Act 1: The River Runs Dry
-It’s been a terribly long 15 years since the final season of the 49ers' golden years, but a new gold rush may be here. The aughts were a painful decade to get through if you were wearing red and gold. Fans get accustomed to winning seasons and there had not been a lot for the most decorated NFL team at the time.
In his first and only season with the 49ers, Erickson led them to a 2-14 season with their only two wins coming against the Arizona Cardinals, both in overtime decisions. The 49ers were without a doubt the worst team in the NFL that year and arguably one of the worst in recent NFL history.
But things did not get much better after that.
With the first overall pick of the 2005 draft, 49er fans thought the team had struck gold in Alex Douglas Smith. After coming off a season at Utah where he threw for 32 TDs and only 4 INTs, and a shade under 3,000 yards, we all thought Smith would be the answer to our serious problems. I don’t have to tell you that it didn’t pan out as the Faithful hoped it would.
Mike Nolan, the new coach that season, played an important role in selecting Smith. It was later reported that Nolan actually met with Aaron Rodgers, but caught a "whiff of attitude," and that was that. In retrospect, Nolan could have used a bit of charisma with his suit dawning, no nonsense front.
In Smith’s rookie season as the 49ers starting QB, he played in only nine games, throwing for one touchdown and 11 interceptions with a QB rating of 40.8. I wonder what he could have accomplished had he not been injured.
Fast forward six more long losing seasons, through Nolan, Norv Turner, Mike Singletary and a half dozen offensive coordinators, to the 2011 season.
Enter James Joseph Harbaugh.
Act 2: Dawn of the Harbaugh Era
-After coming off a momentous year with Stanford where he and Andrew Luck led the Cardinals to a record of 11-1 (their best record ever), and only 4 days removed from flattening Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl (their first BCS bowl victory), the 49ers signed Harbaugh to a five-year, 25-million dollar contract.
The addition of Harbaugh may prove to be the most important puzzle piece to years of great acquisitions and draft selections. Harbaugh had been flirting with the New York Jets and the the Miami Dolphins, but decided to stay in the Golden State and man the helm of the lusterless 49ers.
To say that Harbaugh and the 49ers were not expected to do well is probably the biggest understatement of the 2011 pre-season. Coming off a tumultuous season and the burden of a lockout, no one imagined they would be a couple muffed punt returns away from the Super Bowl. I searched high and low, from CBS Sports to the Bay Area based Bleacher Report and the best prediction I could find for San Francisco last year was a record of 5-11. CBS had them projected at 3-11 and Sports Illustrated did not even think Smith would finish out the season.
There is no doubt that Harbaugh was last season’s righteous winner of the Coach of the Year award. He led his left for dead team to a 13-3 season where Smith threw for 17 TDs and 5 INTs (eerily reminiscent of Harbaugh’s ‘95 season with the Colts). Their deep run in the playoffs will be remembered as the highlight of the 2011 postseason.
Their opening game against the Saints was one of the greatest victories San Francisco football fans have seen in a long, long time and ended up winning Game of the Year at the ESPYS.
Say what you will about the red zone deficiency that plagued them all season, their poor 3rd down conversion rate,and the absence of all their wide receivers in the NFC championship game, the 49ers would have won that game with two successful returns in place of the two utter gaffes. The fault lies on two people: Kyle Williams and Jim Harbaugh.
Not much needs to be said about Kyle Williams role, that’s obvious enough. But it escapes me how Harbaugh could have trusted Williams after, basically, two botched returns. One where he dove and luckily fell on the ball and another that nicked his knee resulting in a turnover. While he did have one decent return, one for three on the game is not a rate I would have dabbled with.
That last fumble transpired directly in front of me at Candlestick. I remember a collective knee buckling of every fan there as gallons of beer splashed to the ground spilling out under the seats. I’m not sure how long it took me and the rest of the fans to come back to reality, but if felt like a lifetime. Every 49er fan left in some way weeping that night.
