Last year the 49ers qualified as the biggest positive surprise in the NFL. With yet another coach and yet another offensive coordinator promising that things were going to change, it was easy to tune them out. Change they did, though, and if it weren’t for a particularly awful special teams play they could have been the NFC representative in the Super Bowl.
It’s far easier to be the unexpected surprise than it is to be the favorite that meets expectations. That means San Francisco won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year, and they will feel dramatically more pressure than they have in past years. I don’t see that as the negative here that many will, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
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The player with the most eyes on him will unquestionably be Alex Smith — again. He had his best year as a pro in 2011 and proved that he can be a very capable game manager. That didn’t stop the offseason from being rocky for him, though.
The Niners flirted seriously with Peyton Manning, and that left Smith to hang in the wind. The Niners QB had a flirtation of his own with the Dolphins.
Given the changes he has gone through in his career, you can’t question his mental toughness. At some point, though, he could decide he has just had enough. If that comes this year it could be a long season for his team.
Last year and for a few years before the Niners have been a smash-mouth running team that throws the ball when they have to. That doesn’t work particularly well in this pass-happy version of the NFL, though, and San Francisco seems to have recognized that.
They have assembled what will be the most interesting receiving corps to watch in the league — though I’m not sure if we’ll be watching their heroics of their epic failures. Michael Crabtree is a huge talent who has never ached his potential in the NFL, but now he’ll be pushed by Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and rookie A.J. Jenkins. Moss is a big question mark, and Manningham needs to show he can move forward from his impressive playoff run last year. However, this unit has the potential to be dramatically improved.
Vernon Davis is another guy who needs to show he can build on his playoffs. He has the ability to be the best tight end in the league, and in the playoffs last year he looked like it. However, he has struggled to be consistent throughout his career. A new Vernon Davis would help this team dramatically.
While tight end play might be something of a concern the running game certainly isn’t. With Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James on board there is an embarrassment of riches.
What stands out most with this team is the one thing that mercifully hasn’t changed — Greg Roman is the offensive coordinator for a second season. That job was one of the least stable in sports over the last several years, so the stability there will be a refreshing difference for the players who have had to endure so much change.
The defense was best in the league against the run and fourth best overall, so it’s no surprise that they haven’t made a lot of significant changes on that side of the ball.
The concern is that the success came from so many players playing better than they ever have before. There is always a risk of a letdown the year after.
On the plus side, though, the coaching staff is the same, and without a lockout to contend with the unit has had a lot more time to work together and improve.
I could say more, but let’s keep it simple — this defense definitely has the talent and the coaching to be an elite unit again.
2012 San Francisco 49ers Schedule Analysis
One big problem of having a strong season is that your schedule gets much tougher the next year. The Niners are no exception to that rule.
They open on the road in Green Bay in a game that will give us a good indication of the early power structure in the NFC. They also travel to New Orleans and New England in the second half of the season. That Green Bay game is followed by a home game against the Lions, and they also host the Giants and Bears along the way. Those are six tough games on their schedule.
It’s hard to know how their divisional contests will go as well. Last year the Niners picked on a weak division. This year it should be better, though Arizona and especially Seattle are getting more hype than I’d ideally heap upon them.
If the team is as good as they should be then road trips to Minnesota, the Jets, Arizona and St. Louis should be very winnable, and home games against Buffalo, St. Louis, Miami and Arizona should be wins as well. That gets them eight wins. It’s the other eight games that will prove what this team is made of.
2012 San Francisco 49ers NFL Futures Odds
At -250 Bovada has the Niners heavily favored to win the NFC West — the Seahawks are the second choice at just +400. They are 11/2 to win the NFC — second choice behind only Green Bay. Only the Packers and Patriots are seen as more likely than San Francisco — 10/1 — to win the Super Bowl.
BetOnline has the season win total set at 10. It has been stable at that level since being posted, with the “over” slightly favored at -120.
2012 San Francisco 49ers Predictions
I am high on this team. I don’t think Jim Harbaugh will be able to operate at a high level for a long period with one team in the NFL — he’s way too high-tempo and emotional to maintain his grasp. For now, though, he has a team that is totally committed to him because they saw what he accomplished in his first year.
Combine that confidence with an improved offense and a very good defense and you have a team that will do some damage. I am very confident that they will represent the NFC West in the playoffs, and they are definitely good enough to repeat their trip to the NFC Championship.
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