In my mind, there are three possibilities for how the 49ers will fare this season: Realistically well, Realistically poor, and my Fanatical Dream Scenario.
The reason the headline says four while I say three is because, as a rabid fan, I will not concede that the doomsday scenario is an option. But I know it is. I need only think back two years ago to remember that it is.
So I will start with the option I do not think will happen: The doomsday scenario. I want to stress that I do not think this has any chance of happening.
So it turns out Jimmy Raye cannot call his mother, much less a complex offense that confuses a defense. With Marvel Smith's injury, the right side is either vulnerable every play or an extra blocker is required to give whichever of the two QB's is attempting to pass. Neither one looks half as good a Hill did last year.
Gore is injured early and the new Backfield by committee (Coffee/Robinson/Sheets and/or Clayton) is a poor substitute. Oh, and Michael Crabtree cannot handle the physical corners in the NFL, looking quickly like one of the receivers drafted by the Lions not named Calvin Johnson and the rest of the receiving corps regress to look more like the one from the '04 or '05 campaign.
Parys Haralson's 8 sacks in '08 were a mirage and Manny Lawson never cashes in on that potential he was starting to find before his injury. This translates to every opposing QB having far too long to expose old CBs who cannot keep up, while Dashon Goldson could not get an interception off of J.T. O'Sullivan. The D-line lets far too many blockers to the second level, making life for Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes an absolute nightmare.
In short, Mike Singletary's season last year was the product of weak opponents and lucky breaks. This year they win games because they are not the 2008 Detroit Lions.
Win total in this scenario: 1-5.
Next, there is the Realistic/Bad season, that is the realist in me taking a negative look at the upcoming season.
Well, Jimmy Raye shows why he has never been a long term Offensive Coordinator and why he was a Running Backs coach last year. Hill is as mediocre as naysayers have claimed and Smith isn't the answer, so the 49ers have adequate game managers and not much else from the QB position.
Gore has another 1,000 yard season, barely, while fighting with injuries yet again. Coffee is not what a 3rd rounder should be but Sheets comes through as a welcome surprise, so there is some support when Gore is not in. Neither Coffee nor Sheets is the blocker Gore is.
The receivers are solid but hampered by the quarterback play and it is clear the young guys are not able to fully bloom. Vernon Davis remains a solid blocker but ends the season with a paltry 40 or so catches.
Line play is roughly the same as last year, with slight improvements in the new system, but the same weakness at RT as Smith doesn't make it through the whole season.
The commitment to the 3-4 helps the Defense as it did last year, but the team regrets not getting a Pass Rusher as the OLB's still do not generate enough of a consistent rush (while Everett Brown becomes a force for Carolina). The D-line plays adequately, not spectacularly, while the TKO and Willis pick up where they left off last season.
The secondary is solid, though they feel the loss of Strickland against four and five wide receiver sets. Bly is a fine substitution for Harris, so the loss there is minimal. Tarell Brown steps up nicely and shows promise, as do rookies Ricky Jean-Francois and Curtis Taylor.
While Scott McKillop is mainly relegated to Special Teams, he has a nose for the ball and has potential to start along side Willis eventually.
All in all, an unsatisfactory season for the team record wise, but plenty of flashes that they are headed in the right direction. Hill looks to be the solution at QB for a few years, though expect the 49ers to draft a QB or continue to develop Nate Davis for the Franchise's future.
Singletary is not happy with the results, but he looks to be the right guy.
Win total in this scenario: 6-8
The Realistic/Good Season:
While Jimmy Raye is not Norv Turner, he put the right system in place for the personnel in San Francisco. Gore has his best season since Norv left since he is now: Running between the tackles, has his lead blocker in Norris, avoids injury, and gets spelled by Coffee which keeps his legs fresh. The passing game is improved from last year as Vernon Davis starts to achieve like a 1st round pick.
The logjam at receiver leaves some on the outside looking in, but overall the corps looks solid. Marvel Smith turns out to be a solid acquisition solidifying the line, which only gets better with continuity. Quarterback play is solid but not spectacular as Hill vindicates his longtime advocates with a season many teams would covet.
On Defense, the commitment to the 3-4 shines through as the OLBs start to find their way to the passer. Haralson shows his gratitude for the extension he got by having the team's first 10+ sack season since Andre Carter in 2002. Lawson finally starts to come in to his own, as the front seven finally constitute a force other teams have to fear.
There are still holes at Nose Tackle and Corner Back, but Franklin and his platoon mates are adequate, as are Bly and Brown in the secondary. Goldson starts to come on late in the season as a ball hawk the team has needed so desperately in recent years, but his development takes time.
In sum, it is not an elite team, yet. But, they are a surprise to those that wrote them off (see: anyone who is currently ranking NFL teams not named Mike Sando) as Singletary leads them to their first winning season and playoff appearance since Steve Mariucci left in 2002. They are not likely to go deep in the playoffs with such little recent experience, but still a solid season to build off of and a promising glimpse at what may come.
Win total in this scenario: 9-11
The final possibility is my favorite: My Fanatical Dream Scenario.
Jimmy Raye turns out to be the right coordinator at the right time. His passing offense brings out the best in Vernon Davis, who has also gained some flexibility in the off season.
Michael Crabtree, eager to prove his critics (and 9 other franchises) wrong, comes on strong by mid season, eating into Isaac Bruce's playing time as Hill, Morgan and Crabtree show the potential to dominate for years, aided by Brandon Jones' ability to stretch the field. As an added bonus, blocking specialist Bear Pascoe turns out to have some of the best hands since Brent Jones.
Hill and Smith turn their QB competition from a battle of who will hurt the team less to who can help the team more.
Smith looks like the player from the end of 2006, making it difficult to choose Hill, but Hill's leadership skills give him the right to start. With teams forced to respect the pass, Frank Gore is in Pro Bowl form and returns to being an elite back in the NFL.
He does it behind a line that shines, with Marvel Smith looking like the Pro Bowler he once was, Chilo Rachal continuing his progress from last year, and Joe Staley becoming an elite left tackle.
On defense, the addition of Demetric Evans bolsters the front three with Kentwan Balmer stepping up and Ricky Jean-Francios proving to be the steal of the draft. They combine with Franklin, Sopoaga and Smith to free up Haralson, Lawson, and Ahmad Brooks (finally living up to his potential) as they become a menace for opposing Quarterbacks.
Patrick Willis somehow takes his game up to another level, at points taking games over on defense. The secondary is solid, aided by the new found pass rush generated by the front seven and what seems to be the second coming in Dashon Goldson.
Added bonus: Carolina collapses (Delhomme falters), giving the 49ers another top 10 pick in 2010.
This sort of team only loses games because they're not the 2007 New England Patriots. Mike Singletary would likely be Coach of the Year while Greg Manusky might jump up on some short lists for Head Coaching Jobs.
They might have some difficulty going deep in the playoffs due to lack of experience, but then again, how experienced was the '81 team?
Win total in this scenario: 12-15
This is all mere conjecture. There are too many unknowns, ranging from the things the 49ers control (quarterback play) to those they don't, like injuries. For instance, most people have the 49ers losing against the Colts, but if Manning goes down, that game suddenly becomes very winnable.
After the battle between my head and my heart, I expect the 49ers to get between 8-10 wins next year and to compete for the division. But then again, I thought we would compete in 2007, so you never really know.
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