A confession: I am a bit of a fairweather football fan. I don’t follow college football at all, for two reasons: First, I’m just generally a pro sports guy–if I’m going to watch a sport, I want to watch it played at its highest level; second, I went to a college that didn’t have a football team. I’m sure if I’d gone to Cal, or Michigan, or Notre Dame, I’d be a savage college football nut. But I didn’t, so I don’t care. By the way, you shouldn’t feel bad for me on account of this deprivation; after all, this was my college campus:
So I don’t care about college football, and when it comes to the NFL, well, it’s just a lot to ask to spend nine hours parked in front of a TV every Sunday for four straight months. I usually do a fantasy league, and I watch the playoffs and Super Bowl every year, but there’s one factor that determines my investment in any given football season: prospects of the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners by-and-large, have been a good team to hitch your wagon to over the years. For two solid decades, the 1980s and 1990s, they were unquestionably the league’s model franchise. They followed the greatest quarterback of all time, Joe Montana, with another Hall of Fame QB, Steve Young. They had the best football player who ever lived–and this is INARGUABLE–Jerry Rice. They won five Super Bowls. Hell, even after the end of the dynasty, they managed to be an entertaining team in the early aughts, thanks to Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens.
Then we entered the dark times. Ken Dorsey started at QB. Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary coached games. Alex Smith was drafted instead of Aaron Rodgers. So, basically, from the time I graduated college until two years ago, the Niners were garbage, and my interest waned.
Then came Harbaugh. Then came Kaepernick. The team, which had actually built a solid talent base during the Singletary era, took off, making the NFC Championship Game two years ago, a game they would have won if not for the two fumbles of which we do not speak, and the Super Bowl last year, a game they would have won if they had actually showed up for the first half, or if the refs had called an obvious pass interference penalty at the end of the team’s final drive.
Now the Niners are coming off two deep playoff runs, and are universally regarded as one of the two or three deepest and best teams in football. So, obviously, I’m pretty heavily invested in this upcoming season. Here’s my breakdown of the Niners heading into their Week One semi-annual Holy War with the Green Bay Packers.
The Coaches: Jim Harbaugh is generally regarded as one of the two or three best coaches in football, and both his offensive and defensive coordinators, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, are back with him. When this coaching staff replaced Singletary’s staff for the 2011 season, the team improved by seven wins, despite playing with almost exactly the same roster. That is not a coincidence.
The Quarterback: I covered Colin Kaepernick in-depth here. In brief: For the next ten years, there’s no one else I’d rather have as my starting QB, with the only possible exception being Andrew Luck.
The Lines: The skill position players get the glory, but where football games are truly won and lost is in the trenches. This is why the Niners win football games, because they have arguably the best O-line/D-line combo in the whole league. The offensive line features stalwart Joe Staley at left tackle, road-grader Anthony Davis at right tackle, and arguably the best guard in football, Mike Iupati. On the defense, side, there’s Aldon Smith (technically a 3-4 line-backer, but he rushes the passer so much he’s basically a defensive end), who only had more sacks in his first two seasons than any player ever, and Justin Smith, one of the most dominant linemen in the NFL (the best evidence of which is the way the Niners defense struggled after he got hurt last year). And in the offseason, the team picked up Glenn Dorsey, a former top-five draft pick, on the cheap, which should help their depth.
Linebackers: Yet another unit that’s collectively one of the two or three best in the NFL. There’s the aformentioned Aldon Smith; young pro-bowler NaVorro Bowman; the very solid Ahmad Brooks; and of course, Patrick Willis, the best linebacker in the league, the Ray Lewis of his generation, a player so awesome, he kills motherfuckers for Kenny Powers.
The Running Backs: Frank Gore, despite predictions of his demise, shows no sign of slowing down; Kendall Hunter, who is extremely underrated, is set to return from injury; and LaMichael James is an intriguing weapon the team began to utilize as the season went along (except it looks like he’ll miss the first few games with a knee injury). It’s a solid group.
