NFC West Check-In: San Francisco 49ers

Patrick Willis: Not Always Scary-Looking.

So I've updated you on the Rams and Cardinals but few of you really seemed to care, immediately jumping to "Can we talk about the 49ers?" It seems that every teams fanbase in the division believes that they are at war with the Niners and hates the Niners while they're pretty ambivalent about the other two teams that aren't the Niners and I'd say most of us agree.

It's been so long since the Rams were relevant, and then after the Rams it was the Hawks, and then briefly the Cardinals, and now the 49ers are atop the division for the first time in a decade. Of course, I believe much of this hate comes from the fact that between Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Steve Young, the 49ers had one of the greatest dynasties of all time. They were super successful, and so naturally, we kind of hate them. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to dislike the 49ers and their current incarnation, but it all begins with the fact that like the Cowboys, the Yankees, or the Lakers, we hate them because they've had so much and we've had so little. It just doesn't seem fair.

Of course, much of that is perspective. San Francisco hadn't made the playoffs since 2002 and they haven't had Steve Young since 1998, and they were mostly mediocre until last season, but when they do get these runs of success we immediately think, "NO! NOT YOU! ANYONE BUT YOU!" because I know that personally I was like "Oh neat, Cardinals" when they went to the Super Bowl and I would have felt nothing if they had won. In fact, I wish they had beaten those rotten Steelers.

But under Jim Harbaugh there is hope again. They've got some great players like Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis and they're coming off of a season in which they lost three games by a combined fifteen points and an OT loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship game. Even with regression, the 49ers should be good again and the favorite to win the West by most people. What have they done since that OT loss? Let's check in.

2011 Record: 13-3

Standard League Offensive Rankings: 11th scoring offense, 26th total offense, 29th passing offense, 24th passing touchdowns, 1st interceptions thrown, 20th yards per attempt, 8th rushing offense, 12th rushing touchdowns, 19th yards per carry, 1st in turnovers and turnover differential.

Standard League Defensive Rankings: 2nd scoring defense, 4th total defense, 16th passing defense, 8th passing touchdowns, 2nd in interceptions, 9th in yards per attempt, 1st rushing defense, 1st rushing touchdowns allowed, 1st yards per carry allowed, 1st in turnovers forced.

Football Outsiders: 24th in Offensive DVOA, 15th in Weighted Offense, 12th in passing offense, 24th in rushing offense, 13th in Defensive DVOA, 6th in Weighted Defense, 8th in passing defense, 1st in rushing defense, 8th against #1 WR, 6th against #2 WR, 17th against other WR, 6th against TE, 20th against RB in the passing game.

2011 Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh enters his 2nd season with San Francisco, as does GM Trent Baalke. (Seriously, where have we been on the Balki jokes?) Greg Roman enters his 2nd season as Offensive Coordinator, and Vic Fangio his 2nd as the Defensive Coordinator.

Key Free Agent Signings: QB Josh Johnson, RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Mario Manningham, WR Randy Moss, CB Perrish Cox, RB Rock Cartwright.

Losses: G Adam Snyder, WR Josh Morgan, LB Blake Costanzo, S Reggie Smith.

Key Draft Picks: WR A.J. Jenkins, RB LaMichael James, G Joe Looney

Outlook:

Is it genius to use the logic that "Alex Smith is never going to be an elite passer so the best thing we can do is utilize his strengths when we can and just never ask him to pass the ball"? The 49ers were 2nd-to-last in the NFL in pass attempts in 2011 and wound up throwing only five interceptions in the limited amount of time and low-pressure situations that Smith was asked to work with.

I'm not saying that Smith isn't capable, his 7.1 yards per attempt isn't bad, but this is probably (not definitely, but probably) the absolute best of Alex Smith. There's a reason that the 49ers were going hard for Peyton Manning a year after Smith and the 49ers came within a fumble, potentially, of going to the Super Bowl. Frankly, as the Ravens and Buccaneers have shown, you can't consistently win with a sub-par QB. That's why Smith isn't only backed up by 2nd round draft pick Colin Kaepernick but they also added intriguing free agent Josh Johnson.

At 6'5", 230, and a high-level of agility and ability to be a dual-threat QB, I would think that Kaepernick is the player you fear and not Smith, even if he was credited with six fourth-quarter comebacks last season and looked exceptional at the end of the Saints playoff game in their 36-32 victory. Even knowing all of that, the 49ers were looking for a QB and when they realized that they were going with Smith again, they decided to get all of the running backs and all of the wide receivers.

A backfield of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter will now also feature LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs, and sometimes Rock Cartwright? At 29, it's understandable that the team is ready to ease Gore's workload but it will be interesting to see how this hierarchy plays out.

Michael Crabtree had somewhat of a breakout in 2011: 72 catches for 874 yards, but he simply does not look like a number one wide receiver and he had virtually no help. The WR on the team with the second-most amount of yards was a tie between Ted Ginn, Jr and Josh Morgan with 220 yards each. For that reason, Morgan is gone and Manningham and Moss will be the new "M" receivers in town. Moss did not play in 2011 and was terrible in 2010, so what's left in the tank? He looked like a dead duck in Oakland once upon a time, but he's 35 this upon a time, although he's usually motivated by certain coaches and a chance to win. I don't expect much but the 49ers could use just about anything he has to give.

