As the 49ers organization begins OTA’s it is impossible to not begin to think about how the team is going to respond to the mounting pressure they are feeling based on their success last season. Added to the fact that they are facing lofty expectations from fans and analysts alike, they are also clearly re-tooling the offensive scheme as evidenced by adding veteran Randy Moss and former Giants WR Mario Manningham as well as selecting numerous offensive players this year in the draft. Adding all these things and taking in to account the added media scrutiny and hype sorrounding this 49ers team, what are the keys to success for the 49ers in the 2012-13 season?
It starts with the defense. With all 11 starters returning from last years record breaking, dominant defense, the expectations are at an all time high. Vic Fangio and his defensive staff have a difficult task at hand here, how do you exceed what happened with this defense last year? A team that allowed 14 points a game and only allowed 77 rush yards per game last season is a hard thing to top. Those are all time great defensive numbers but as with any team there is always room for improvement, while the 49ers secondary did record 23 interceptions last year, they recorded only two defensive touchdowns during the regular season. Adding to the scoring threat of the defense could be a definite boost for the already dominant 49ers defense. In addition, look for players like Aldon Smith, Larry Grant and Navarro Bowman to make an even bigger impact that the large ones they made last season. Make no mistake, the 49ers defense will be strong this coming season, the point is they are going to need to be just as (if not more) dominant than they were last season.
The second key to the 49ers success in 2012 will most definitely be the continued progression and maturation of Alex Smith at quarterback. Alex had a career year in 2011, which when looking at his previous year’s totals wasn’t that hard but he will need to become more of a leader and game changing quarterback and less of a game manager this year if the 49ers look to take the next step and win championships. Alex took huge strides in 2011, leading the 49ers to two playoff victories while only basically having Vernon Davis to throw to. The addition of Moss and Manningham (or M&M as I’m calling them) should aid in the development of Alex Smith, add to that the fact that this will be Alex’s second year in Coach Jim Harbaugh’s system and you have the makings of a great story and the possibility of a definite improvement all around for a very talented quarterback.
The 49ers health and stability at the running back position is going to also be a major key to the success of this team in 2012. Frank Gore is getting older, there is no denying that. No one can take away that Frank is a phenomenal running back and that he is probably going to put up amazing numbers again this year, but his durability is going to become an issue because of the number of carries he sees and how hard he runs. The 49ers have seemingly bolstered their RB corps with the addition of Brandon Jacobs and the drafting of LeMichael James. Don’t leave out Kendall Hunter either, he gained almost 500 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per rush on just 112 attempts last year. Look for that number to increase significantly as well as Hunter’s role in the offensive game plan every week.
The biggest and most important key to success for the 49ers squad this season will be the hardest one to measure and the hardest one to predict. It is the ability of the players and coaches to mentally handle the weight and pressure of the expectations that are being placed on them. With no one expecting them to do much of anything besides maybe squeak out a division title and get beat in the first round of the playoffs last year, the 49ers were able to prey on people’s low expectations of them to surprise opponents with their tough play and team first attitude. The problem this year will be that the 49ers are not underdogs any more, they will now be favored in games that they weren’t last season. They will be featured on ESPN and talked about on NFL Live every night. How the team as a whole deals with the added pressure and expectations to make a run at the Super Bowl will ultimately determine how they end this season, either hoisting the Lomabrdi Trophy or missing the playoffs like 6 of the last 7 NFC Championship losing teams.
My bet is that the 49ers use the lofty expectations as motivation to achieve even more success in 2012 than they did last season. This is not a team of quitters who crumble at the first sight of adversity, nay they are a team who I believe will thrive and strive on the expectation because in all honesty their goals are as high or higher than those of others scrutinizing them. With a coach like Jim Harbaugh and the amount of raw talent and drive this team has, look for them to band together like a platoon of soldiers going in to a battle that most men would lose, held together by their connection to one another and their desire to win at any cost and to do so despite what history tells them is possible. This team is a team that is built on strength, attitude, execution, the desire to win and most of all, putting the team before yourself. Teams like that don’t fail, they succeed and they achieve their goals collectively, or not at all.
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