Of course, it’s not all roses…
The Wide Receivers: The team acquired the solid Anquan Boldin as a salary dump from the Ravens to be their number two receiver … except now he’s the number one, because Michael Crabtree, who broke out after Kaepernick became the starting QB, tore his Achilles and is out for most, if not all of the season. It’s a devastating injury, because receiver is the one area the team had the least depth. Who’s going to play across from Boldin? Kyle Williams is coming back from a knee injury, and wasn’t all that great before he got hurt; first round bust A.J. Jenkins was traded for the Chiefs’ first round bust, Jonathan Baldwin, in the hopes Baldwin can turn around his own floundering career; and I haven’t even heard of most of the other receivers (though rookie Quinton Patton looked pretty good in the preseason). Can Boldin be the dominant player he was in last year’s playoffs, or is he the more pedestrian receiver of the last few regular seasons? Can Vernon Davis, who had a disappointing regular season, pick up the slack from tight end? Can Crabtree make it back? How else will the team adjust for its sudden lack of weapons at receiver? These questions all need answers.
The Secondary: It’s no secret that the team’s pass defense fell apart in the playoffs last year. They survived getting carved up by Matt Ryan in the NFC Championship Game, but then they went and made a Super Bowl MVP out of fucking Joe Flacco. And they’re even shakier this year: Carlos Rogers is solid, though perhaps not spectacular, on one corner; Donte Whitner is a big hitter and run defender, but has struggled at times in coverage at strong safety. After them, question marks: How much will they miss Chris Culliver, who tore his ACL in training camp? (I for one, won’t miss him it all: When you make anti-gay comments during Super Bowl week, and then spend the entire game getting torched by Ravens receivers, you’re not exactly giving me the warm-and-fuzzies.) Can Tarell Brown lock down the other corner spot? Can Nnamdi Asoumgha recover any amount of his previous glory after two horrific years in Philadelphia? And who plays free safety, vacated by Dashon Goldson, who took a big money contract with Tampa Bay: free agent signing Craig Dahl, or first round draft choice Eric Reid? Right now it looks like Reid, who looked pretty good in the little bit of preseason I watched, but even the best defensive back prospects usually struggle as rookies. Frankly, I’m terrified of this team’s pass defense. The Smiths are going to have to get to the other team’s QBs early and often.
The Special Teams: Andy Lee is one of the NFL’s best punters, and Phil Dawson has long been a solid kicker. But last year’s kick coverage teams were awful (remember Jacoby Jones streaking to the end zone at the beginning of the second half of the Super Bowl?) and haven’t looked good in the preseason. Can they get this fixed?
The Injury Bug: Luck with injuries is a big part of success in football, and every once in a while a team just gets crushed with injuries. This year, the Niners have already lost Crabtree and Culliver and seen Patrick Willis break his hand (and now there’s the LaMichael James knee injury). Is this the Niners getting their injury luck out of the way, or a sign of bad things to come? I hate to even mention this, but the Niners don’t have anything resembling a capable backup QB; if Kaepernick gets hurt, kiss the season goodbye.
The Niners have clear weaknesses, but they are great in the trenches, at QB, and at head coach, probably the three most important areas in football. As such, they’re widely considered one of the two best teams in football, along with their division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks. That rivalry is likely to define their season, but the rest of the NFC West is no cakewalk; the Rams are poised to contend for a playoff spot, and the Cardinals look to be much improved. The NFC West is probably the toughest division in football.
Yet, when I look at the schedule, I just see no reason for negativity.Worst case scenario is they split the division slate 4-4 (I think they’ll do better), and they have tough road games at Tampa (who I think is a playoff team) and at the Saints. They also play at the Titans (who suck) and at the Redskins (who I’m skeptical about). There are a couple of tough home games too, against the Packers and Texans, but looking at the schedule, barring a disaster, I don’t see anything less than 10-6. I think they’ll beat that record by a win or two, and that come January, they’ll be battling with the Seahawks and maybe the Packers for a shot at Super Bowl XLVIII right here in New York (well, Jersey, but whatever).
Check in tomorrow for my comprehensive breakdown of and predictions for the rest of the NFL season.