As fans, we all start the season looking for a reason to hope. In 2008, I attended the San Francisco 49ers home finale, which was a win on a last-second field goal against the Washington Redskins. Mike Singletary had the interim tag removed from his name and the future was bright. The team took a step forward in 2009, going 8-8. In fact, they were a yard away against the Arizona Cardinals from possibly winning the division. Alex Smith was improved and the team was the trendy NFC West pick in 2010, if not a Super Bowl contender.
Then 2010 happened. 6-10. We saw miserable play and miserable coaching. After 2010, I think we all need to have more realistic expectations. Jim Harbaugh will probably move the team in the right direction, but after Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary, please forgive me if I am a little gun-shy regarding new coaches. Heck, at this point I am “bazooka-shy.” In these predictions, the main thing I am looking for is opponents’ continuity at the quarterback and coaching positions, especially early in the season. Since there was no offseason, there is going to be an unusual divide between the haves and have-nots in 2011. So, here is a realistic, albeit a bit pessimistic, prediction for each 49ers game this year.
Seattle comes to Candlestick Park as the reigning division champs. However, many of the faces from last year’s team are not there. The Seahawks will miss Matt Hasselbeck and the calls for Tavaris Jackson to be benched in favor of Charlie Whitehurst will begin. The 49er defense will be ahead of the Seattle offense enough to keep them under 14 points. Alex Smith will do just enough to win and Frank Gore will have a good game against a weak Seattle defense. There will be a seed of false hope planted in the opener. 49ers 17, Seahawks 10. 1-0 on the season.
Reality will rear its ugly head in Week 2. The Cowboys looked competent in the preseason and Tony Romo might finally be maturing enough to be a star football player and not just a star in the tabloids. After a difficult Week 1 game against the New York Jets, Dallas will come to Candlestick with a sense of urgency. The 49er defense will put in a valiant effort, but too many three and outs on offense will allow the Cowboys to pull away in the second half. Begin the Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick debate. Cowboys 31, 49ers 13. 1-1 on the season.
Ugly will not begin to describe this game. The Bengals will come in at 0-2 after road losses to the Browns and Broncos. In his first start at home, Andy Dalton will come out strong in the first half. The 1 p.m. eastern time kickoff will lead to a slow start by the 49ers, especially Alex Smith. However, Harbaugh will stick with Smith through his struggles in the first half. The 49ers will score some points in the second half, but a gutsy comeback will fall short. Like the game at the Carolina Panthers in 2010, the 49ers will lose to a team that should have gone 0-16. Bengals 20, 49ers 16. 1-2 on the season.
The 49ers will have a tumultuous week with the media because of Alex Smith’s struggles in the first 3 games. Harbaugh will defend his quarterback while there will be rumors that Smith will have a short leash. Michael Crabtree will say his first stupid thing to the media on the season about his quarterback. The 49ers will stick with the Eagles in the first half due to a great running performance by Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter against a small front 7. However, Michael Vick and Andy Reid’s halftime adjustments will be too much to overcome in a closer-than-expected loss in the city of Brotherly Love. Eagles 27, 49ers 24. 1-3 on the season.
Fans, media, and experts will argue about the inexperience of Colin Kaepernick vs. the ineffectiveness of Alex Smith in the week leading up to the Buccaneers game. Tampa Bay will come in at 3-1 after beating the Indianapolis Colts in Peyton Manning’s first game back from injury. Alex Smith will have his best first half of the season, finding Braylon Edwards on several occasions, and stake the 49ers to a nice lead. Josh Freeman will lead a comeback in the second half that leaves even Banjo Man shaking his head. Buccaneers 31, 49ers 27. 1-4 on the season.
The media and fans will be feeling a little better about Alex Smith following his performance in the Tampa Bay loss. The happiness will be short-lived in a week 6 wake-up call by the Detroit Lions. I assume that Matthew Stafford will be hurt by this point because, after all, none of us would be surprised if he hurt himself clipping his toenails. Shaun Hill will lead the Lions offense to 4 touchdowns against his former team while Nick Farley and Ndamukong Suh sack Alex Smith twice apiece. The 49ers' performance in the motor city will be about as good as Detroit’s housing market. Lions 38, 49ers 9. 1-5 on the season.
Hooray! The 49ers cannot possibly lose in Week 7. After the drubbing that Alex Smith received in Detroit and a 3-game deficit in the division, Harbaugh will quietly consider making a change. In the early-week press conferences, Harbaugh will claim that Smith is nursing a mysterious injury and Kaepernick will get the first-team snaps until Alex Smith is 100 percent. By the time the Cleveland Browns board the plane for the west coast, it will be clear that it is only a matter of time before Colin Kaepernick will be the new quarterback in the city by the bay. However, the team will keep us waiting a little longer.
The Browns will come into the week with a better than expected record. That’s because neither Pittsburgh or Baltimore is on their schedule—yet. Expect this to be a slugfest. The 49ers were good against the run in 2010 (6th overall), but Patrick Willis and co. will need some extra time in the ice bath after this one. Peyton Hillis is a beast that will grind the Browns to an early lead. Alex Smith inexplicably starts but struggles early. Colin Kaepernick enters in the second half and brings some energy to the squad, but the Browns will continue their magic start to the season. Browns 23, 49ers 17. 1-6 on the season.
