When the San Francisco 49ers got off to a rocky 1-2 start back in September, it appeared that the team could be headed for one of those "Super Bowl hangover" seasons that we hear so much about.
The 49ers lost those two games by a combined score of 56-10, and it appeared that the team's offense would continue to struggle as long as wide receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree remained out of the lineup.
That, of course, was back in September. San Francisco got back to its running roots (the team currently ranks first in the league with 153 yards rushing per game) and has rattled off five straight wins since the final week of September.
An above-average defense (ranked fourth, allowing 18.1 points per game) has certainly helped. However, Kaepernick and Co. have shown that they can operate efficiently on the offensive side of the ball. In its past five victories, San Francisco's average margin of victory has been 22.6 points.
The team has not won a game by fewer than 12 points during that span.
It appears that offensive coordinator Greg Roman has made his in-season adjustments and has found a successful formula with which to attack opposing defenses.
Now that the 49ers have their swagger back, the team is rolling and has the look of a very dangerous playoff team.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how dynamic the 49ers offense can become with Manningham and Crabtree back in the lineup. We could start to get part of the picture as early as Week 10, when the 49ers host the Carolina Panthers.
The 49ers have officially activated Manningham from the physically unable to perform list, per the team's official site.
Manningham has been practicing with the team, and early signs seem to indicate that he makes his 2013 debut against Carolina.
So what can we realistically expect over the next few weeks as Manningham works his way back into the lineup?
How Will Manningham Respond?
For starters, we can likely expect Manningham to be relatively close to 100 percent as soon as he hits the field.
It has been more than 10 months since Manningham suffered his season-ending knee injury, and the 49ers have not come close to rushing him back. While it may take some time for the five-year veteran to readjust to game speed and to rediscover his chemistry with Kaepernick, his ability to play at a high level should not be in question.
Bleacher Report's own Tyson Langland recently took an in-depth look at Manningham's eventual return, so we won't spend too much time trying to make individual statistical predictions.
However, it is important to understand that Manningham is unlikely to hop off the bench and haul in a half dozen passes, 100-plus yards and multiple touchdowns per game.
This is because Manningham's role in the offense simply does not call for it.
Manningham averaged just 3.5 receptions and 37.4 yards per game in his 12 appearances with the 49ers last season. He may be in store for a slightly more significant role until Crabtree returns from his Achilles injury. However, Manningham's value lies more in his reliability than in his potential as a game changer.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Manningham was credited with just one drop in 55 targets in 2012. Only one of his targets resulted in an interception.
This means that Manningham should be able to step in and provide Kaepernick with another outside target in which he can have some sense of confidence.
How Will This Change the 49ers Offense?
The short answer is not much.
At least, Manningham's return shouldn't change Roman's play-calling very much because the current formula is working to perfection.
During the 49ers' five-game winning streak, Kaepernick has attempted an average of just 20.8 passes per game.
Unless San Francisco finds itself in a multiscore deficit, there is no reason for Roman to suddenly go pass heavy simply because he has an additional weapon at his disposal.
What Manningham's return does change is the types of pass plays Roman may call, moving forward.
The 49ers have not been particularly effective in multiple-receiver sets because, well, outside of Anquan Boldin, the 49ers receivers have not been particularly effective.
According to Pro Football Focus, wideouts Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and Jonathan Baldwin have combined for 462 snaps this season. However, the trio has produced just 15 receptions for 142 yards and no scores.
After Boldin, Kaepernick's two most productive targets have been tight end Vernon Davis (29 receptions) and fullback Bruce Miller (13).
|Top San Francisco Receivers in 2013|
|Through Week 9|
Manningham should immediately become the No. 2 wideout opposite Boldin. Not only should this provide Kaepernick with a more reliable option on the outside, but it should give Roman the freedom to spread the defense out more effectively.
Manningham should also provide more punch to the 49ers' downfield passing attack. The former Michigan standout is by no means a track star. However, he is adept at getting past coverage and stretching the field when the opportunity presents itself.
This is evidenced by the 13.75 yards per reception Manningham has averaged in his four years as a regular starter and his 19 career touchdowns.
On average, Manningham has scored once for every 10.4 receptions over the past four seasons, which means opponents must at least respect his ability to score when he is on the field.
Will the 49ers Be a Better Team With Manningham?
The short answer here is yes.
While Manningham's presence is likely to result in only a couple of more pass plays per game, it should make Kaepernick more efficient when throwing to wide receivers.
This, in turn, should help open things up for tight ends Davis and Vance McDonald on underneath routes and should help open things up in the ground game.
Of course, focusing on defending the run hasn't exactly helped San Francisco's opponents in recent weeks. However, the receiving trio of Boldin, Manningham and Davis is a formidable one and should be enough of a threat to force opponents to respect Kaepernick's ability to strike through the air.
Perhaps more importantly, Manningham's presence should make life easier on the third-year signal-caller should his team ever find itself in a hole like it did against the Seahawks and Colts way back in September.
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