With all the excitement that Candlestick Park saw last season, it’s hard not to think of the contrast between the ending of their two playoff games. First the frenzied, raucous crowd who witnessed “The Catch III” as the Niners beat New Orleans in the final seconds. Then, the fans that quietly filed out after Lawrence Tynes overtime field goal sent the Giants on to Super Bowl XLVI. It was a season where the ending was so abrupt, you could feel everyone in the stadium felt the 49ers let a golden opportunity slip away. Then have to watch with abject horror the Giants throttle the Patriots, and San Francisco had an even better defense… Yes, they let a possible sixth Super Bowl trophy vanish like a mirage in the desert. So will they come back baring emotional scars from the NFC Championship meltdown, or will they gain psychological momentum from a triumphant season culminating with the win over the Saints??
Quarterback: Back in 2009, the Packer insider had an article comparing the paths that Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith had taken since they hailed from the NFL ’05 draft. http://packersinsider.com/2009/11/class-of-2005-alex-smith-vs-aaron-rodgers/ Of course it was written because Rodgers, having the better path of the two, was going to face Smith in a regular season game. That was nearly our match up in last year’s NFC Championship. Yet unlike Rodgers, who laid an egg in an upset playoff loss to the Giants, we saw Smith come of age in his first playoff game. Sure Smith still has his detractors, however they were nowhere to be found in the midst of the noisy celebration in the comeback win.
Last year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh “Trent Dilfer-ized” the offense. By asking Smith to acquiesce throwing high risk passes downfield, the offense played to it’s strengths. The running game and the defense carried this team through the early part of the season yet he started to mature into his role and started to take shots downfield with TE Vernon Davis. The Chancellor believes Smith has turned a corner. First off he comes into the 2012 season having gone his last 8 games without an interception which includes two playoff games. You have to go back to the November 24th game with the Ravens when he last threw a pick. If you look at his 7 games going into the NFC Championship, he had gone 111 of 189 for 1,327 yards and 7 TDs. Even in the championship against the Giants he threw 12 completions in 26 attempts for 196 yards and 2 more TDs. He didn’t force the ball downfield into coverage and the 49ers have given him weapons this year. Has the emotional fallout completely healed from Niners brass courting Peyton Manning and letting Smith dangle in free agency?? We’ll have to wait for a rough patch during the season to see if it has… Until then, we have to give the quarterback position a playoff caliber grade.
Offensive Backfield: Now who can remember all the “I want to be traded” talk from Frank Gore (The [[_]]) as the team came back from the lockout?? Funny how winning cures all that negative talk in the locker room huh?? Not a peep out of Gore as the team stormed to a 9-1 start. Gore bludgeoned his way to 1,211 yards, 8TDs and had an average of 4.3 yards per carry. His 2011 yardage was second highest for his career, and was his fifth 1,000 yard rushing season in the last six seasons. He is the last of a dying breed…. The big running back that can control the game and the clock.
Kendall Hunter was a good change of pace running back that had a combined 668 yards from scrimmage, 473 of which rushing. Yet the 49ers drafted speedy LaMichael James out of Oregon. James brings an explosive element to an offense that desperately needs it. We know he’ll play on 3rd downs, passing situations and special teams at least. With his falling to them in the draft, we believe the odd man out will be free agent Brandon Jacobs. His lack of versatility will make him expendable as we reach September. With Hunter and James to take some of the load off, it should keep Gore fresh for the stretch run. Running back is above average or as we say around here, playoff quality.
Receivers: Here is the position that let the team down last year and could be the difference between the 49ers playing in Super Bowl XLVII, or watching it. TE Vernon Davis is one of the emotional leaders of this football team. Last year Davis had 67 receptions for 792 yards and 6 scores. He has been the target most teams try to take away first in the Niners passing game and he still manages to get the football. Davis should return to the Pro Bowl now that he will receive some help on the outside. With the signing of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and the drafting of A.J. Jenkins in the first round, the Michael Crabtree / Ted Ginn Jr experiment is over. Ginn should be cut this summer. These two can’t get open on a consistent basis and neither has been able to get deep. If Randy Moss can provide that element as he did for the 2007 Patriots, this could swing the offense wide open. Three receiver sets may become more prominent which could even open space for James coming out of the backfield. Moss as a veteran, could be a locker room presence since most of these players grew up watching his exploits. If he can still get deep, this is a playoff quality group yet will have to go through some growing pains to start the season and find everyone their role.
