where an injury caused immediate and obvious damage was when Justin Smith was injured. Sacks ceased. The corners were exposed to quarterbacks with added seconds of time to find their targets, and were victimized.
A competent backup for that key player is badly needed to provide some stability if he is injured again. Also, the coaches will need to put some effort into training a backup for Smith’s spot.
The acquisition of both Tank Carradine and Corey Lemonier will help this problem by providing depth on the defensive line and players to spell tired starters during games.
Secondary breakdowns on the defense allowed way too many completions downfield by opposing teams. During the playoffs it often seemed as if opposing quarterbacks could play simple toss and catch with their receivers. During the regular season, this did not seem to be a problem. But once the playoffs were reached receivers made a joke out of the 49ers secondary.
Again, good backups for the defensive line will help here. But the coaches need to do better personnel management by not allowing the corners to get too tired to perform. Substituting with fresh players to allow the starters to get a breather will go far in maintaining a more constant up-front pressure.
Will Colin Kaepernick stay healthy all year? In 2012, once Kaepernick took over, his backup was the quarterback he replaced, Alex Smith. That situation could lead to problems.
He now has a huge target on his chest for pass-rushers to aim at, and in 2013 they will be coming. One method for opponents to defend against his athletic talent is to drop him before he can run or throw.
Running, which Kaepernick is famous for, exposes a quarterback to tacklers more than pocket passing does. More exposure equals more chance of injury.
Luckily, the 49ers acquired a backup that can come in and perform without much change in performance. But we fans have little experience with the backup, and can be forgiven for being antsy about the chance he may have to take over. The coaches will need to bring Colt McCoy up to speed effectively in order for any transition to be smooth.
The Quick Start to Games
During the '80s and '90s the 49ers were famous for their fast starts. Bill Walsh famously packaged 15 or 20 plays to use at the start of a game. This allowed the 49ers to get a quick start and to feel out the oppositions’ defenses. It usually worked like a charm.
It is much more difficult to play catch up in the NFL than it is to start fast, get quick and early scores, and force the opponent to try and play catch up.
But during 2012 that quick start was lacking in some games, like the NFC Championship against the Atlanta Falcons and the Super Bowl itself, the 49ers started games by going three and out a lot and falling behind early in the scoring. They may need to go back in history and take a leaf from Bills’ strategy and plot out the first dozen or so plays to be sure of some early and telling scores.
This is a problem that must be fixed by the coaches as they plan for games against tough opponents.
Fast starts will be essential in winning games against those teams. And that doesn't even count the premiere NFL teams from outside the division that will be played during the season.
And, now they have reached the Super Bowl, most of their opponents will be tough.
So, the 49ers' management and coaches will have some intense discussions about these issues during the offseason.
Watch and see if the problems of two wins and one loss pattern, depth at key positions like Justin Smith and Kaepernick, fixing a secondary that looked weak in the playoffs and designing quick starts to games actually are fixed.
Come September we will begin to know if they have effectively solved these problems or not.