Predicting an NFL team's record, is almost as hard as predicting the score of any given NFL game. There are so many wild and unpredictable events that can completely mess up all logically, well thought out assumptions. But fortune telling is a profitable business, so let's get started.
For the San Francisco 49ers to have a winning record in 2009, they will have to have a couple of surprises. The nature of those surprises is what is most important.
If the 49ers expect to clean up their old bad habit of losing more games then they win, they must have a break-out season among at least one of the positions of quarterback, offensive line, or outside linebacker.
Much of the team's biggest mistakes and inadequacies in 2008 occurred from lack of preparation and lack of depth at these positions.
Last season, starting quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan, became too anxious at times, which led to costly interceptions.
To be fair, those anxious times, were created by poor play from the offensive line, mostly, but not surprisingly, at right tackle; "not surprising", due to the fact that Jonas Jennings was more absent during NFL games on Sunday, then “Huckleberry Finn” was during Sunday school.
And while the 49ers were hoping Barry Sims could back-up the position, the reality was that quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan found himself on his back.
Last year, the 49ers went into the season hoping Jennings could stay on the field, and if not, then the player who wasn't good enough for the Raiders offensive line, could do an adequate job filling in. This was perhaps not the wisest course of action to take, and it was a large part of the 49ers 7-9 record.
This lack of forethought was aggravated by the fact, that backup offensive tackle Adam Snyder was oddly moved to guard before training camp, causing him to shift all his energy and focus from tackle to guard. Since Jennings was now out of the picture, the only backup tackle on the 53-man roster was Adam Snyder.
Snyder now had to get practice reps both at right tackle and left guard (where he was still starting) during the season, in case either offensive tackle suffered any injury during the next 14 games.
Not surprisingly, and perhaps luckily for the 49ers future, Barry Sims went down, this forced the 49ers to play Snyder (who had few reps) at right tackle, and simultaneously forced them to play David Baas at left guard.
Not surprisingly, these moves were both upgrades at there respective positions. Snyder stayed at right tackle until suffering an injury late in the season. David Baas was not only an upgrade over Snyder at left guard, but is now slated to start the season there.
It is precisely this type of poor preparation/decision making that cannot happen again, before or during the 2009 season.
In 2009 the “right” quarterback needs to start. In 2009 the “right” players need to be playing in the right positions on the offensive line. The 49ers can't afford any more failed experiments.
The "Right" Tackle?
Fortunately, the 2009 season seems to be pointed in a more solid direction. Thanks to coach Singletary, Shaun Hill has been tested in more than a handful of games, and we now know he can win.
Due to a little luck and a little more Singletary, Chilo Rachal and David Baas have in-game experience, and look to be the types of tough, physical players that Singletary wants for next season. Its a good thing they were given the opportunity to shine last year.
The signing of Marvel Smith was not simply a good move, it was a move of desperation. Thankfully, it was finally proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jennings could not be relied upon to stay healthy for more than a handful of games.
The question is, can Marvel Smith be relied upon to stay healthy? He comes with a recent history of back problems, including back surgery.
Can this team afford another Jennings type of absence at right tackle? Perhaps this time it can. This time, Adam Snyder will focus on playing right tackle in training camp. This time, undrafted free agent Alex Boone has a very good chance to make the team and give the 49ers more complete depth.
Don't get me wrong, the offensive line situation is certainly not “super solid”. In fact, the 49ers were probably anticipating Michael Oher would be their “man” at No. 10 overall in the 2009 NFL draft.
Still, the offensive line is in a much, much less precarious situation than it was last year. A winning record, will depend largely upon just how solid the right tackle position truly is.
Smith Still Has a Hill To Climb
The quarterback position is obviously going to go a long way in determining the final record of 2009.
Shaun Hill is 7-3 as a starting quarterback in the NFL. No matter how cynical you want to be, that is not something one can easily dismiss. Hill moves the chains and is able to throw touchdown passes. It might sound simplistic, but that's basically what a winning quarterback needs to do.
Quarterbacks however, don't usually stay upright for an entire season, that's why it would not be surprising to see Alex Smith at some point. Smith will probably get another shot to prove he's a player some time this season.
The debate about him is seemingly endless, but one thing's for sure, if Smith can simply play the way he played during the 2006 season (the season before his injury), it would certainly be adequate for what the 49ers should hope for from their backup quarterback position.
There is also the possibility that he is improved from where he left off from his shoulder injury. This year, thankfully, the 49ers don't have to bank on it.
Are Quarterbacks Afraid of "The Law"?
The outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are supposed to rush the quarterback and provide the team with the occasional sack. So far, partly due to injury, the jury is still out on whether or not Manny Lawson can perform this essential task. If he can, then the 49ers can expect good things from the 2009 season.
But if he can't, then there are not only going to be a lot more fans frustrated at him, but there will also be a lot more fans frustrated at Nate Clements, Walt Harris and company; it is a well-known secret, that cornerbacks take most of the blame for a poor pass rush.
In fact, Manny Lawson may hold the key to Nate Clements ever sniffing the Pro-Bowl, as Pro-Bowl cornerbacks almost always emerge from teams with a great pass rush; coincidence?
Parys Haralson will also, like Lawson, have to improve. Except Haralson will not have to improve by much. Haralson has been improving every year, and another small jump forward could break him into the much revered “double-digit” sack territory, finally giving him the respect he deserves more of.
What could rain on this outside linebacker parade? An injury parade. There is absolutely no proven depth at outside linebacker as of this writing. This is perhaps the most vulnerable part of the team, and makes the extra first round draft pick in 2010 (which was essentially traded for Florida State's Everette Brown), look like its actually in 2100.
Just like on the offensive line, the 49ers really could have used a draft pick or two at this position, and just like on the offensive line, instead of a draft pick, the 49ers have instead brought in undrafted free agents to compete at the position. This is perhaps the most questionable move in regards to the 49ers' offseason decision making up to this point.
The best hope the 49ers have for depth at this position, are the “part-time” players on the team; Jay Moore being one, Roderick Green being the other. Moore is basically, yet again, like an extra fourth-round draft pick; coming back from two consecutive season-ending injuries, we still don't know what he can do.
Green's history with the 49ers, has been to sign him and then cut him and then sign him back at some point. This time, due to his arrest last February in Texas, the 49ers might decide to forget about the signing part.
Assuming there will be a couple of injuries to important players on the team (like every NFL team faces every year), combined with the assumption that some of the young players will improve, I will guess a 49ers record of 9-7.
The added stability at quarterback, offensive line, and running back, should go a long way. The added talent at wide receiver, should be another big help. However, key injuries can hold the 49ers back at several positions, most notably outside linebacker.
Let's put it another way. If Manny Lawson has a double digit sack season, I predict a record of 11-5. But if he doesn't, and instead, we have multiple injuries at outside linebacker and offensive tackle, then I predict a record of 7-9. This would be the same record as last year, true.
But don't forget how much more improved the 49ers are in key areas that have killed them in the past, most notably offensive line and quarterback. Injuries cannot be predicted, but as always, they are a key factor in sports. The 49ers are overall, in a more solid, although not ideal position to handle them this year.