The San Francisco 49er Faithful Have Renewed Hope
The San Francisco 49ers have suffered through eight straight non-winning seasons. Not since 2002 have the 49ers had a winning year and made the playoffs.
As a lifelong 49er fan, it is my sincere hope that new head coach Jim Harbaugh can turn around the fortunes of the 49ers and the team will have a great year.
Unfortunately, the realist in me says there are just too many obstacles to overcome for this to happen in 2011. I hope I'm wrong, but the hurdles seem too plentiful for the 49ers to turn it around in just one year.
Let's take a look at the myriad of obstacles the 49ers must overcome in order to have a successful year.
All of these things, or at least the vast majority of them, must turn out well for the 49ers to have a winning campaign. Although it is possible, it's not necessarily a realistic outlook.
Jim Harbaugh has his work cut out for him
One of the toughest things to overcome is a culture of losing. Teams that have been perennial losers like the 49ers have been for the past eight years start expecting to lose and must learn how to win.
Over these losing seasons, the 49ers have had three head coaches, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. None of these three were able to get the 49ers above the .500 mark. I am leaving out Jim Tomsula, who coached the 49ers on an interim basis for one game after Mike Singletary was fired in 2010.
Jim Harbaugh will bring back the West Coast style offense to the 49ers. He also brings a positive intensity to the 49ers. Unlike Mike Singletary's more in-your-face style of intensity, Harbaugh will bring a fresh enthusiasm that the players will rally around.
The 49ers will need to get off to a good start in order to begin the transformation from a team expecting to lose to one that believes they will win. This transformation will not be easy and it may not fully occur in 2011.
It takes time to turn around a culture of losing and build the expectation of winning. The 49ers had that expectation for two decades with players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young.
Tough losses will test this team's confidence, but I believe Harbaugh will ultimately have the 49ers thinking and playing like winners. 2011 will be the beginning of this transformation, it won't happen all at once, but this will be a start.
Will free agent Aubrayo Franklin be back with the 49ers?
Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has anchored the middle of the defensive line for the 49ers over the past four seasons. He is a free agent and will demand a big contract, which the 49ers probably will not offer.
Franklin will be 31 years old when the 2011 season begins and his production dropped off last year. If he departs, as expected, the 49ers will need to replace him. A big man at 317 pounds, Franklin was very tough to move out of the middle and usually occupied two blockers on running plays.
The current outlook is that Ricky Jean-Francois will replace Franklin. He played at 295 pounds last year and is 24 years old. He is more athletic than Franklin, but does not bring the bulk and inside presence that Franklin provides.
Jean-Francois will need to play well to solidify the middle of the defensive line and keep blockers off Pro Bowler Patrick Willis. The 49ers will also need another nose tackle to spell Jean-Francois or step in, in case of injury.
Frank Gore has been the 49ers' leading rusher
Frank Gore suffered a severe hip injury in 2010. He was lost for the year and is still rehabilitating. One item of concern is that Gore did not participate in any of the workouts or drills that Alex Smith organized for the team.
He is obviously not ready to play yet and at age 28, old for a running back, his career may be on the downside. Gore has endured more punishment than virtually every back in the league over his six-year career. How much more gas he has left in the tank is a real concern for the 49ers.
At the time of his injury, Gore was averaging 4.2 yards per carry, the lowest of his career. I do believe Jim Harbaugh's system will be a good fit for Gore, if he's healthy.
Harbaugh will spread the ball around and Gore will not be expected to carry the entire load exclusively, like he did under Mike Singletary.
Gore's successful return from his injury is a major key for the 49ers. Backing up Gore, the Niners have two unproven backs in Anthony Dixon and rookie Kendall Hunter.
There are a lot of questions surrounding Michael Crabtree
The San Francisco 49ers have not gotten good play from their wide receivers in recent years. Gone forever are the precise patterns, professionalism and great hands of the likes of Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Dwight Clark.
The 49ers used their top pick, No. 10 overall in 2009, to draft wide receiver Michael Crabtree. He was expected to step in and become an impact player. This has not happened and the jury is still out as to whether Crabtree has what it takes to be a star that you can count on.
Crabtree missed all of the 2009 training camp and the first five games of the season due to a contract hold out. He still had 48 receptions and everyone was looking forward to Crabtree emerging as the top receiver for the Niners in 2010.
