As time expired on the Super Bowl (which the Seahawks won, btw), Vegas was posting the odds for the winners of next year's big game. Seattle opened up as the favorites to at 5-1 odds. The 49ers are right behind them at 6-1. If you could bet on "NFC West Champions" winning the Super Bowl I don't think you'd get better than 3-1 odds. I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that the biggest challenge in repeating right now is going to be securing the NFC West championship, followed by knocking out the NFC West runner up.
But is it possible we've already seen the best of the 49ers?
A lot of commentators have suggested that the Seahawks and 49ers are both headed for salary cap trouble. I think it's a little overblown. You can read Davis Hsu's detailed breakdown (here, here, and here) if you want to dive into the details for the Hawks, but the bottom line is that well-managed teams generally don't lose big stars to free agency. People assuming a good team will fall apart due to salary cap problems are usually just wishcasting.
That said, there is a little bit of a salary cap transition coming up. From my point of view, you can have a few different cap situations:
- Cap nirvana: all of your guys are under contract and you can spend big money on free agents
- Cap limbo: you can sign your guys and have enough left over to sign below the radar free agents to fill any holes on your roster
- Cap hell: you have to let good players go because you can't afford to pay them
The Seahawks and the 49ers are both in the process of transitioning from cap nirvana to cap limbo. The days of casually splashing out big money for an Anquan Boldin or a Michael Bennett/Cliff Avril combo are probably over, but both teams should be able to keep their guys and sign solid vets to fill out their rosters. They're not going to go into cap hell unless they get crazy aggressive with next year's contracts, which I think is unlikely: both teams employ people who are smarter than me to manage the cap, and neither team is in a position of desperation that would lead them to do anything dumb.
Let's take a look at the last few years by DVOA:
First observation: Jim Harbaugh is good at his job. So is Pete Carroll.
Second observation: San Francisco looks a little like a team that has had its best performance and has now started to decline. You could argue they were hurt by Crabtree being out, but their weighted DVOA at the end of the season was only 21.4%--and you could also argue that their performance in 2012 was bolstered by phenomenal injury luck.
If you were to graph this out and do a trend analysis I don't think you would have the SEA and SF lines intersecting each other next year.
Most athletes peak from 26 to 28. The specifics vary a little bit with how cerebral the sport in question is--hitters in baseball tend to peak at 28, while running backs peak at 24 or 25--but generally speaking you will see a guy's best performance fall in that 26 to 28 year old window.
Let's take a look at the 49ers' pro bowlers. The number in parentheses is their age at the beginning of last season:
- Justin Smith (34)
- Ahmad Brooks (29)
- Patrick Willis (28)
- NaVorro Bowman (25)
- Mike Iupati (26)
- Joe Staley (29)
- Vernon Davis (29)
- Frank Gore (30)
Pro Bowl Alternates:
The good news is, that's a lot of pro bowlers. The bad news is, most of them are all entering (or firmly embedded in) the decline phase of their careers. In fact, looking at their ages suggests one reason for the 49ers' step backwards this year: a lot of their star players started aging out of their peak years.
The only pro bowler that should be expected to improve by getting older is Eric Reid. Go ahead and add Aldon Smith (24) to that list as well, although he could be derailed by his personal issues at some point. Alex Boone and Mike Iupati should be about the same next year, as should NaVorro Bowman (assuming a full recovery). But there are a lot of guys on that list who are getting worse with age.
How 'bout those Seahawks? Glad you asked:
- Richard Sherman (25)
- Kam Chancellor (25)
- Earl Thomas (24)
- Max Unger (27)
- Marshawn Lynch (27)
- Russell Wilson (24)
Four Pro Bowlers who are about to enter their peak athletic years, and two more who will still be in their peak next year. It's almost like Pete Carroll and John Schneider know what they're doing.
The Quarterback Position
So the 49ers probably can't afford to bring in a big name free agent to improve the team, and their core players are starting to get a little long in the tooth. Where's a big improvement going to come from? I think if you were to poll Niners fans on this you'd hear a lot of them expressing the idea that this is going to be the year where Kaepernick "gets it" and turns into Steve Young.
The problem with that is that most quarterbacks are who they are by the end of their sophomore year. Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan: if you take their first couple of years and draw a line on a chart at their QB Rating, they have spent most of their careers pretty close to that line. It's very rare for a guy to make a huge sustained leap in ability after two years in the league--Brees and Brady are the only examples that come readily to mind. Kaepernick has now been a pro for three years, and a full time starter for two.
Colin Kaepernick is a good quarterback. But he's probably going to continue to be about as good as he has been for the last couple of years. It's unlikely that he's going to experience a sudden massive increase in his performance in the upcoming year. The same holds true for Russell Wilson (although he might get a bump from a full year of Harvin), which is fine by me.
The 49ers have had a nice three year run under Jim Harbaugh. They will continue to be a good team. However, it's less likely than you might have thought that they are going to see a big improvement next year. A lot of what was driving their run was a core group of talent that entered the peak years of their career at the same time. Now that core group is starting to age out of their peak years and it's going to start weighing down the 49ers' performance.
As far as I can tell, they don't have any young stars waiting in the wings to take the place of the core group. I could be wrong, I'm not the closest follower of the 49ers in the world, but I think if they had a guy (besides NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith) who projects to be as good as Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, or Ahmad Brooks, then I would have heard of him. If they don't hit it big in this upcoming draft or with any of their redshirted guys, it's hard to see where any big improvement is going to come from that will let them dethrone the Seahawks.
The Seahawks will face these same problems in a few years when their defensive core starts getting on the wrong side of 28. But for now, the 2014 Seahawks actually are in line to be like the 2011 49ers--a talented team where a bunch of guys are just entering their prime. It's kind of crazy that they already have a championship to go with their potential.