Act 3: A New Gold Rush
-Most of Vegas has the 49ers winning 10 games this season and while I take a quick glance at their schedule, that seems about right. I think examining the team and their schedule a bit further will prove otherwise. First let’s take a look at the revamped offense.
After the additions in this offseason, both in the backfield and at wide receiver, the 49ers have huge potential and a high ceiling. And while their starting talent may excite you, it is their depth at almost every position that elevates them to top-10 offensive production possibilities.
-Reports are that the veteran Randy Moss, after a year off, has jumped to the number one wide receiver option for Smith. Moss brings more to the team than what he will produce on the field. Just by being the talented player he is, he will push everyone on the team, especially the young wides to new levels. Moss is probably the player most hungry and most deserving of a championship ring in the game today and he will do all that is necessary to bring the team there.
On the field, he will open up the field for every other player as he will draw the double teams from defenses. If not, I look forward to those 1-on-1 matchups. He may be 35 years old, but he will make defenses pay the Golden Gate toll of six if they sleep on this man.
While Mario Manningham failed to live up to his 2010 season last year, he did have a pretty solid season (523 yards, four TDs) for only playing in 11 games. With all the toys Smith now has, nothing more than a small improvement in those numbers will be asked from him and I wouldn’t be surprised if he produced a lot more.
Michael Crabtree will take the field for his fourth year as a 49er. While many of his totals and averages took a slight dip from two years ago, his presence, and at times his absence, were felt more than ever. With his continuing development and the skill and competition around him, this year we will get a nice peek into his big play making abilities we have been anticipating.
Vernon Davis’ numbers fell off for a third straight year, but fans and fantasy owners need not worry after witnessing his dominant performance in the postseason. This man is clutch. In two games, he put up nearly 300 yards receiving and four touchdowns. Vernon will be getting some open looks this season, and there has never been a question whether Smith can deliver to him.
The Inconvenient Truth is still the outright No. 1 back for the 49ers and only 1,065 yards from being the all-time rushing leader for the 49ers franchise. Frank Gore has failed to reach the 1k rushing mark only one time in his career other than his rookie year and this was due to him playing in only 11 games. He is not known for being the most durable back, but he continues to be a workhorse and I do not see that changing despite the additions behind him. Reports are that after fracturing his hip, coaches had to hide his helmet to keep him off the field, so a few additions at RB won’t stop this man. I think Gore still takes the lion’s share of backfield attempts.
Moving back to the quarterback position, I am buying up all the stock in Smith that I can this year. Now that’s not to say that he will record numbers close to any of the top five QBs this season, but I foresee Smith being a solid bottom of the rung QB1 starter in most 12 man fantasy leagues. Looking at his career stats, last season was not terribly special, aside from his TD to INT ratio, but nothing special was asked of him during the season either. His job was to be manage each game extremely vigilantly and keep them in a position to win each game. And for the most part, that is exactly what he did, but that is not to take away from praise he deserves of leading the team to five come-from-behind victories, four of which on the road, and a 13-3 record.
This season that role will change. Moss and Manningham would not have been brought in without a plan in mind to expand Smith’s reign. With a full off season scheduled, Harbaugh and the coaching staff will look to amp up Smith’s duties, resulting in more output that may prove to be actually exciting year round. With a new set of toys and expanded responsibility, I have fairly lofty predictions for Smith and the 49ers. Apparently I’m not the only either. A few Vegas sports books had the 49ers favorited to win it all this season. While most of his numbers were up from previous seasons, they were still far from the expectations of a No. 1 draft pick, but we must give up on those expectations. Alex Smith will never live up to them, but he can prove that he was worth taking at all and he will do so this season.
