As a fan base, Niner Nation has anxiously been awaiting opening day since late January. After all the offseason moves it would seem that this team is better on paper than one year ago, but are they going to perform better?
The defense that was the rock from last season is bringing back all 11 starters, a feat spectacular in itself in the free agency era. Yet bringing back the same crew doesn’t always yield the same results. Keeping the opposition out of the endzone while creating timely turnovers was what really defined the defensive unit, but football is a game of inches and 1 play can change everything. Just look at last year and compare the 49ers and Jets defenses, over the entire season the Jets allowed just 62 more yards than the 49ers, but they gave up 8.4 points more a game. In 2011 the 49ers won 7 games in the regular season by 8 points or less. That’s the difference of one interception, recovering a loose ball, or just batting a ball down to kill a drive. Again this is a game of inches.
All the offseason acquisitions focused primarily on the offense and getting playmakers. If you were to ask me the greatest improvement between last year and this year’s team on offense, I would say QB Alex Smith. None of the acquisitions not Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins, Brandon Jacobs, or LaMichael James can have the impact that Alex can after a whole offseason to fine tune in this offense. Coach Harbaugh even has come out and said he “is an expert in the 49ers offense.”
Even with all the additions to the offense, the best playmakers are the ones that were already here. I fully expect Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis to be leading the way receiving and Frank Gore will obviously be the feature back. What we did create was depth and options that will help spell our stars and perhaps open up the offense.
Hopefully the new additions to the team can help us in the red zone. Randy Moss was solely brought in for that reason. If you expect him to catch 60 balls, 700 yards, or 8 touchdowns you will be extremely disappointed. He’s here to catch that corner fade and to take a shot now and then deep when they start overloading in the box. Manningham is a decent #3 wide receiver and Jenkins will be the guy to coach up and get ready for the following seasons.
I think the 2 biggest problems facing the 49ers are having a sense of entitlement and teams won’t be looking past them early in the season. Whenever you get to a championship game, the next year teams will have you circled as a statement game. In order to be the best you have to beat the best. The schedule won’t help either. Having to play the entire AFC East and the NFC North, throw in the 6 division games on top of playing two teams we faced in the playoffs (Giants and Saints) the 49ers might only have 2 games you can immediately put a W in the win column.
As for a sense of entitlement you have heard ex-players talk about it. A young team that goes 12-4 or 15-1 feels like they can get back to the same place next year without any problems. History has shown that’s it not that easy. Look at teams in the last few years that compare to last year’s 49er team and how they fell off. In 2005 the Jaguars went 12-4 behind an offense that didn’t turn the ball over. Leftwich finished the season with 15 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions which is very comparable to Alex Smith having a 17/5 ratio. The following year they fell off with injuries as Leftwich only played 6 games and they wound up 8-8.
Almost the same thing happened to the Chiefs in the 2010 and last season. After going 10-6 and winning the division led by a quarterback in Matt Cassel who had 27 touchdowns and 7 picks for the season, they followed it up by being plagued by injuries early on and wound up 7-9. If something happens to Alex Smith or Frank Gore does this team have a shot?
Luckily we are one of the deepest teams in the league so an injury here and there won’t be the end of the world. I trust in Harbaugh to have this team ready mentally and physically. This team is set-up to win this year, it all comes down to execution. I think this team should go 11-5 and win the division. When it comes to the playoffs, anything can happen.