This article was originally published by the author on his NFL website: NFLTouchdown.com
About six weeks ago, I wrote a column that posed the question of whether or not the San Francisco 49ers actually deserved to be the favorites to win the NFC West.
Undoubtedly, the 49ers are the clear favorite.
I mean even the NFL scheduling people decided to put San Francisco (an 8-8 team from last year) on Monday Night Football twice for the first time in years. Not only does San Francisco get division rival Arizona again on Monday night this season, but they also face off against the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints for Week Two’s Monday Night Game.
And as most football fans know, one Monday night appearance means a team is at the very least exciting to watch. But TWO Monday night games is playoff worthy praise from the NFL schedulers.
Now with the way the NFL has been working in recent seasons, only one team coming out of the NFC West will qualify for the postseason.
Considering this trend is bound to continue in 2010, the 49ers are going to have to win the division to live up to this year’s “playoffs or bust” expectations.
These expectations shouldn’t be difficult to reach when we consider the mediocrity of the fellow teams that call the NFC West home, but after seven straight years without a single playoff appearance, do the 49ers want to back into the playoffs be default?
With the seemingly quiet offseason the 49ers have had, it seems San Francisco is comfortable returning the core squad that reached 8-8 last season.
After all, other than their 2010 rookie class, the 49ers only acquired only two semi-note worthy veteran players this offseason.
First and foremost is veteran defensive end/outside linebacker Travis Laboy.
After missing all of last season for the Cardinals with a foot injury, the former Tennessee Titan signed on with the 49ers in mid-April. By coming to San Francisco, Laboy now joins a group of inconsistent pass rushing talent on the 49er defense. Outside of the premier defensive end in Justin Smith, the 49ers have a group of pass rushers in Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks and Isaac Sopoaga who bring raw talent to the table, but for whatever reason none of them make half the impact on the field that teammate and defensive captain Patrick Willis makes at middle linebacker.
Secondly, the 49ers also acquire a deep threat in the speedy Ted Ginn Jr. as a return specialist/wideout but Ginn has been nothing but a disappointment since being drafted ninth overall by Miami back in 2007.
When it comes to veteran pickups this offseason, that is essentially all she wrote for San Francisco.
The 49ers have signed a couple of other non-noteworthy veterans to compete for roster spots but Laboy and Ginn are the only “significant” veteran acquisitions.
But to be fair, the 49ers did have two first round draft choices to which they used to “bolster” the offensive line. Unfortunately, rookies are rookies and both tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati have a huge learning curve as transitioning from college to the NFL as an offensive lineman is one of the hardest transitions to make.
Whether or not these two can fix the 49ers offensive line problems in their first seasons is a big question mark.
Now not only are there big expectations for the two first round picks but the 49ers are also high on safety Taylor Mays who they took in round two. With incumbent starting safety Michael Lewis clearly in the twilight of his career, the 49ers were in definite need of adding depth at the safety position and Mays is a physical specimen.
But if Lewis falls apart, will Mays be ready to step in as a starter in his rookie season? Possibly, but all reports indicate he still has a lot to learn about the NFL game. He has the raw skills but lacks the foundation that still needs to be developed.
All this said, the point to my last article was whether or not the 49ers had done enough to truly deserve to be considered favorites this year. And looking back on the article, the word “earn” probably serves better than “deserve” in the argument I was attempting to form.
Ergo, have the 49ers really earned the title of favorites?
Between the way the key players played last season for San Francisco and the combined talent of the new acquisitions, the 49ers clearly haven’t earned the right to be favorites.
They were a .500 team last year and with only questionable veterans and rookies added to the squad, the 49ers won’t make the playoffs if the same level of performance is put forth by the returning players.
Fortunately for 49er fans, there is plenty of reason to believe that the key returning players will perform at new levels in 2010.
First and foremost is that quarterback Alex Smith will be able to go through training camp without looking over his shoulder and will be playing under the same offense for a second year in a row which should do wonders for his on-field confidence and awareness.
Combine a new found familiarity with the offense, and the knowledge that it is his make or break season, Smith’s accuracy throwing the ball should increase tremendously.
And while quarterback is the most important position on the field, the offensive line play from returning starters in Joe Staley, Eric Heitmann, and Chilo Rachal has to be better. There are no ifs ands or buts about it, even the more highly thought of 49er lineman didn’t play up to their capabilities last season.
Furthermore, star receiver Michael Crabtree will now have a training camp under his belt and his production as the top wideout must increase. Especially when it comes to putting points on the board, Crabtree needs to find the endzone at a much more frequent pace than his two in 11 games last season.
Defensively, Lawson and Haralson need to find consistency rushing the passer because last season the 49ers gave opposing quarterbacks way too much time to scan the field.
These players in particular didn’t live up to the expectations last year for various reasons, but with their spurts of impressive play from last season, combined with a weaker division, expectations for the team have sky rocketed.
Now had the 49ers spent more money on bigger names in free agency to fix some of the immediate needs, then yes, making the playoffs this year would seem much closer to a certainty.
However, even if the 49ers had spent more money in free agency over the offseason, it is the play of the returning starters that is going dictate whether or not they bring this once proud franchise back to the postseason.
It is up to the Lawson’s, the Haralson’s, the Staley’s, the Crabtree’s and the Alex Smith’s of this team to reach new levels of performance. Because if they don’t, this team won’t make the playoffs.
Even had they added, for example, a Julius Peppers defensive standout and a Logan Mankins type offensive lineman, it would still come down to the returning players to get the job done.
The NFC West is a division available for the taking and if the 49ers’ young talent comes of age in 2010, San Francisco will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.