Jim Harbaugh's first season at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers was a masterpiece of coaching. Harbaugh inherited a once-proud team fallen on hard times, surrounded by innumerable question marks and by most assessments an afterthought in a division made up entirely of afterthoughts.
The 49ers last saw the postseason in 2002, the last time the team owned a winning record. With Harbaugh's steady hand on the wheel and his unshakable belief in success setting the tone, the 49ers finished the regular season with a 13-3 record, tied for the second-best mark in the NFL. Their season ended, improbably, on a rainy January afternoon in San Francisco when the New York Giants turned an overtime fumble into a game-winning field goal.
The bar is raised. After years of searching for a follow up to La Dolce Vita, Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini made 8 1/2 in 1963, a dreamy tale of a man trying to create in the face of lofty public expectations. Jim Harbaugh enters the 2012 season loaded with similar presumptions of a dynasty restored with an improved roster, a fiery disposition and a better understanding about the finer points of a handshake.
This season's 49ers team will have a different look. Last year's team was one built around a fearsome defense and an offense leaning on the run. San Francisco's offseason moves foretell of a team that wants to score as many points as it prevents, and they added receivers Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and 1st-round pick A.J. Jenkins in order to score those points through the air. Fellini pivoted from neo-realism to fantasy with 8 1/2; Harbaugh intends a similar thematic transformation for his follow up performance.
The 49ers were this close to a Super Bowl, making it to the NFC Championship game. Had they had a more dynamic offense, specifically a receiving threat besides Vernon Davis, they might have made it all the way. As it stands, San Francisco's 2012 season was fantastic.
San Francisco's most notable flaw was its offensive line. That's especially a problem for a team that leans on the run and relies on defenses biting on their run formations. Their right side, consisting of Anthony Davis and Adam Snyder, struggled in run blocking and allowed way too much pressure to get to Alex Smith.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Signing Mario Manningham addressed the need for a receiver who can stretch defenses, something they lost with Josh Morgan. Randy Moss could help too, if he has anything left to give on the field.
The 49ers' best move in free agency was re-signing Alex Smith. Once it was clear that Peyton Manning was not in the cards, Smith was Harbaugh's best option. I get that Smith is never going to be considered among the game's elite signal callers. But he doesn't have to be. Smith played well last season and the consistency could benefit him further this year.
2012 NFL Draft
San Francisco surprised everyone in the room with its pick in the 1st round. Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins runs routes well and is quick. He could prove to be a real asset in the West Coast Offense based on his abilities. He might not have to deal with press coverage much either in the 49ers run-heavy offense.
The LaMichael James pick in the 2nd round was questionable. Yes, Frank Gore is not getting any younger, but they have a very talented running back in waiting with Kendall Hunter.
Of all the picks in their draft class, the 49ers really need guard Josh Looney to step in right away and plug the hold at right guard.
From Niners Nation:
The 49ers came up just short of the Super Bowl last season, but they have made the necessary moves to better match their NFC rivals. The 49ers biggest strength was their defense and the team signed all of their important defensive free agents. The rest of the NFC West has improved as they all made moves that should boost their respective passing attacks. However, the 49ers return their defense, while adding potential pass rush threats in the draft in Cam Johnson and Darius Fleming.
Arguably the 49ers biggest rival at this point would be the New York Giants. The 49ers edged out the Giants during the 2011 regular season and then lost in overtime in the NFC Championship Game. They will meet again this season and the 49ers added enough offense to get over the hump against a tough Giants defense.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
It would be a big upset if San Francisco did not go to the playoffs given the talent on the roster and the rest of the division in various states of rebuild. The 49ers depth could be tested this season, as they had fairly good luck with injuries last year.
If the new receivers pan out and Alex Smith at least maintains his 2011 status quo, the 49ers could once again go deep into the postseason.