Crabtree underachieved in 2010. He complained of nagging injuries throughout training camp and again, did not participate in a single preseason game. Tight end and team captain Vernon Davis took exception to Crabtree's lackadaisical attitude and the two got into a heated altercation last year.
He and Alex Smith never got in sync in 2010 and that can be blamed on both players. Crabtree has often paraded around like a diva and his prima donna attitude will not be tolerated by Jim Harbaugh.
I believe this will be a make-or-break season for Crabtree. Harbaugh knows what he wants out of his receivers and Crabtree better deliver or he will fall out of favor very quickly.
The other starter is Josh Morgan, who is ideally a third or fourth receiver on a good team. Reserves Ted Ginn Jr. and Dominique Zeigler are below-average receivers and may not even make the team.
The West Coast offense that will be implemented by Harbaugh relies on good route running and catching the football consistently. These are two areas the 49ers have been particularly weak at and unless this receiving corps improves dramatically, the offense will be inconsistent.
Sam Bradford is a star on the rise for the Rams
The NFC West was the weakest division in football last year, but the St. Louis Rams are on the upswing. Sam Bradford looks like a rising star and the rams are building an aggressive and tough defense.
The 49ers are likely to go 3-3 within the division, but even if they go 4-2, that does not guarantee a winning record. Outside of the division, the 49ers have to play Dallas, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, an improving Detroit team, Cleveland, Washington, NY Giants, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
This is not a pushover schedule and the 49ers must also learn to win on the road. Over the past two years, the 49ers were 3-13 on the road and they must improve on that if they have any hope of a winning record this season.
Mike Iupati was a bright spot on the 49er offensive line
Following the 2009 season, the 49ers knew they needed to bolster their offensive line, so they drafted linemen with both of their 2010 first round selections. Unfortunately, the 49er line still struggled in 2010, as injuries and poor play were the norm.
Left tackle Joe Staley and center Eric Heitmann were injured early on and that undermined the line. Left guard Mike Iupati was a bright spot, as was David Baas, who filled in admirably for Heitmann.
The main problems the 49ers faced along the line were at right tackle and right guard. Rookie tackle Anthony Davis was pushed into the starting lineup and struggled. He was repeatedly beaten for pressures or sacks and committed far too many penalties.
Right guard Chilo Rachal, who was in his third year, regressed and played very inconsistently all year. At a time in his career when he should be stepping up and becoming a fixture on the line, Rachal was a big disappointment. His job will be in jeopardy unless he shows significant improvement.
2011 is already off to a bad start as Heitmann is already lost for the season. This means the Niners must either find a new center or re-sign Baas, who is a free agent and has expressed an interest in returning to San Francisco.
The 49ers need a healthy year from Joe Staley, and this unit must jell in order to protect the quarterback and open holes for the running game.
Patrick Willis leads the 49er defense
The 49ers have some outstanding players in Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Justin Smith.
One of the main problems Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke face is strengthening the depth of the roster. The 49ers are very thin in terms of quality depth at several positions.
I believe this weakness will become exposed even more in 2011 because of the lockout. Players will have a shortened training camp and that will undoubtedly result in more injuries.
The 49ers will need some of their draft picks and young players to step forward and become contributing players. In addition, once the labor dispute is settled, the 49ers must move fast to acquire some free agents.
If Baalke can sign a couple of impact free agents and also add to the quality of the depth on the roster, that will be a big benefit to the 49ers.
Nate Clements was repeatedly beaten for touchdowns
Arguably the worst performing unit of the 49ers' 2010 campaign was the secondary. Cornerback Nate Clements was the biggest culprit, as he was repeatedly victimized for long touchdowns.
Clements gambled for interceptions and bit on pump fakes and out moves. More often than not, these gambles backfired. At age 31, Clements has lost a step or two and also has trouble staying with faster receivers.
There is speculation that Clements will be moved to safety, where his lack of speed will not be as detrimental. He is a solid tackler which would be a benefit at the safety position.
Clements is due to earn over $7 million this year, so if he won't move to safety, the 49ers may just cut him loose. Depending on what happens with the salary cap rules, if the impact to let Clements go is not severe, he will be released.
The other cornerback, Shawntae Spencer, was better than Clements, but still nothing special.
The 49ers were expecting safety Dashon Goldson to emerge as a star in 2010, but he did not. He was often out of position and was not the playmaker the Niners needed. Goldson had just one interception in 2011, which is terrible for a starting free safety.
The other safety spot was manned by Reggie Smith, after he unseated Taylor Mays. Smith is an average player, but did not distinguish himself. Mays, a second-round pick in 2010, was a disappointment.
