Hooooooo boy, here we are. This week I’m drafting fantasy teams, putting together an office suicide pool, and prepping an opening weekend trip to Vegas. So how do we feel about the return of football, Jesse Pinkman?
And yet, as the 2014 football season envelopes us in its warm, loving grasp, it’s not all gravy. Specifically, my beloved San Francisco 49ers are facing a harsh reality: They have been the best team in football over the last three years, but they haven’t won the Super Bowl. One the one hand, they’re a genuinely talented, deep, dangerous team. On the other hand, they’re another year older, and the possibility is very real that the window may be closing and that this could be a make-or-break year for this collection of players. Plus, they keep getting arrested for beating women, drinking and driving, and threatening people with brass knuckles. Good times.
So what is it? Is this the year the Niners break through, or will this campaign see this roster begin to unravel? In the spirit of this either-or conundrum, Let’s take a look at some Pros and Cons for the 2014 San Francisco 49ers.
PRO: The Niners still have one of the best head coaches in the league, and they have maintained continuity on their coaching staff.
CON: All the innuendo flying around this offseason made it pretty clear that Harbaugh is angling for a huge new contract—which ownership seems disinclined to hand down until he wins a Super Bowl. Beyond that, this is his fourth year as the Niners’ coach, equaling his tenure at Stanford for the longest he’s stayed in a coaching job. He’s a restless dude, and there’s just been too much smoke about his dissatisfaction this offseason for me to believe that there isn’t some fire there. And while continuity on the coaching staff is nice, count me among the people who are dubious about offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s game plans. I was really hoping he’d get a head coaching job somewhere last offseason. I don’t know how many two-yard Bruce Miller receptions I can take this year.
PRO: With Michael Crabtree healthy, Anquan Boldin back, Stevie Johnson acquired (I LOVE this pick-up), Vernon Davis ending his holdout, and quality depth in Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, and Vance McDonald, the Niners have given Colin Kaepernick a ton of weapons to throw to.
CON: Boldin is old, and all it takes is an injury to Crabtree (who has had a lot of them) or Davis to make this group look shaky again. I still don’t see a true deep threat among those receivers. I really like Johnson, but the Niners haven’t exactly made a habit of using three-receiver sets the last few years. Will Roman and Kaepernick get the most out of these weapons?
PRO: The Niners locked up Kaepernick with a team-friendly contract extension. The team believes he is primed to take a major step forward this year, and there has been talk that they’ll open up the offense to take more advantage of his skills—and the aforementioned receivers—this year. And he doesn’t get cold.
CON: The Niners still don’t have a quality backup QB. I briefly thought a Harbaugh-coached Blaine Gabbert could be better than the Jaguars version, but the preseason confirmed that he is, in fact, still Blaine Gabbert. This means that the Niners are once again just a Kaepernick injury away from the season being a complete fucking disaster. Which means that the team will probably still be pretty conservative with him. In other words, I’ll believe those rumors about the offense opening up when I see it happen.
PRO: Frank Gore appears to be fighting off Father Time, and is going into a contract year.
CON: You never know when a running back is going to lose a step—it happens overnight. And with Kendall Hunter getting hurt, LaMichael James still being unproven after two years and missing most of the preseason with an injury, and Marcus Lattimore still not able to play, there are a lot of question marks behind Frank the Tank. Carlos Hyde looked good in the preseason, but he’s never taken a regular season NFL snap. Maybe the Niners will have to open up the offense after all.
PRO: With Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, the Niners have the best left side of an offensive line in the NFL.
CON: The rest of the offensive line has question marks. Anthony Davis is coming back from shoulder surgery; they’re replacing a solid center, Jonathan Goodwin, with Daniel Kilgore (rookie Marcus Martin will miss at least half the season with a knee injury); and while Alex Boone finally ended his holdout a few days ago, who knows if he’s in game shape? This offensive line is a bit shakier than it’s been in the past.
PRO: The Niners have the best linebacking corps in the NFL
CON: Well, on paper they do. But NaVorro Bowman is out until at least November after suffering a gruesome knee injury in the NFC Championship game, and if we’re being realistic, he’s unlikely he’s going to be the dominant player we’re used to seeing when he does return (I’d expect him to give the defensive equivalent of Crabtree’s performance last year). Aldon Smith is suspended for the first 9 games, which obviously hurts the pass rush, and at this point can we depend on him not to behave like a jackass off the field? And Ahmad Brooks, who I love, is 30. At least we still have Patrick Willis.
PRO: Eric Reid was a stud as a rookie last year. Antoine Bethea seemed to be a canny offseason signing. First-round draft choice Jimmie Ward is promising. Tramaine Brock was solid last year and earned that contract. Chris Culliver was statistically one of the best corners in the NFL in the 2012 regular season.
CON: Reid had two concussions last year. Can Bethea provide the same run support as the departed Donte Whitner? Jimmie Ward is a rookie, and even talented rookie DBs usually struggle. Brock is still relatively inexperienced. Culliver is my least favorite Niner ever, thanks to his making homophobic statements before Super Bowl XLVIII and then spending that game getting torched by the Ravens on every single fucking play. Also, he’s coming back from ACL surgery. The secondary has long been the chink in the armor of the Niners’ defense, and that sure looks like it going to be the case this year—especially with the pass rush a question now.
PRO: Based on their pedigrees and preseason efforts, Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial look like they could be legitimate contributors on the defensive line.
CON: Glenn Dorsey tore his biceps and is probably out for much of the season. Ian Williams is still working his way back from the ankle injury he suffered last year. Justin Smith turns 35 this month. Ray McDonald is probably going to get suspended after he got arrested for beating up his pregnant fiancee last week. If Carradine and Dial can’t come through, the defensive line looks awful thin.
Put it all together, and where does that leave us? For the first time in at least three years, the Niners will be fielding a defense that looks vulnerable. This will be especially true in the first half of the season, when they’ll be missing Bowman and Aldon Smith. Looking at their opponents early in the season, we see Dallas (with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant), Chicago (with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Joe Forte), and Philly (with Chip Kelly and Shady McCoy) all in the first four weeks. And then Peyton Manning and Denver in Week Seven, right before the Niners’ bye. Sooooo … this team’s gonna have to score some points.
The good news is that they should be positioned to do so. I think Gore and Hyde will be a nice one-two punch at running back. I think Crabtree will play like he did during Kaepernick’s first full season as a starter (if you look at his per-game numbers during that half-season, they were Pro-Bowl-caliber). I think Boldin, whose game depends more on strength and smarts than athleticism, can put together a similar campaign to what he did last year. I believe Stevie Johnson will be a huge addition. I even believe that Roman and Harbaugh will open up the offense, at least a little bit, because they have weapons, they know they’ll need to score more, and there’s a general sense that, in his third season as a starter, and with a new contract on the books, it’s time for Kaepernick to make the leap and become an elite starting quarterback. Kaep has his detractors around the league (mostly pundits who criticize his ability to read defenses), but I have been an unabashed supporter of his from day one, and I believe that he is going to make that leap this year. If he can do that, then I think the Niners can overtake the Seabitches to reclaim the incredibly tough NFC West, and from there go on another Super Bowl run.
That’s the bottom line. The Niners will go as far Kaepernick can carry them. Just please don’t let him get hurt. I’m gonna go walk around New York City knocking on every piece of wood I can find now.
Check back in on Thursday for my thoughts on the rest of the league, along with predictions for the regular season and my Super Bowl pick.