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In less than two years, Jim Harbaugh has taken the 49ers further than most people could have imagined. Can he take them even deeper into the playoffs?
There was a time when the San Francisco 49ers weren't so great, but by now, "anything but great" isn't going to get it done. That'll happen when you win five Super Bowls in fifteen years. It's also why the door will hit you on the ass really quick if you can't live up to 49ers' expectations. Good news for Jim Harbaugh: Not even Bill Walsh turned the team around this quickly.
Bad news for Harbuagh? Steve Mariucci went 25-7 in his first two seasons, half-a-game better than Harbaugh. One quick way to give yourself a few years of comfort in the Bay Area is to win another ring. He might be three wins away from doing just that.
Harbaugh took over a team that hadn't been over .500 in eight straight seasons and quickly transformed the 49ers (with many of the same personnel) from a 6-10 team to a 13-3 team that was going into the playoffs with a bye in 2011. I mean seriously, Alex Smith was still the quarterback you guys. San Francisco was muffed out in the NFC Championship game by the Giants in overtime, but they finally had something that they didn't have in a very long time:
There were still many people that doubted whether or not the 2011 49ers were a team that could sustain success, finishing first in turnovers forced and first in giveaways on offense, while David Akers nailed 44 field goals, including 7-of-9 past 50 yards. San Francisco dropped to 14th in turnovers forced, Akers was much worse, and they still won the NFC West at 11-4-1. I have the feeling that Harbaugh won't be going away any time soon.
There are many reasons to think that the 49ers might be even better in 2012 than they were in Harbaugh's first season and why they could be holding on to another Lombardi Trophy in a few weeks. They're just going to need to give the football a little TLC. Here's how:
Why the 49ers Win the Super Bowl
Colin Kaepernick promises not to chase waterfalls
I think it would be a fair bet that a quarterback has never been benched and also finished the same year ranked third in the NFL in QB Rating, but that's the story of Alex Smith. I guess you could say that "not wanted" has been the story for Smith ever since he was labeled a bust in San Francisco. It didn't matter if he was once the top overall pick, or that he threw only five interceptions in 2011, or that he nearly quarterbacked the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Smith couldn't draw interest in free agency and then when he returned to San Francisco, couldn't hold his job once the door was opened for Kaepernick.
Ever since Kaep was hand-picked by Harbaugh in the 2011 draft, the end of Smith's run in the Bay was written in the sand. Once Kaepernick proved to be something that Smith wasn't, the sand turned to cement. What was it that Kaep was and Smith wasn't?
Exciting. So, so, so much more exciting.
The 49ers scored 27 or more points in five of Kaepernick's seven starts and won all five of those games. Of course, the other side of that is when Kaep's offense doesn't work; the 49ers were 0-2 when they failed to score 27 points, falling to the Seahawks and Rams and scoring just 13 points in each of those games.
If Kaepernick (62.4 percent, 10 TD, 4 INT, 8.32 yards per attempt, 415 yards rushing and 5 rushing touchdowns) is able to do what he wants in the pistol offense, San Francisco is going to be very hard to be with their defense. If he is contained, like he was by the Rams and Seahawks, they'll find it hard to win and it might not matter how good their defense is.
How good is that defense?
49ers defense don't want no scrubs
Before Harbaugh took over the team in 2011, the 49ers were improving on defense, but still had a ways to go. San Francisco was 13th in total defense, 15th in scoring defense, and 15th in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, ranking especially bad against the pass.
With Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, they jumped up to third in DVOA and sixth against the pass in 2011. Many wondered if they would take a step backwards by this season, but they somehow managed to get even better, finishing second in Defensive DVOA this year. It's incredibly difficult to run against San Francisco. It's incredibly difficult to pass on San Francisco. You might as well put in a swimming offense, sign Michael Phelps, and see if that works instead.