The Niners also did not address the weakness in the secondary in the draft. They did select Chris Culliver in the third round, but I believe that was a big reach. Most draft projections had him going anywhere from the fifth-seventh round. Culliver does not project as a starter.
The 49ers must upgrade this unit via free agency and there are some good safeties and corners available. Currently, this unit is very light on talent and thin in terms of quality depth.
Alex Smith is expected to sign with the 49ers.
At the end of the 2010 season I would have wagered big money that Alex Smith would never play for the 49ers again. The fans wanted him out, and he was done in his own mind in San Francisco.
It's funny how things change. Due to the protracted lockout, it now is a foregone conclusion that Smith will sign a free agent deal with the 49ers. He organized two mini camps for the players in order to help them become familiar with Jim Harbaugh's playbook.
Harbaugh has also said that he likes what he sees in Smith and believes he can be a good quarterback in the NFL. That is very encouraging because Harbaugh was a very successful quarterback as a player and as a coach he has developed a fine reputation for developing top notch QB's.
Under the guidance of Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, lightly regarded Josh Johnson developed into an NFL prospect and has played three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A free agent, Johnson has expressed an interest in joining the Harbaugh and the 49ers.
At Stanford, Harbaugh was also very instrumental in helping to develop Andrew Luck into the top quarterback in college football. Luck is already better than two-thirds of the quarterbacks that will be starting in the NFL this year.
The 49ers hope Harbaugh can continue to add to his legacy as a quarterback guru. I do believe he will help Alex Smith and we will see better play from Smith this year. The offensive system will be more conducive to Smith, and Harbaugh will provide expert guidance for all of his quarterbacks.
The 49ers also traded up to select Colin Kaepernick in the recent NFL draft. Kaepernick is the only quarterback to throw for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in his collegiate career. He is a gifted athlete and the quarterback of the future in San Francisco.
Kaepernick has much to learn however, as the offense that he ran at the University of Nevada, "the Pistol," is not a pro-style offense. Under coach Chris Ault at Nevada, the Pistol incorporated a lot of option running in addition to a wide-open passing game. Kaepernick's athleticism was particularly effective in this scheme.
Kaepernick will need to learn and master the complex new offense in San Francisco. He will also need to learn how to see coverages and use his read progressions to find alternate receivers if his first or second options are covered.
He is the future at quarterback in San Francisco, but he's really a year or two away from being a truly effective NFL quarterback. If all goes according to plan, he will be able to utilize this season to watch and learn as much as possible.
The bottom line for the 49ers is that they need strong quarterback play and leadership. Without good play at this position, the 49ers will not have any chance to exceed eight wins this year.
Alex Smith gets one more chance in San Francisco
The San Francisco 49ers are hurt more than any other team due to the lockout. No other team in the league is bringing in a head coach and both coordinators from the college ranks.
In addition to learning their own personnel, Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will need to learn the opposition, also.
The biggest drawback for the 49ers is the lack of practice time the players will have in order to learn the offensive and defensive systems and even the nomenclature of the play calls.
Good football is played with precision and execution, in addition to power and strength. The players must know exactly what they're supposed to be doing on every play or mistakes will occur.
The lack of practice time and repetitions will mean that the 49ers will not be as well-versed in their system as their opponents.
This lack of time with the players will mean Harbaugh and the 49ers start out behind the other teams in the league. It's quite unfortunate and the longer the lockout drags on, the worse it will be for the 49ers.
Jim Harbaugh will have the 49ers headed in the right direction
I firmly believe that Jim Harbaugh is the right man for the job of returning the 49ers back to being a perennial playoff contender. However, we must be patient, because it's not going to happen overnight.
The obstacles in his way are many, and all of the question marks must be addressed correctly in order for the 49ers to have a winning season. A season where this all falls into place for a new coach when his team gets reduced practice time is unrealistic.
In addition, as I have pointed out, the 49ers simply do not have enough good players. There are far too many holes on the roster and personnel weaknesses to overcome.
A coach can play a big role in building a successful team, and I have no doubt that Harbaugh has what it takes to do so.
However, no matter how good a coach you are, you need good players. The 49ers must strengthen their roster and this will take a couple of years.
If GM Trent Baalke, owner Jed York and the 49er faithful are patient, Harbaugh will ultimately bring this franchise back to the upper echelon of the league. It may take two or three years, but I am confident it will happen.