Coach Harbaugh will claim in the post-game press conference after the Browns loss that he needs to look at the tape before making a decision about the quarterback position. By kickoff in Week 9, Kaepernick will be the starter. It would not surprise me if the Redskins are 0-7 entering this game after playing quarterback merry-go-round early. In his first pro start, Kaepernick shows his athletic ability—and that he is green as a NFL quarterback. However, the Redskins look worse in an ugly one and Kaepernick does just enough to get a win. 49ers 12, Redskins 7. 2-6 on the season.
With a win in his first pro start, Colin Kaepernick is going to be on cloud nine in Week 10. Unfortunately, reality usually wins, and we will see that against the Giants. Osi Umenyiora, now healthy after knee surgery, and the Giants’ D-Line may do better than their six first-half sacks against the Bears in 2010. Kaepernick will demonstrate the athleticism the 49ers drafted him for, but it will be by constantly running for his life. The Giants get a big win and postpone the “Fire Tom Coughlin” articles in the New York Post for a week. Giants 28, 49ers 7. 2-7 on the season.
With the division out of reach, the 49ers are playing for respect by Week 11. The Cardinals will come into town fighting with St. Louis for the division lead. Colin Kaepernick will show improvement and move the offense against a mediocre Cardinals defense. But, like most teams, the 49ers will not have an answer for Larry Fitzgerald. This will be a game where the 49ers hang tight, but Kevin Kolb will march down the field in one of his first game-winning drives as a Cardinal. Cardinals 27, 49ers 24. 2-8 on the season.
Crank up the hype machine for the first Harbaugh Bowl. Baltimore will enter this game with an aging defense that performs under expectations. Having only three days to prepare will hurt Kaepernick, but also Ray Lewis and Baltimore’s defense. The NFL experience of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco will combine with home-field advantage to be just a little too much for the 49ers to handle. In addition, expect some cold and wet weather to slow down both Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick’s legs. The 49ers will not look like Turkeys on Thanksgiving, but they are going to fall a bit short, again. Ravens 21, 49ers 20. 2-9 on the season.
The 10-day break will be most welcome for the 49ers after the Thanksgiving loss. They will use the time off to work on Kaepernick’s development and get healthy. The Rams will come to Candlestick Park in a fight for the division lead after a tough game against Arizona in Week 12. Because of this, the Rams will come in flat and a little overconfident. Regardless of how bad a team’s record is in the NFL, there is still too much parity to take any team lightly. Kaepernick will have his best game as a pro and beat the rival Rams in what will be the highlight of the season. 49ers 28, Rams 13. 3-9 on the season.
Kaepernick, like most rookie quarterbacks, is going to demonstrate his inconsistency in this one. The Cardinals will still be at the top of the division and Kevin Kolb will have had 12 games to gel with his teammates by early December. The 49ers' defense is going to keep it close in the first half, but get tired in the second because of Kaepernick’s struggles. Expect Kaepernick to have his season high for interceptions, which will put the defense in too many bad spots. Additionally, they will still have no answer for Larry Fitzgerald. In a painful one for 49er fans, the Cardinals fly closer to a division title. Cardinals 42, 49ers 10. 3-10 on the season.
Pittsburgh will enter this game in a dogfight with the Patriots and possibly the Texans for the best record in the AFC, so don’t expect a let-down here. Aldon Smith won’t be playing like a rookie anymore, but will bounce off of Roethlisberger more than once. Rashard Mendenhall has the uncanny ability to carry the pile two and a half yards on third and two while Big Ben usually finds a way to get it done. Pittsburgh will beat the 49ers into submission and win a game where the score is closer than the game was. The last home game of the year will leave a bad taste in the mouth of season ticket holders. Steelers 22, 49ers 9. 3-11 on the season.
The talk going into this game will be about how the 49ers should tank their last two games in order to have a chance to draft Andrew Luck. The Seahawks will be well on their way toward that No. 1 pick. In fact, it is possible that Seattle will enter this game at 0-14. However, with the way the 49ers season has gone to this point, they aren’t going to let themselves have a chance to get Andrew Luck. On a cold, rainy Christmas Eve, the 49ers will call on the Ghost of Christmas past (when they were good) and knock themselves out of the top 3 of the draft. 49ers 30, Seahawks 14. 4-11 on the season.
Happy New Year! As the old saying goes, “Out with the old and in with the new.” Well, not in this game. The players on the roster that are playing for jobs in 2012 are going to work their tail off in this game, but there will not be much urgency from everyone else. The Rams will be fighting for a playoff spot in the last game of the year for the second season in a row. Sam Bradford is going to use his experience to find a way to win in this game. Colin Kaepernick is going to make Rams fans pucker a little bit and give the rest of us some hope for the future. In the end, though, the 49er faithful will be left shaking their heads. Rams 24, 49ers 20. 4-12 on the season.
The 49ers look like they will be bad while hanging on to the quarterback that never was and going through the growing pains of the quarterback who may be.
But there is hope in the future for 49er fans. They have a good mix of youngsters and solid veterans with a coach that will learn from his mistakes. They will be bad this year—not bad enough to get Andrew Luck—but bad, nonetheless. Give Jim Harbaugh a full offseason to work with his troops and he has the potential to do good things. Remember, in Bill Walsh and Joe Montana’s first season in San Francisco, the 49ers were 2-14. I may be gun-shy with this team, but I am just dumb enough to have hope.