Just a few short years ago, the San Francisco 49ers were among the worst teams in the NFL. The franchise that threw all their eggs in the Mike Singletary basket at one point. For young executive Jed York, that confidence in Singletary was a big swing and miss.
But he had another go at the plate, and the hiring of Jim Harbaugh can only be considered a home run at this point, even in the absence of a Super Bowl victory. Harbaugh took the 49ers to the NFC Championship in his first year as head coach, and took them to the Super Bowl last season.
Unfortunately, they fell short of winning that Super Bowl, despite having what many would consider the best roster in the NFL. They fell behind early in the game against the Baltimore Ravens and, unlike their previous playoff outings, the 49ers were unable to recover in time.
That said, there's plenty to look forward to for 49ers fans. They have a young, exciting quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, who took over for Alex Smith last season. They have one of the strongest rookie classes in the league, and they managed to keep most of the team together in free agency.
Of course, it's not all positive — they did lose Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson in free agency. In addition, wide receiver Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in OTAs, and that's a huge reg flag going forward. Let's break down some steps for success, catalysts for failure and see what will make a successful season for the 49ers.
3 Steps To Success
1. Replace the production of Michael Crabtree
Michael Crabtree was the 49ers' top target last year, snaring 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season. After Kaepernick took over, he targeted Crabtree on nearly 40 percent of his routes.
Tight end Vernon Davis was the team's second-leading receiver last season, with 548 yards and five touchdowns.
On top of Crabtree's injury, both Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are also recovering from injuries, and second-year receiver A.J. Jenkins hardly saw the field in his rookie season after being a first-round pick in 2012. Behind him are two other inexperienced players in rookie Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette. None of those names inspire a whole lot of confidence.
The team did bring in Anquan Boldin this offseason, but Boldin was expected to have Crabtree drawing off some of the coverage. Now, he'll be the unquestioned No. 1 receiver on the team outside of Davis, and how well he'll do in that situation is up for debate. The 49ers need one of their young receivers to step up big time.
2. Maintain an above-average secondary despite aging corners and Dashon Goldson's departure
Cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner experienced nice career resurgences when they came to San Francisco, but both slowed down considerably last season. Now, Goldson, one of the premier safeties in the league, has departed in free agency, and the 49ers have to replace his production.
There are those who believe Goldson was a bit overrated, though, and the 49ers drafted Eric Reid in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Reid is the favorite to come in and start at the free safety position. If he can be even remotely stable, the 49ers should be in good shape. If they can get free-agent addition Nnamdi Asomugha back to form, they could be much better than expected.
3. Get back to strong special teams play
The 49ers regressed on special teams last season, with kicker David Akers being incredibly unreliable down the stretch and the team's return game looking generally uninspired. Winning the field-position battle has been one of the catalysts for San Francisco's success — and with Andy Lee and Phil Dawson handling kicking duties and a large group of young, athletic receivers and running backs, there is no excuse for lacking special teams play.
3 Feats Toward Failure
1. Getting too cute with the playbook
Jim Harbaugh is an offensive mastermind. As Bill Barnwell wrote, "It's not even that he's the new Bill Belichick. He's the first Jim Harbaugh." The quote could not be more true -- he's doing things nobody else does. Unfortunately, we've seen many plays backfire on Harbaugh, from ill-conceived reverse plays to designed quarterback runs that did nothing more than put Kaepernick in danger. Harbaugh can win without getting "too cute," and he absolutely needs to.
2. Not getting the tight ends involved in the passing game
Vernon Davis had a down year last year, but that wasn't necessarily because he wasn't playing well. The 49ers used him in a lot of different ways, possibly to the detriment of him actually, you know, catching footballs. At the end of the day, the 49ers need to just take Davis, send him up the seam or use him on play action and throw the ball to him. He's shown in the past he runs those routes and wins those battles. With Crabtree's injury, the 49ers can't afford to underutilize Davis in the passing game.
3. Faltering within the division
The 49ers will have plenty of competition within the NFC West next season. The St. Louis Rams are on the up-and-up, Carson Palmer might be able to do something in Arizona and the Seattle Seahawks are arguably one of the top three teams in the NFL. The worst thing they can do is lose to the Seahawks at home and tie with the Rams again. That was just silly, 49ers. Stop that.
When it comes to what would constitute a successful season for the 49ers, the answer is obvious: winning a Super Bowl. They got to the NFC Championship in 2011, then went one step further to the Super Bowl last season. The next step in the progression is to win the sixth title in franchise history.
Of course, if you step away from the "win it all or bust" attitude, there's the long-term success of the team to think about. Justin Smith is getting up there in years, there are aging players in the secondary and Frank Gore needs a successor.
These are all areas the 49ers can address next season. If they can get rookies like Vance McDonald, Tank Carradine and possibly even Marcus Lattimore involved, then that's a definite positive step forward for the future. Another receiver establishing himself in the absence of Crabtree, Reid having a great season at safety and continued progression for Kaepernick are all things the 49ers need to see going forward.