There have been many superlatives used to describe the 2011 San Francisco 49ers – battling, fighting, comeback, emerging. For me, 2011 was about one thing for San Francisco – redemption. Redemption for a fan base that had come to expect dominant teams but had been found wanting in recent years, redemption for an ownership that had been under siege from said fan base due to perceived poor management and lack of results, redemption for a number of players such as Alex Smith, Carlos Rogers and David Akers who’d been given up on and essentially left for dead only to rise and help bring this team to within a whisker of immortality.
When you look at the team’s roster now compared to that which finished the 2011 season, there is very little turnover at all. A couple of new receivers and a little added depth at key positions but none of the wholesale changes that 49ers fans will be accustomed to as this team is one of the most settled in the NFL roster wise. Almost all of the heroes are back with the only real losses being that of Josh Morgan and Madieu Williams to the Redskins and Chilo Rachal who joined the Chicago Bears.
This team is fairly simple – a solid but unspectacular west coast offense that will wow nobody but get the job done accompanied by a hard nosed defense that will fight tooth and nail for every yard and every ball while battering their opposition into submission. In short, this is a classic San Francisco team that is well put together and while it’ll never leave you in awe like certain teams out east they will go out there and play their hearts out week in and week out to get the results needed.
2011 record: 13-3
Key Additions: Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Brandon Jacobs
Key Losses: Madieu Williams, Chilo Rachal, Josh Morgan
Offense: The San Francisco offense is as traditional as you can get – a classic west coast offense that would make Coach Walsh proud. In Alex Smith they appear to finally have the quarterback they drafted first overall in the 2005 NFL Draft and indeed he thrived in the offense last year despite have a cast of no-names to throw to – names like Kyle Williams and Brett Swain who nobody expected in 2011. This year the receiving corps is much stronger with the addition of Moss and Manningham although expect Williams to still play an integral part. Rookie A.J. Jenkins has plenty of flash but is expected to take a back seat and learn in 2012.
Running back is looking particularly strong also with the offseason addition of Brandon Jacobs – if he makes the team, which is still unsettled – but in particular it is the drafting of LaMichael James out of Oregon that could have the biggest impact as this is another very nimble runner who can make catches out of the backfield a-la Darren Sproles in New Orleans. If Frank Gore can get in another season of elite production on top this offense will look very handy indeed.
On the offensive line, this was already one of the better units in the NFL and while losing Rachal is a blow of sorts youngsters Alex Boone and Adam Kilgore are well thought of and should fill the spot well enough. Apart from that the crew of first rounders in Iupati, Davis and Staley is back with another year of experience and growing stronger all the time with veteran center Jonathan Goodwin to anchor them – this is a very dangerous group who helped Alex Smith look even better than he was in 2011.
Defense: On defense the focus is upfront as the 49ers have the NFL’s premier run stopping unit of 2011. It seemed like almost nothing could get through this combination last season and things have only gotten stronger as the team has sought to improve depth. In the linebacking corps it’s more of the same – leader Patrick Willis is arguably one of the top 5 linebackers in the NFL today and when he is on his game he is an unstoppable force. Last year’s bolter NaVorro Bowman is back also to partner Willis in the middle to further solidfy the run defense and with surprise 2011 sack producer Aldon Smith lurking on the outside with a now veteran Ahmad Brooks opposite this is a scary mix of power, strength and speed.
In the secondary the impressiveness of the defense continues although some would find this unusual given some of the names back here. Twelve months ago Carlos Rogers was an afterthought after spending years with the Washington Redskins seemingly unable to catch. He found the glue on his hands in 2011 and became something of a ballhawk for his new team. Teammate Dashon Goodson also took a big leap forward last season and had a terrific year overall to the point where the 49ers had to franchise him for 2012 as he would have fetched a massive contract in free agency. Coupled alongside former Buffalo Bills tackling machine Donte Whitner, expect more magic from Goldson and the resurgent 49ers secondary.
Coaching: What a difference a year makes. When Jim Harbaugh took the job of coaching San Francisco in 2011, many expected he’d have his work cut out for him just to be any kind of competitive what with the reduced time to coach up his new charges due to the lockout. The amazing turaround of this team after Mike Singletary’s mismanagement falls largely on Harbaugh and at this point there is little one can say to criticise the man – except that perhaps he could learn to smile a little more. Seriously though, success is great but attaining success is only the first step. Harbaugh must now work hard to maintain the high standards his team achieved in 2011 – a task that many experienced coaches will tell you is a lot harder than getting to the top of the mountain in the first place.
Breakout Player: Pretty easy choice here is rookie running back LaMichael James who was drafted in the second round this year out of Oregon where he was teammate to troubled Tampa Bay runner LaGarrette Blount. James is one of these little guys who plays like a much bigger man – think players like Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew etc. James is known for being extremely quick and agile while having superb hands when required to make a catch and in fact I expect him to excel in a complementary role similar to that of Darren Sproles except that James is also reasonably good at running between the tackles despite being only 5’8” and weighing a meagre 194 – his good decision making skills are what helps him here. LaMichael James is a back who could eventually become a featured or semi-featured back in the way that more fancied backs such as Rice and Jones-Drew have and I fully expect that by the end of the 2012 season you’ll have heard plenty from this very talented young running back.
2012 Prediction: There is no reason to doubt the San Francisco 49ers can repeat their form of 2011 and march right back to the postseason. I’m gonna call the same record as last year – 13-3 and once again a threat to go to the Super Bowl.
Overview: Right now the stability at all positions, the depth the team has all over the park and the immense youth to go along with this and strong coaching tells me this is a team that’s gonna stick around the NFL postseason for years to come. This is going to rely a lot on Alex Smith not regressing from his 2011 performance but I’ve got confidence there’s a few years of Alex Smith goodness to come – although this won’t stop Jim Harbaugh looking around for his next quarterback project of course. A strong team with a productive if underwhelming offense and a dominant overbearing defense – a perfect recipe for a top contender.