The San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl window has been a divisive topic of discussion this offseason.
The Niners have been the victim of tough luck on the NFL biggest stages, losing by a combined 12 points in their last three playoff runs—twice falling in the NFC title game and once in the Super Bowl. Many wonder how much longer the Red and Gold can continue to be Lombardi Trophy contenders with so much heartbreak in their recent history.
Is there any historical evidence that suggests teams struggle to extend their regular-season dominance to a fourth straight season? And how have teams with three consecutive seasons of playoff anguish equal to that of the Niners' fared?
Let's examine the 49ers' Super Bowl window by looking at historical trends, the roster's short- and long-term outlook and the most important keys to extending it.
The 49ers have won at least 11 regular-season games in their first three seasons under Jim Harbaugh.
Prior to San Francisco's run, there have been 13 such streaks by 11 different franchises in the last 30 years.
|San Francisco 49ers||2011-ongoing||TBD|
|New England Patriots||2010-ongoing||TBD|
|New Orleans Saints||2009-11 (3 seasons)||Y|
|New England Patriots||2006-08 (3 seasons)||N|
|Indianapolis Colts||2003-09 (7 seasons)||Y|
|Philadelphia Eagles||2000-04 (5 seasons)||N|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||1997-99 (3 season)||N|
|Denver Broncos||1996-98 (3 seasons)||Y|
|Green Bay Packers||1995-98 (4 seasons)||Y|
|San Francisco 49ers||1994-98 (5 seasons)||Y|
|Dallas Cowboys||1991-95 (5 seasons)||Y|
|Buffalo Bills||1990-93 (4 seasons)||N|
|Chicago Bears||1984-87 (4 seasons)||Y|
|Denver Broncos||1984-86 (3 seasons)||N|
Eight of the 13 teams have accumulated at lease 11 wins in their "fourth season," and 10 of the 13 have had at least 10.
Based on that history, there's no reason to believe the 49ers are entering a fourth-year jinx.
When narrowing the field down to teams that have made three straight conference-championship-game appearances since 1984, the Niners have even more positive history on their side.
|San Francisco 49ers||2011-13||TBD|
|New England Patriots||2011-13||TBD|
|Philadelphia Eagles||2001-04||Super Bowl Loss|
|Green Bay Packers||1995-97||Wild Card Loss|
|Dallas Cowboys||1992-95||Won Super Bowl|
|Buffalo Bills||1990-93||Super Bowl Loss|
|San Francisco 49ers||1988-90||10-6; Missed Playoffs|
Four of the five teams made the playoffs in that fourth year, and three went to the Super Bowl. The Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, both which, like the 49ers, failed to win a Super Bowl in their first three seasons of dominance, lost in the Super Bowl in their fourth year.
Only the 1995 Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl after making it to at least the conference-championship game in the three years prior.
The two takeaways from this are: A) What Harbaugh and the 49ers have accomplished in the last three years is rare, and B) most teams that are dominant for three straight seasons extend their reign for a fourth year.
More important than historical trends, the 49ers have the majority of their core pieces returning for the 2014 season.
Future of the Roster
Without much roster turnover of their most impactful players, the 49ers have reason to believe they'll once again field a top-tier defense.
Every player from their dominant front seven is under contract. The only cause for concern is NaVorro Bowman's health.
The 2013 All-Pro linebacker suffered two torn knee ligaments in the NFC Championship Game.
When asked about Bowman's return timetable, Harbaugh told reporters, "Realistically, halfway through the season, something like that."
Michael Wilhoite is the logical choice to fill in for Bowman. Wilhoite is not suddenly going to play at an All-Pro level, but he should be just fine as long as Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith perform up to expectations next season.
The long-term future of the front seven is in great shape as well. Brooks, Willis and Bowman are all under contract through at least 2016. Aldon Smith is entering his first contract year, but even if the 49ers let him walk, they have talented second-year linebacker Corey Lemonier ready to break out.
I'd be more worried about the defensive line if Jim Tomsula wasn't around. He turns water into wine with just about every defensive lineman he coaches. At some point Justin Smith will retire, and it'll be up to Tank Carradine to ease the blow of the loss.
The secondary is the biggest area of concern. The only sure things for next season are Eric Reid and Tramaine Brock, who are both signed through 2016.
Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers could all be gone by the beginning of the 2014 season. To fill those three spots, the Niners have to hit in free agency and the draft this offseason.
GM Trent Baalke has hit on several defensive prospects in the draft (i.e. Bowman, Smith and Reid since 2010). The long-term state of any unit is dependent upon infusing young, cheap talent with veteran talent, and it'll be up to Baalke to take advantage of San Francisco's five picks in the first three rounds of the 2014 draft.
The short- and long-term future is a bit more cloudy on offense, but there's no overarching issue that's preventing it from thriving for the next half-decade.
