Talk about a turnaround. In 2011, the 49ers won just six games, last season they rode a formidable defence, strong running game and effective game management from Alex Smith and the 49ers cruised to the NFC West crown with a 13-3 record.
San Francisco carried the momentum into the post-season by toppling Drew Brees and the favoured New Orleans Saints in a shootout in the divisional round.
However, their season came to an end in the NFC championship game, as they were beaten by the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
Important Additions: WR Randy Moss, WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs, CB Perrish Cox, and RB Rock Cartwright.
Important Losses: G Adam Snyder, WR Josh Morgan.
Reasons to Believe
1. Defence Wins Championships - And the 49ers are returning a great defence. The Niners were all but impossible to run the ball against last season, giving up a league-low 77.3 yards per game and were second in the NFL allowing a paltry 14.3 points. All of their starters from a year ago are back and the 49ers should be just as fearsome on all three-levels once again.
|After a year out of football Randy Moss makes his return to the NFL with the 49ers. How much does the veteran receiver have left in the tank?
2. Giveaway/Takeaway - No team in the NFL was better in the turnover department than the 'Niners. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio makes his players work on creating turnovers every day and it paid off with a league-high 38 takeaways last season. On the other side of the ball the team was the best at keeping the ball secured with only 10 giveaways on the year. When you win the turnover battle, you win games.
3. Weapons of Moss Destruction- Alex Smith had his best season as a pro last year and was called on to do little more than manage football games. The offence could expand this year though as the 49ers have signigicantly improved their depth at receiver with the additions of Moss, Manningham and Jenkins to help Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Having more options in the passing game should also help open up the running game for Frank Gore. If the offence is even marginally better than it was last year, the 49ers are going to be a tough out come playoff time.
Reasons to Doubt
1. The Backup Plan - How does Alex Smith respond to the 49ers off-season? He just had his best year and the team went all out in pursuit of a quarterback who just missed a year of football recovering from multiple neck surgeries. Yes, that quarterback is Peyton Manning, one of the best ever, but it can't help Smith's confidence knowing he was second choice. The 49ers cannot afford to have him regress to his old inconsistent ways.
2. Ticking Time Bomb - Will Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss be able to co-exist in the San Francisco locker room. All three have a history of attitude and personality problems. Moss likely isn't the best example for young receivers given his penchant for taking plays off, Crabtree has had his problems since day one and Manningham has an over-inflated view of his own abilities. All three are talented for sure, but keeping them all in line might prove troublesome.
3. Pass Protection - The 49ers offensive line was excellent at blocking for the run last season but struggled at times in pass protection. If the 49ers want to expand their playbook they will need to give Alex Smith ample time to go through his reads given his limitations as a quarterback. If they don't, Smith's impressive interception total is sure to rise.
What to Expect.
The 49ers are the best team in their division and may just have the best defence in the NFL. For them not win the NFC West again, despite the improvement of other teams in the division, would be an absolute shock. The bigger question for San Francisco is whether they've done enough to get themselves to the next level, ie. the Super Bowl. The defence will be among the league's elite again and the offence will likely be at least a little less conservative.