Meanwhile, I think Manningham is a very exceptional number two receiver but not the game-changer needed opposite Crabtree. Will that be Jenkins? It sounds to me like so far the rookie hasn't adjusted quickly to begin and may need time to grow into the offense. At only 6' tall, he's also not the size of a prototypical number one. Also, here's what Harbaugh had to say about Jenkins and the other rookie receivers:

"Bad news is that we've got to get them in shape. Don't know exactly what all these guys were doing for the last six months."

Not a good first impression.

The good news of course is Vernon Davis. As one of the best tight ends and most freakish of athletes in the NFL, he gives the 49ers an edge on the inside that few teams have and his presence will only help the group of wide receivers and Smith.

On the line, the only change is the loss of Snyder to the Cardinals and they will have a competition there between 3rd round pick Joe Looney, Daniel Kilgore and others.

You could say that the 49ers offense is going to get better because of all the skill players that they added but the key is Smith and whether or not he can handle throwing 550 passes next season effectively. Is he really going to throw at an interception rate of 1.1% again? Especially now that he'll be asked to throw more with Manningham, Moss, and Jenkins in the mix? On paper, they've got a good group of players around the QB, but the key is how good that QB is with that group and if he fails, he's got two guys ready and willing to take his job.

Defensively, there wasn't a better team in the NFL against the run and in addition to that, rookie Aldon Smith recorded 14 sacks. Of course, we've all discussed the difference in value between Smith and a player like Von Miller, but Smith has time to grow and get better and it's possible that he turns into Terrell Suggs. Or maybe this is the best of Smith. (Seriously, this team also has all of the Smith's!)

Here's a scary thought: Patrick Willis is 27 years old. He's been to five Pro Bowls in five years. He also missed three games last season, so there's that. But there's every reason to believe that Willis is the best defensive player in the NFL at times. And he's got a lot of career left.

Navarro Bowman recorded 113 solo tackles in his second season and was a First Team All-Pro. Yeah, he's 24... :( Teamed with Ahmad Brooks and Smith, this is a scary-good group of linebackers.

Carlos Rogers had six interceptions and 19 pass deflections, going to his first Pro Bowl at the age of 30, reaching potential he never showed in Washington. If he doesn't go revert back to his injured, inconsistent ways as he was in Washington, they've got a true #1 corner. Opposite him is Tarell Brown, who recorded 16 pass deflections and four interceptions in his first season as starter, and former Bronco Perrish Cox, who can be good when he stays out of trouble.

Believe it or not, safety Donte Whitner is only 27 and just had perhaps his best season as a pro after spending five years in Buffalo.

Of course, one can't ignore 2011 All-Pro Justin Smith, coming off of an elite season at defensive end, but is now 33. That doesn't mean he's done, far from it, but how much better can Smith (see what I mean?) get? Lining up next to him, Isaac Sopoaga enters his eighth season at NT.

The bad news is that the 49ers have a lot of good-to-great-to-elite players on defense and many of them are young. But on the bright side, you have to expect that after having career years from guys like Whitner and Rogers, how much longer can we expect that to continue? Did they not just reach the top of the mountain? I always expect Willis to be elite, but I would like to see some of these other guys follow it up and I won't automatically buy into the fact that Rogers is now a shutdown, elite corner. Not yet. But I could be wrong.

And at some point, you're going to get unlucky with injuries.

On special teams, Andy Lee is annoyingly amazing at punting.

2012 Schedule:

@ Green Bay Packers

Detroit Lions

@ Minnesota Vikings

@ New York Jets

Buffalo Bills

New York Giants

Seattle Seahawks

@ Arizona Cardinals

Bye

St. Louis Rams

Chicago Bears

@ New Orleans Saints

@ St. Louis Rams

Miami Dolphins

@ New England Patriots

@ Seattle Seahawks

Arizona Cardinals

Conclusion:

It's a semi-brutal conclusion of the season for the 49ers, playing four out of their last six games on the road, even though they seemed to thrive their at times last season, having won in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington to start the year.

But can't ignore that going to New Orleans, New England, and Seattle, could put a damper on their hopes for a bye week in the playoffs, or yes, a division title. I know that a lot of people (not people here, mind you) are going to auto-check San Francisco as winners of the division, but you travel to those destinations plus Green Bay and the New York Jets, then you better take care of business at home. In comparison to the Seahawks end-of-season schedule (@ Miami, @ Chicago, Arizona, @ Buffalo, SF, St. Louis) I really like it.

We play softer road games to the end the year and three of our last four (all in the division) at home. A far softer landing than what the 49ers will have to face.

The key to their year won't necessarily just be Alex Smith (though he needs to improve if he wants to keep his job or prove he's still got a chance to lose his "Bust" label) but on how the defense responds to having a great season. Turnover differential isn't sustainable and they are likely to recover less fumbles and to turn it over at a higher rate. NFL wins/losses are on a teeter-totter, so how will you prepare for what the teeter starts to totter? Dynasties (as the 49ers are well-aware) are typically built on elite quarterbacks.

So is Smith going to step his game up, will the players around him lift him up, will Kaepernick take his job, or are the 49ers looking at a regression to a 9-7 season?

I'd say that with this many good players on defense, the win range is somewhere from eight on the low and twelve on the high. I know that a lot of Seahawks fans don't want to hear that, and I know that even 49ers fans don't want to hear that, but Willis, Justin Smith, Bowman, Vernon, Gore, and an improved WR corps lead me to believe that they'll be good again in 2012.

Just not as good.

Follow me on Twitter ya filthy animal.

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