5 Biggest Issues Facing San Francisco 49ers in the Upcoming Season
Despite a successful 12-4 season, and a third NFC Championship Game appearance in three years, the San Francisco 49ers have seen their share of controversy during the offseason.
From Aldon Smith's recent arrest to Colin Kaepernick's involvement in a strange hotel room incident in Miami, the past few months have not been kind to the 49ers; which has fans and critics alike wondering how the drama will play out for the team in the upcoming 2014 season. Also in question are some of the team's starters, among them Kaepernick, who has been criticized for not being as accurate or as efficient as he was in 2012.
Let's jump in and take a look at the five biggest problems plaguing the 49ers this offseason and also analyze the probability of their chances to overcome them.
Just Missed the Cut
Though this may have been higher up on the list a few weeks ago, Colin Kaepernick's alleged involvement in a "suspicious incident" in a Miami hotel room seems to be nearing a conclusion—one that suggests the signal-caller's name will be cleared.
The story was first broken by the celebrity news website TMZ, which claimed that Kapernick was suspected in an incident of sexual assault. After hearing of the news, Kaepernick took to Twitter to voice his innocence.
"The charges made in the TMZ story and other stories I've seen are completely wrong," he tweeted, "They make things up about me that never happened." In a subsequent tweet he continued, "I take great pride in who I am and what I do, but I guess sometimes you have to deal with someone who makes things up."
More than a month later, the 911 calls from the night of the incident were released, with a voice that was identified as belonging to Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette requesting that police escort the naked woman who was sleeping in Kaepernick's bed out of the building.
Lockette said that Kaepernick was not present at the time of the phone call, and that the woman was merely waiting for him, naked in his bed. His story was corroborated by a security guard who also called 911 in an attempt to have the woman removed from the premises.
Immediately following the release of the calls, Kaepernick again took to Twitter to voice his response. "On 911 calls I'm glad the truth is getting out," he tweeted. "Info that came out earlier was totally wrong. I look forward to this matter being resolved."
Another good sign that things are going Kaepernick's way is 49er head coach, Jim Harbaugh's reaction to the news, which is indicative of his faith in the young quarterback. According to a report by The Sacramento Bee, Harbaugh said, "The only victim in Colin's case is Colin's reputation."
As I mentioned above, a few weeks ago this may may have placed higher on the list, but due to the fact that the 911 calls seem to clear him from being present at the time of the incident, it just missed making the final cut.
This fiasco will most likely blow over by August.
5. Harbaugh and Baalke Drama
Do head coach Jim Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke really hate each other?
That seems to be the case—at least according to nearly every major media outlet.
This story has been floating around since the end of last year, when San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami wrote a story describing the competitive tension between the two. Last season, Harbaugh announced that he would be re-signing one of his former Stanford players, Owen Marecic, as a replacement for an injured fullback on the 49ers' roster.
Marecic had a short, inactive stint with the team, and many were surprised when Harbaugh announced that he would be returning; but despite the announcement, Marecic never ended up coming back, a decision credited to Baalke.
Though this is just a small insight into what is happening behind the scenes, it does give us a glimpse into the team's organization and what could be some of the tension between Harbaugh and Baalke.
In an article for Sports Illustrated Audibles, Doug Farrar suggested that the two men may have had disagreements over personnel decisions, and Harbaugh may very well be upset with Baalke for drafts in 2012 and 2013 that netted one starter, a development that could devastate the team's championship hopes in light of its aging roster.
Their working relationship was questioned yet again when rumors began to swirl that the Cleveland Browns had made a push to hire Harbaugh as their head coach, though Harbaugh and 49ers CEO Jed York both vehemently denied the claims, and Sports Illustrated Audibles reported that Harbaugh's name was not submitted in a final league coaching search.
While the tension between the two may certainly be real, competitive disagreements don't necessarily mean the team will implode, and Harbaugh and Baalke may realize that despite the strain between the two, they make one of the best head coach/general manager duos in the NFL. Baalke has done an excellent job of signing players who have taken the team to three straight NFC Championships, and Harbaugh has used his knowledge of the game and unique motivational techniques to coach the team there every year since his arrival.
There's no doubt that the two have had disagreements in the past, per multiple sources, but the media tends to latch on to what they believe is a story, regardless of how valid it may actually be. Chances are, given the success of the 49ers in the past three years, the two men realize they're better off with each other than without if they want to complete their quest for six rings.
With this in mind, the Harbaugh and Baalke drama is taking the fifth spot on the countdown.
4. Richard Sherman
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has certainly made a name for himself in the past few months, mostly because of his postgame rant following the NFC Championship Game, in which he belittled 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree.
Though most readers are already very familiar with this story, Sherman tipped a pass from 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, which was intended for Crabtree, and ended up being intercepted by Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith.