-Williams may go down as one of the most hated 49er players of all time, but I really don’t see that happening. The numbers may not jump out at you, but take away that last game against the Giants and Wiliiams had a fairly decent season with 20 catches, 240 yards and three TDs. Jed York, the team’s CEO, has high hopes for Williams after predicting that he will be the breakout player this year. While I don’t see that happening, Williams will have the opportunity to make plays, as he will probably be be paid the least attention to by defenses when he is on the field. Williams should have a solid career with the 49ers and it’s my hope his gigantic gaff will not be his defining quality for 49er fans.
Ted Ginn Jr. was anticipated to spread the field on offense last season, but his presence was most felt on special teams and particularly in only one game. He has recorded one offensive touchdown in his two seasons in San Francisco, but I don’t see him contributing much to the team even if he can't make it through the entire season healthy.
Delaine Walker rocketed out of the starting gates last season, scoring three touchdowns in the first six games. While he has never put up big total yardage, he is a solid blocking tight end who can make a catch when needed. Don’t be surprised when No. 46 comes down with a clutch catch this season. He is not close to the level of Davis, but he won’t need to be with the surrounding talent.
Kendall Hunter is poised to have a breakout year if anything happens to Gore. He is a bit smaller than Gore, but he makes up for it with his explosiveness. If Gore remains healthy, Hunter will most likely fill in as the primary third down back seeing a fair amount of playing time.
If Brandon Jacobs, AKA the Juggernaut, recoups speedily from his pre-season injury, look for him to contribute mightily in the short yardage situations, especially at the goal line when it matters. While I think the 49ers passing game will define their season this year, they will rely on their ground game until Smith proves he can let it soar.
The rookie LaMichael James will easily take over the return position on special teams this season. He is much younger and quicker than the aging Ginn and much more explosive than Williams will ever be. I see him making a bigger impact than those two combined for last season.
Backup QB Colin Kaepernick has left some disgruntled fans calling local radio shows begging to see him start after any relatively poor game Smith has had. I’m delighted with his future outlook, but if Smith fails to deliver or breaks down, Kaepernick does not have what it takes to lead this team. He still has a couple years ahead of him before he is ready for prime time.
-The 49ers will have a first place schedule this year, playing the likes of the Packers, Lions, Giants, Saints and Patriots. While these contenders strike fear into most of the opponents they play due to their potent offenses, the 49ers defense can and will keep the team in every game. With every starter returning and a host of quality backups, the San Francisco defense will play more of an important role, especially against the pass, while not putting up the same jaw dropping statistics. Did anyone else think that they were going to shut out offenses on rushing touchdowns the whole season? 14 games is still impressive.
The real story lies in their opponent’s defenses. This year they will play a whopping two teams (SEA & MIA) in the top half of defensive rankings last year according to Yahoo! Sports. On top of that, they play against seven of the eight worst passing defenses in the league, and only three in the top half (SEA, STL & NYJ). Smith has the seventh easiest schedule for QBs, making him a perfect sleeper backup QB in almost every fantasy league, regardless if he lives up to my projections or not. Smith is not known for gun slingin’, but he will surprise everyone this season. The 49ers will command most divisional games with the ground game, but Smith will be tested against the pass heavy offenses. You need to pass, and pass effectively, to stay afloat in this league and we will see what our QB is really made out of.
2012 Season Predictions:
-I have the 49ers failing to match their record last year and tallying a paltry 12-4 season. They will clinch the NFC West division and while losing one more game, they will beat their opponents in a much more dominating fashion than last year.
2012 Player Predictions:
-Alex Smith: 3700 YDS, 27 TD
-Moss: 900 YDS, 6 TD
-Crabtree: 750 YDS, 5 TD
-Manningham: 550 YDS, 3 TD
-Williams: 150 YDS, 1 TD
-Davis: 850 YDS, 7 TD
-Rest of the Team: 500 YDS, 5 TD
-Gore: 1065 YDS, 6 TD
-Jacobs: 500 YDS, 4 TD
-Hunter: 300 YDS, 2 TD