The 49ers Division matchup against the Packers isn't a bad proposition either since San Francisco beat Green Bay 30-22 in Week 1. These teams are obviously a bit different by now, but it seems doubtful that DuJuan Harris will be able to do much better than what Cedric Benson (nine rushes for 18 yards) did in that game. Aaron Rodgers and the receivers will be forced to score points on the second-ranked scoring defense.
As well the Falcons or Seahawks, should San Francisco advance. Will they be able to? Not many teams have found that very easy to do.
Michael Crabtree is finally crazysexycool
It's hard to really blame Crabtree entirely for his slow start in the NFL. The 49ers' offense wasn't very good until Harbaugh and Greg Roman showed up, and then in 2011 it was still a very contained passing game that didn't trust Smith to make the big throws. Kaepernick is more entrusted to do that, and Kaep entrusts the hell out of Michael Crabtree.
With 538 yards over his last five games, Crabtree is starting to look as productive as he was at Texas Tech, which is pretty ridiculous because Crabtree was historically-productive at Tech.
It's starting to show that Crabtree could have the tools to be a highly-productive and difficult-to-contain receiver that could be the missing link of an offense that not too long ago had a lot of missing links in the passing game. With Kaepernick, Crabtree, and Frank Gore, the defense could have the companion it needs to go all the way. But will they?
There are some concerns.
Why the 49ers Won't Win the Super Bowl
Is Kaepernick going to creep?
We spoke about Colin's ceiling, but what about that floor? Because how well the 49ers do is really dependent on how Kaepernick does and he's certainly capable of having a bad game, especially against some of the good defenses he's going to face in the playoffs.
Kaepernick performed well against the Bears and Cardinals in the regular season, both of which are top passing defenses, but also struggled against the Rams and Seahawks in his two losses. Green Bay is the No. 7 passing defense by DVOA and they could also find themselves in a re-match against Seattle (No. 3 pass defense) and then the Broncos (No. 5 pass defense) in the Super Bowl.
Can Colin Kaepernick, a second-year pro with seven starts under his belt, handle the pressure of beating the Packers, the Falcons/Seahawks, and then the Broncos/Patriots all in a row? It would be so impressive that I'd have to burn down Andre Rison's house just to cope.
Justin Smith ain't 2 proud 2 sit?
Justin Smith aka "Cowboy" is the anchor of the defensive line and an integral part of what makes the 49ers so good on defense. San Francisco shut down the Patriots in the first half of their Week 15 matchup, and then gave up 31 points in the second half when Smith went out with an elbow injury. They then gave up 42 points to the Seahawks the next week.
It looks as though Smith will play against the Packers, but will he be at full strength? Smith had played in all but one game of his 12-year career up until missing Sunday night against Seattle, will he push himself to come back too quickly because that's just the kind of player that he is?
I believe that as tough as the NFC is, the 49ers will need a healthy Justin Smith to push past Green Bay and then either Seattle or Atlanta. But will they have a healthy Smith?
Can Frank Gore be a red light special?
For the better part of this century, Frank Gore is the San Francisco 49ers. He's been the biggest constant during years of losing and now back-to-back playoff runs for San Francisco. However, he hasn't been nearly as effective once Kaepernick took over as starter and one must wonder if Gore isn't a fan of the new schemes played with Kaep under center.
With Smith: Gore averages 5.4 yards per carry
With Kaepernick: Gore averages 3.9 yards per carry
Gore hasn't rushed for 100 yards since Week 7 against the Seahawks, when he gashed a good defense for 131 yards on 16 carries. He had 23 rushes for 58 yards against the Rams in a loss. He had 20 carries for only 68 yards against the Cardinals (16th best run defense by DVOA) in Week 17. With Charles Woodson back on the field, the Packers will have an easier time stopping Gore, so will they have an easier time stopping San Francisco from scoring?
To win a Super Bowl, I believe that the 49ers need Gore to be red light special, but can he do that with Kaep under center? Or will we just be listening to San Francisco's greatest hits from the '90s and realize we haven't had a hit from them in over 15 years?