This small turn of events added more fuel to the fire for what was already one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL.
After the game, Crabtree took to Twitter to refute Sherman's claims that he's the best corner in the game. "Film don't lie..." Crabtree tweeted, "Pull up the game tape and show me where this guy is the best. #fake #fake #fake."
Sherman responded via Twitter, "A lion doesn't concern himself with the opinions of a sheep."
Since the championship game, Sherman has become even more outspoken, hurling insults at Skip Bayless on ESPN's First Take and continuing to relive his most famous game moment by signing photos of the infamous tipped pass with the words, "Sorry Crabtree."
Though Crabtree has mostly kept quiet about his feelings toward Sherman following his initial Twitter response, there is no doubt animosity between the two players, especially with Sherman continuing to agitate his foe months later.
Will Crabtree and the 49ers let Sherman's loud talk get into their heads come the two teams' next meeting in the Bay Area? Or will Crabtree step up and prove that he is in fact one of the best receivers in the game?
The 49ers have historically done well at home against the Seahawks but should the following game a few weeks later in Seattle decide who wins the NFC West, the 49ers may find themselves in a situation similar to what they've experienced in the last two years: on the wrong end of a blowout to their main division rival.
Only time will tell, but this is no doubt one of 2014's most anticipated matchups. Too bad fans of both teams will have to wait until Nov. 27 to find out whether Sherman can outdo Crabtree yet again.
Aldon Smith's Legal Troubles
The 49ers' wild child, linebacker Aldon Smith, recently had his fifth-year option picked up by the team, despite a tumultuous 2013 season that continued into this offseason.
The 49ers star entered rehab last September following a DUI arrest, was charged with three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon in relation to a party at his house in 2012 and, most recently, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport following an alleged fake bomb threat.
Though he is certainly talented, leading the team's defense in sacks in 2012 with 19.5, Smith experienced a drop-off in his performance in 2013 (mostly due to his in-season rehab).
His off-field decision-making since joining the team has been questionable at best, and his production going into 2014 will depend on him staying out of trouble, which has proven to be a difficult task for the pass-rushing playmaker.
Aging Frank Gore
Does Frank Gore have another great season left in him?
The aging running back has been a workhorse for the team since entering the NFL in 2005 and continues to put up some impressive stats for the 49ers. Since Harbaugh's arrival in 2011, he's had three consecutive seasons with at least 1,100 yards, and in 2013 his nine touchdowns were the second-highest number of his career.
Going into the upcoming season, however, Gore will be 31 years old, which according to Bleacher Report columnist Bryan Knowles doesn't bode well for the running back's production.
Knowles used a technique called linear regression to make an educated guess at Gore's performance next season, and although it's not a perfect science, if the numbers end up being accurate, Gore may be forced to restructure his $6.45 million contract or be cut from the roster. Knowles' analysis makes a guess at what Gore's production could be using three different samples, and based on his results, he thinks that Gore will have less yardage in the upcoming season than in 2010, when he sat out five games due to a hip injury.
Though running back Marcus Lattimore is ready to take over after spending his first season in the NFL recovering from a gruesome knee injury suffered in his final season at South Carolina, he is still unproven. The 49ers will continue to rely heavily on Gore to put his nose to the grindstone and make plays as he always has in the past.
1. Colin Kaepernick's Accuracy
Though Colin Kaepernick's involvement in a suspicious hotel room incident missed the cut on this countdown, the 49ers' starting quarterback is coming back in a big way and landing the No. 1 spot for his troubles on the field.
Though fans were divided when Harbaugh decided to sit an injured Alex Smith in favor of his unproven backup during the 2012 season, Kaepernick validated the move with a record-setting performance against the Green Bay Packers in that year's Divisional Round matchup. He followed that up by orchestrating a 17-point comeback to beat the Falcons in Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers lost Super Bowl XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-31 when Kaepernick was unable to connect with Crabtree on 4th-and-goal in the final minute. Following the loss, Kaepernick vowed to improve in 2013.
After two early-season losses against Seattle and Indianapolis, fans started to question whether trading Smith was the right move, especially considering his success with Kansas City Chiefs. Later in the season, the 49ers dropped another two games in a row, and the critics, including ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, lined up to call out Kaepernick, using the word "remedial" to describe his play.
Amid the controversy, Kaepernick used the criticism to fuel his improvement and ended up leading the team to road playoff wins against both the Packers and the Carolina Panthers before San Francisco fell to Seattle in the NFC title game.
With a prolific defense and new weapons on offense, Kaepernick could very well lead the 49ers to another Super Bowl next year, but he has two main areas in which he will need to improve, according to Bleacher Report columnist, Dan Mori: reading past his first option and improving his accuracy.
Kaepernick ranked 31st in the league last season in terms of accuracy, which puts him at the No. 1 spot on our countdown.