7 Reasons Why the 49ers Will Become the NFL's Dominant Team
It was thought that new coach Jim Harbaugh might need two, maybe three, years to turn the moribund San Francisco 49ers into a consistent playoff contender. The starting point: According to most experts and many, many fans, there was a big hole at quarterback. As for the others:
No deep threat at wide receiver, essential in a league in which excellent quarterback play is needed. (See: New England Patriots 2006-2009.)
No shutdown cornerback, essential in a league in which excellent quarterback play depends on a viable deep threat to stretch defenses. A shutdown corner takes that option away, allowing the rest of the defense to concentrate on other threats.
An offensive line known more for mistakes and missed blocks than for gaping holes.
Finally, with so many key components missing, it was going to take Harbaugh time to build a team that would compete not only against the NFC West teams, but against the best teams of the conference, namely the Packers, Saints, Giants, Eagles and Atlanta.
All of that has been turned on its head. Harbaugh has demonstrated that he and his staff have been able to shape the team’s character to maximize its strengths. Much of the credit has to go to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for putting together the game plans that have turned a good-but-middling group in 2010 into the league’s premier defense, at least in terms of the front seven.
And though there’s no doubt that the Green Bay Packers stand as the league’s top team, thanks in part to the emergence of Aaron Rodgers as one of the league’s all-time top quarterbacks. But the 49ers have a team capable of beating a team like Green Bay, or any other NFL opponent. What’s more, they’re only going to get stronger.
With that in mind, here are seven reasons why the 49ers will become the NFL’s dominant team for the next seven years.
Youth on Defense
In 2001, Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down with a rib injury. A sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan, who unexpectedly earned the backup role, took over. And the Bill Belechick Era began. You can credit Tom Brady all you want, but his contributions were the last element to an already superior team.
Belechick’s defense worked around the best crew of linebackers in the game. Their innovative game plans adapted to the needs of the week, designed to adjust to the opponents’ strengths, rather than attempting to force their will (Are you listening, Mike Singletary?).
Brady’s emergence and then continued improvement have kept the Patriots as an effective force in the AFC, even though their defense has withered with age and bad draft picks.
In that model, however, much is similar to the 49ers situation. Key players on the Niners defense, anchored by the inside linebacker tandem of Patrick Willis (27) and NaVorro Bowman (23), include Ray Mcdonald (27), Ahmad Brooks (27), Aldon Smith (22), Tarell Brown (26), Dashon Goldson (27) and Donte Whitner (26).
Of that group, only Justin Smith (31), Carlos Rogers (30) and Isaac Sopoaga (31) are over 30. This is a crew who, with good stewardship from the front office, can stay together for several more years. The only threat is Bowman wanting to leave when he’s eligible for big bucks via free agency. All the others can be afforded with new contracts.
An active, strong, fast defense that stays together just gets better with time. This could be a force for years, and a good defense in the NFL always keeps teams in games.
Solid Offensive Core
Youth again comes to mind when you think of the 49ers on offense. The central element is a huge offensive line. Center Johnathan Goodwin (33) is the old man. Other than that, consider that Anthony Davis is 22 and Mike Iupati (24), Adam Snyder (29), Joe Staley (27), Delanie Walker (27) and Vernon Davis (27), as well as Michael Crabtree (24) and key backup Alex Boone (24), are all under 30.
This is another core group that, if they stick together, can develop into a core that is easy to build around. Granted, the offense right now is run-oriented, but last Sunday’s game against the Giants showed that the passing game is developing. What’s more, the offense won with very little contribution from workhorse Frank Gore.
In other words, this is an offense that is capable of evolving into a unit that can do anything that’s needed to win: run out the clock, throw deep or throw often. The offensive line has youth and depth as advantages, providing a foundation that, from a general manager’s point of view, is easy to add round out with one or two players.
Desperate No More
The improved play of Alex Smith, coupled with the addition of Colin Kaepernick in last spring’s draft, gives the 49ers a road map for the future. Quarterback is the most essential position for success in the NFL. Many thought Smith couldn’t handle it. Harbaugh’s coaching proved Smith wasn’t the problem; the offensive philosophy was (Hello, Mike Singletary?).
Kaepernick’s physical skills and attentiveness strike everyone as very promising, and there’s no doubt that the coaches are desperate to get him in the game for more experience. But it has to be said that the play of Smith and the potential of Kaepernick have removed desperation from the team’s needs at quarterback.