Colin Kaepernick took a step back in his third year, though some growing pains were expected in his first full season as a starter. He was limited by the team's lack of receiving threats for much of the season, which played into his drop-off in completion percentage (58.4), yards per attempt (7.7) and passer rating (91.6) from his 2012 numbers.
Crabtree is under contract for only one more season, and the depth behind Boldin and No. 15 is sparse. Without any major long-term investments at the position, the Niners could draft a receiver early and groom him to be a No. 1 or No. 2 option down the road.
Like Crabtree, Frank Gore is entering a contract year. The 30-year-old hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, but the Niners have to be wary of a decline on the horizon.
Marcus Lattimore could be the long-term answer. Pete Iacobelli of The Associated Press reported that the former South Carolina star is close to 100 percent. Before his season-ending knee injury in 2012, many considered him to be the best running back in college football.
Of the starting offensive linemen, only center Jonathan Goodwin is a free-agent-to-be. Tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis are both signed through 2017. Mike Iupati is under contract for one more season, so the Niners may add another interior lineman early in the draft as a contingency plan if the massive left guard leaves after the 2014 season.
I'm sure the Niners would love to extend Crabtree and Iupati. But they can't afford to have Pro Bowl-caliber veterans at every position. With what they're already paying their linebackers and offensive tackles combined with Kaepernick's impending raise, the Niners may not be able to keep both long term.
The 49ers have the talent to be a dominant offensive team in 2014. But beyond that, the unit's future is up in the air.
Keys to Prolonging Window
Of course the 49ers will need to continue to draft well and avoid injuries to their best players to keep their run of success going. But those are such luck-of-the-draw keys.
Let's revert back to the regular-season-dominance table to pinpoint more controllable keys. Of those teams, the two that the 49ers want to mimic are the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots of the 2000s.
The obvious connection to these two teams is a dominant coach-quarterback tandem. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have helped the Pats win 10-plus games in 11 straight seasons. Tony Dungy led the Colts to seven straight playoff appearances with Peyton Manning under center.
Two obvious questions arise from this realization. The first is, are Harbaugh and Kaepernick good enough to extend the 49ers' excellence?
Though he has plenty of flaws, Harbaugh sure seems like the real deal. Before taking the head-coaching reins, the Niners struggled to consistently run the ball, turned it over way too much and couldn't find a franchise quarterback.
In his three seasons, he's rectified the rushing and turnover issues, and he's groomed two starting-caliber NFL quarterbacks. Not many coaches have led such a turnaround.
I have my doubts about Kaepernick as a Brady-, Manning-esque signal-caller. Obviously, he's not nearly the pocket passer that the two future Hall of Famers are. And though it's too early in his career to write him off, I'm guessing he'll never be a prolific pocket passer.
To be a Hall of Fame quarterback, Kap may have to redefine what great signal-callers do.
As defenses get better and better rushing the passer, the prolific-yet-immobile pocket passer may not be as valuable. After all, you saw how helpless the Denver Broncos' Manning-led offense looked against the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Without the threat of a running quarterback, Seattle's defense looked impenetrable.
If Kap can master the ability to run for first downs and extend passing plays as well as improve his dropback passing, he could enter the elite quarterback category of the future.
The second question is, will Harbaugh and Kaepernick be around long enough to prolong the window?
My guess is the 49ers extend Kaepernick, who is under contract for one more year, at some point this offseason. They may not believe he's a top-five quarterback, but he's already good enough to justify an expensive, long-term deal, and that's before you take into account his potential to get better.
With the salary cap rising every year, it only makes sense for contract costs to rise. The faster they extend Kaepernick, the more market-friendly his contract will appear down the road (assuming the salary cap continues to rise for the rest of this decade).
Keeping Harbaugh might prove trickier.
What's the most important key to prolonging the 49ers' Super Bowl window?
At this point, who knows what to believe in regard to Harbaugh's future. All we know for sure is that the Cleveland Browns were interested in acquiring Harbaugh. How close they were to actually pulling off the deal is anyone's guess.
The Browns rumors have led to more speculation about Harbaugh and Baalke's relationship. Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News outlined several reasons why they might be at odds (give it a read when you get a chance).
Regardless of their relationship, the bottom line is Harbaugh deserves a raise and a contract extension. As long as the 49ers can get him to put pen on paper, they should have him for years to come.
The Niners can't afford to go into the 2014 season with Harbaugh on his current contract. If they do, 2014 really might be Super Bowl-or-bust for Harbaugh's tenure in San Francisco.
If Harbaugh leaves or Kaepernick declines, the 49ers' Super Bowl window may be on its last legs. If they both are extended this offseason and produce in 2014, the window should be open for several more years.
Contract information via Spotrac.com.
Joseph Akeley is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist. Follow him on Twitter.