With a 13-3 season in the rear view mirror, and a heartbreaking overtime loss in the NFC championship perhaps fading ever so slightly, it’s time to look forward to the 2012 season.
What, reasonably, can we expect from the 2012 San Francisco 49ers?
First off, this needs to be said: not every bit of information is important this time of year. What Vernon Davis ate for breakfast definitely doesn’t matter, but even how Randy Moss looked catching passes isn’t particularly crucial at this point. It’s the end of June, and the season doesn’t start for several months. If preseason games aren’t important, then June practices really aren’t important.
That’s why what I’m about to say is not in the slightest about rookie mini-camps, Frank Gore’s workout habits, or anything like that. My prognostication is based on observations—of last year’s team, of Harbaugh’s track record, etc.—the sort of things you can take to the bank. Let’s begin.
The 49ers exceeded all expectations last season by being the No. 2 seed in the NFC, beating the high-powered Saints in a shootout, and coming so close to a berth in the Super Bowl, all after a lockout-shortened offseason. Jim Harbaugh’s cachet at the moment is that of a miracle worker—a genius. The fanbase’s belief in Harbaugh couldn’t be higher.
The fear when someone has such a strong debut is that their next effort won’t be able to match it. Like when, after wowing the hip-hop world with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Wu-Tang Clan followed that up with the stunningly disappointing Wu-Tang Forever. Or any number of movie sequels that failed to live up to their predecessors: Ghostbusters II, The Matrix Reloaded, The Sandlot 2. This is called the sophomore slump, and every impressive newcomer faces this danger.
I don’t really get the sense that anybody fears that with the Niners. What Harbaugh did without an offseason and with a QB nobody believed in wiped away all those fears, instantly. A reportedly ‘dumbed-down’ defense allowed 14.3 points per game, posted a +28 turnover differential, and didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until week 14. Alex Smith threw for over 3000 yards, and had only five interceptions. I’ll repeat that: Alex Smith had only FIVE interceptions.
And really, to this point, nothing Harbaugh has ever done as a coach should lead us to believe there will be a regression. Every team he has ever coached has improved its record from one year to the next, except one (the 2006 USD Toreros matched their 11-1 mark from the previous year). In his first year at Stanford, he defeated 41-point favorite USC while starting Tavita Pritchard (of whom most Stanford fans have barely heard); a few years later, the Cardinal went 12-1 and pasted Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
While Harbaugh was at Stanford, I was a student at UCLA. I watched a lot of Pac-10 (now Pac-12) football, even though the Bruins had… a rough few years. Despite all the top level coaches in the conference—Pete Carroll, Chip Kelly, Mike Riley, Jeff Tedford—the guy who scared the socks off opposing fans was Harbaugh. On top of being a good coach, he was relentless, merciless, pitiless. They guy was better, and he wanted to pound your team into oblivion. And he could do it. By his fourth and final year at Stanford, there was no confusion about what his team would do. They were just too good at it to be stopped. When I went to the Rose Bowl to watch third-year coach Rick Neuheisel, a supposed “quarterback guru” himself, take on Stanford, I knew what was coming. The Cardinal lambasted the Bruins, 35-0, on the Bruins home field. That’s just what they did. It wasn’t just defeat, it was humiliation.
Judging from how things went at the college level, why shouldn’t we expect things to improve from year to year at the NFL level? Sure, the talent is better, the schemes more complex, etc. But that didn’t prove too much an issue in his first year, and it’s hardly as if coaches at this level are miles ahead of those at the college level. Far from it, or we wouldn’t see multiple college coaches hired each year to replace fired NFL coaches. And here, Harbaugh isn’t hampered by his ability to recruit to Stanford (where the academic restrictions are notoriously difficult); the talent pool is (theoretically) even across all teams.
The general idea seems to be that the 49ers will be a better team in 2012, but have fewer wins. Going 13-3 is hard, and doing it multiple times in a row is nigh impossible, particularly in the face of the 49ers tough schedule and a seemingly improving division.
I simply don’t agree with that prediction. Considering how the 49ers won games last year (close games, tough defense, smart football), if they are better this year, how could they have less to show for it? The talent is stronger, the players more acclimated to each other, the schemes more complex. Some say the turnover differential is unrepeatable, but it’s not as if they were particularly lucky on fumbles. Good defenses force turnovers. If the offense improves even a little bit, that means more touchdowns, fewer field goals. That means more first downs, which means less time on the field for the defense. Sure, they were lucky on the injury front, which is always sort of a crapshoot; the 49ers, however, have made it a priority to pick durable players.
Bet your firstborn on this: the 49ers WILL be better. I say this team, unless some things break absolutely horribly, will at least match it’s win total from 2011. And we shouldn’t expect anything different, because that’s the precedent Harbaugh has set.