Smith is in his seventh year, but he's only 27. For quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, their best years came in their late 20s and early 30s.
There are going to be very good quarterbacks coming out in this year’s draft, but the 49ers don’t have to worry about packaging first- and second-round draft picks to move up to the top five slots for a shot at Matt Barkley or Landry Jones. Adding another quarterback can come later in the rounds, and it can be one who might want to sit for a few years and learn.
Sharp fans will say that Alex Smith is a free agent come 2012. But in light of what’s happened, do you really think there’s another team out there that would be willing to give him enough money—and it would have to be about $10 million annually—to get him to leave the 49ers?
He’s getting about $5 million this year. It seems well within reason that he and the franchise can agree on a two- or three-year extension at a reasonable number.
Draft for Depth
The addition of Chris Culliver at cornerback and Aldon Smith (99) at defensive end are key ingredients to the 49ers' improved defensive play. Neither are All-Pro players right now, but they are both capable of developing into that kind of player.
On offense, the biggest need right now seems to be wide receiver, but again, the 49ers have enough players playing well enough to move them off the desperate level for this team. Granted, offensive explosiveness is the lacking element, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still win.
They are winning now, but the improved play of Brandon Edwards and Michael Crabtree gives the team the luxury of patience. Like quarterback, they don’t have to package picks for a shot at top-notch wide receiver like Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina or Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma. If either of these two fall to the Niners, who will draft in the 20s or later, great.
But there’s no need to take drastic measures for one player. Instead, they can sit and draft the best nose tackle available at the draft (after all, Sopoaga is 30, Ray McDonald is 27). They can add the best running back—remember the wear and tear on Frank Gore—that fits their style, and same with safeties.
Note that it’s much easier to find top-notch quality personnel at running back and safety in rounds three through five than it is to find quarterbacks and game-breaking receivers.
FA for Spice
A scan of the potential free agents in 2012 include top-notch players like receivers Vincent Jackson of the Chargers, Reggie Wayne of the Colts, Wes Welker of the Patriots and DeSean Jackson of the Eagles.
If a shutdown corner is needed, Brent Grimes of the Falcons is slated to come on the market.
More pass rush? How about Robert Mathis of the Colts or Calais Campbell of the Cardinals?
In other words, the 49ers aren’t looking for a cornerstone of a franchise, namely a defensive stud or a quarterback around which a team is built. Instead, with a young, strong offensive line and a great set of linebackers (remember Belechick, who won with linebackers?), the Niners have their foundation.
One key player here and there doesn’t break the bank (hello, Philadelphia) and doesn’t make the established players in San Francisco jealous.
What about the Packers? Indeed. They are a force and will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Clay Matthews…they’re all in their prime. No one at this time last year projected them to be Super Bowl champs. And no one expected them to be poised to be named the Team of the Decade, which you hear so often now. There is so much going for the franchise. But it plays in Green Bay.
That passing attack centered around the brilliance of Rodgers might be hampered some if, say, the NFC Champinship game is played in late January Wisconsin. You know, icy field, minus-six wind chill, blustery.
A power running game and a strong defense might be the right formula to win in those conditions. At the same time, if the 49ers continue to win out and end up facing the Packers in the conference title game, consider it a major re-start for a rivalry of two storied NFL franchises. They’ll play each other regularly, and each game will have deep implications.
Franchise on the Rise
With a great offensive line, a great defense and a young head coach who obviously has done wonders to transform the locker room into an enjoyable place, free agent players around the league will take a long look at the possibility of joining the 49ers.
They have the advantage of playing on the West Coast, on grass, in a division that seems, from this moment at least, to be one that they can control for years. Winning the division means the playoffs, more national games and more chances to prove oneself in big moments.
But it gets better. This is a team that is on the cusp of building a new stadium. Even if the new field would have to be shared with the Raiders (the most likely way to make it work financially), it’s still a new stadium. It would increase the 49ers revenue, which in turn would help in raising the profile of the brand and the players. In short: more luxury box sales, more revenue.
The 49ers could become what it was in the late 1980s and early ‘90s: the place where stars like Deion Sanders and Ricky Jackson joined to win Super Bowls.
That the 49ers become a Super Bowl winner in 2011 or 2012 is pure prognostication. But back in August, no one was saying that they would be 8-1 in mid-November, either. They have come very far, very fast. With their youth and talent and coaching, who is to say that they can’t keep going and remain atop the NFL for years.