Offensive Line: Last year this line was good enough to rank a respectable 8th rushing the football and 10th in rushing first downs with 101. However protecting the passer they were 25th in allowing 44 sacks and ranked 24th in QB hits allowed with 82. Let’s face it, on some of those plays Smith held the ball too long, yet at times against top defenses this line couldn’t hold up. When rushing the football in obvious power situations, they converted 44% to the strong side and 67% up the gut. Those need to improve on the strong side for a heavy rushing team. They spent two draft picks in G Joe Looney of Wake Forest and they took C Jason Slowey from Western Oregon with the 199th selection. Looney should be able to contribute immediately. Slowey could push journeyman center Jonathon Goodwin who is entering his 10th season. This line will be asked to protect better or they may be relegated to another “Trent Dilfer-ized” season as an offense. They want a vertical passing game with Moss and Manningham which calls for 5 and 7 step drops. They have to get better. Until we see them improve in the pre-season we have to give them a below average grade.
Defensive Line: Aside from Patrick Willis on the defense, has there been a steadier performer than Justin Smith?? He’s a complete motor guy who gets by on hard work who plays the run as well as the pass. He just came off his 3rd straight Pro Bowl berth with his best season. With 65 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles he paces a defensive line that was stout against the run. Pass rush specialist Aldon Smith teamed with Smith to form a formidable rush and he tallied 14 sacks. As a team they produced 42 sacks which was 7th best in football. Keep your eye on Ray McDonald #91. This could be his breakout year. He recorded 43 tackles along with 5.5 sacks, all produced from the lines interior. He was all over the place in the NFC Championship game sacking Eli Manning 2.5 times. He should be in Hawai’i in about 7 months. Mark it down.
The three man line even more so than a four man line is there to keep blockers off the linebackers. This unit didn’t allow a rushing touchdown for the first ten games of the season. Every team in NFL history that was able to do that made it to the conference championship game. Smith (Justin) is going into his 12th season and they may want to sub for him a little more to keep him fresh by seasons end. He did record sacks in each playoff game last year but there is a lot of mileage on his spedometer. Defensive line is Super Bowl quality by the Bay.
Linebackers: Did we say something about the defensive line keeping blockers off of the linebackers?? How about to the tune of 305 tackles by the top three guys… Navarro Bowman with 150, Patrick Willis with 105 although he missed a game, and Ahmad Brooks with 50. Yikes!! That is a lot of scraping into the hole and meeting runners before they can get started. How Bowman was named 1st team All Pro (along with Justin Smith & Patrick Willis) and NOT the Pro Bowl is beyond me. This group is active and instinctive and plays extremely fast. Willis forced 4 of the team’s 20 forced fumbles on the years. In addition, Bowman and Willis produced 2 sacks each during the regular season. This is a Super Bowl quality group who should actually get better given their relative youth.
Secondary: Retaining CB Carlos Rogers was essential in keeping this defense playing at a high level. Last year he went to the Pro Bowl with a 55 tackle, 6 interception season. He can man up against the fastest receivers and turn and run with them. He should make it to Hawai’i again. The quiet secret to this defense is the safety play of safeties Dashon Goldson and Dontae Whitner. At first glance SS Whitner’s 65 tackles don’t impress you until you realize how many were gobbled up by the linebackers. He did intercept two passes and was rarely out of position. Folks, like our CEO still wish he were in Buffalo. Goldson covers serious ground and did make the Pro Bowl thanks to a 69 tackle, 6 interception season. Whitner and Goldson are 26 & 27 respectively and should be stout for another 3 seasons. A veteran secondary that is Super Bowl quality as well.
Overall: This team is returning all of the starters from the 4th best defense in football. One that held opponents to 35% conversion rate on 3rd down (76 of 216) and should have another outstanding season. It’s imperative that they do since they start the 2012 campaign in Green Bay, then host the Lions on Sept 16th. They could be 0-2 to start the season. Hopefully they can keep the same hunger as they did last year. They were 6-2 on the road yet this year bring not only the aforementioned trip to Lambeau, add a trip to New England, and another against the revenge minded Saints. They also host the tough Chicago Bears and the Super Bowl champion Giants, so anticipate a tougher year. They should still win the west but their record will slip to to 11-5. They face some potent offenses from the AFC East which are better than the AFC North offenses of a year ago. In the Chancellor’s crystal ball, the 49ers should return to the NFC Championship Game barring injuries. Games one and two against the Packers & Lions could well decide which team will host it.
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