The San Francisco 49ers’ pursuit to hold aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy has been long – 1994 was the last Super Bowl victory – however the wait is about to end. Successfully.
After several difficult years, the Niners made a turn for the better in 2011-12 finishing the regular season 13-3 (first in the NFC West) and once again emerging as a heavyweight contender under head coach Jim Harbaugh who goes into his second season at the helm.
If last season was the ‘rebuilding year’ then 2012-13 is the ‘redemption year.’ The 49ers fell agonizingly short of gaining a berth in the Super Bowl after stuffing up, for want of a better word, late in the thrilling NFC Championship Game against the eventual champions, the New York Giants.
For the Niners to be crowned champions, they will need to get over the three main contenders – New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.
A key to their success is the defensive unit. San Francisco has the games best defense (or close to it). Justin Smith leads a powerful and dominant unit at defensive tackle (DT): he is a feared competitor and duly gained the recognition he deserved last season. Smith was unstoppable at the end of the year and will play a major part in the run to the Super Bowl. On his left is a rising star Ray McDonald, now in his second year as a starter. Keep an eye on Demarcus Dobbs too: the multidimensional player adds another strong cog to this formidable unit.
At nose tackle (NT), fourth-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Isaac Sopoaga, an unheralded yet important resource playing for a contract extension. He will be vital in controlling the middle. Ian Williams and Ricky Jean Francois provide solid performances.
Positioned behind the front line is a very skilled group of linebackers (LB): one may say the Niners are spoilt. Patrick Willis, a five-time Pro Bowler captains an impressive outfit comprising NaVorro Bowman, a young player on the verge of greatness. Ahmad Brooks demonstrated his talent last season recording a career-high in tackles and sacks and was given a six-year, $44.5 million contract extension. On the right side, Aldon Smith had a massive rookie year. His 14 sacks were the second-most ever by a rookie in league history. Smith has the scary size of a defensive end (DE) and the speed and agility of a LB – this guy has a seriously high ceiling. This is why San Francisco’s spoilt: Parys Haralson had a strong year however the talent that’s coming through is pushing his name down the depth chart.
In the cornerback (CB) position, Carlos Rogers performed big for the 49ers in his first season at the club after shifting from the Washington Redskins. Rogers seldom missed making interceptions last year – an area that he was criticized for in his previous years in the league. Joining him in the back is free safety (FS) Dashon Goldson. The Pro Bowl player tied with Rogers for second in the NFC with six interceptions. San Francisco bolstered the defensive unit by picking up Donte Whitner at strong safety (SS) from the Buffalo Bills in free agency. Whitener is an effective tackler and is fast becoming (if not already) one of the best safeties in the NFL.
Moving to the Niners offensive game, Alex Smith plays the role of Field-General as the teams quarterback (QB). The former number-one pick had a career-best season in 2011-12 including highs in completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating and threw a league-low five interceptions. Smith led some major drives late in games however he needs to work on getting the ball away quicker as he was sacked too many times. The man trying to be the next Joe Montana and Steve Young in delivering a Super Bowl trophy to San Francisco impressed recently in preseason. Backing Smith up is the exciting and highly talented Colin Kaepernick.
Protecting Smith is a solid offensive line headlined by Pro Bowl offensive tackle (OT) Joe Staley. On the right, Anthony Davis made major strides in his second year. Expect improvement and stability from Davis this season. The 49ers, similar to the LB positions, are spoilt when it comes to the offensive guard (G) spot with the powerful Mike Iupati, the improving Alex Boone and former Pro Bowl G Leonard Davis. They also have rookie Joe Looney to provide support off the bench – there are high expectations on the fourth-round selection. Former Pro Bowler Jonathan Goodwin at center (C) is a workhorse and demands great respect: he remains a player Smith can rely on.
Lining up behind Smith stands one of the most multifaceted ground games in the NFL. At running back (RB), Frank Gore, a top-10 back with great vision and elusiveness leads a very deep and talented group of runners. The second-year back Kendall Hunter was a pleasant surprise in 2011-12 and hits the hole as if shot from a cannon. Former New York Giants back Brandon Jacobs provide a physical presence however was brought in as injury insurance for Gore. Keep an eye out for rookie RB LaMichael James: a back with rabbit-like quickness who will play a big role this season. At fullback (FB), the physical and very skillful Bruce Miller had an excellent debut NFL season and what’s interesting Miller only played the position when he arrived in San Francisco.
What I like with the Niners – they have a very good receiving core and a much-improved area I must add. The front office went out and acquired wide receivers (WR) Randy Moss, a six-time Pro Bowler with over 10 1000-yard seasons, and Mario Manningham who came across from the New York Giants. The two form a frightening partnership with Michael Crabtree who heads into his fourth season. Expect Crabtree to excel with the increased talent on offer for Alex Smith. The 49ers’ first-round draft selection A.J. Jenkins from the University of Illinois will learn from this unit and may well be the future when Moss retires and enters the Hall of Fame.
Running the short routes for Smith, the elite tight end (TE) Vernon Davis: he came on strong at the end of 2011-12 and will be looking to build on that momentum. Davis’ TE buddy Delanie Walker enters the final year of his contract – that could be added motivation to do well. A great pass-catcher and an underrated blocker, Walker has been an invaluable member of the 49ers offensive unit.
This brings me to the special teams discussion. San Francisco had the top-kicking combo in the NFL, courtesy of Pro Bowlers David Akers and Andy Lee. The former set a league record for field goals in a season with 44. Akers and Lee combine well with long snapper (LS) Brian Jennings. Another key special teams member that will play a big part – Ted Ginn Jr.: he ranked third in the NFL in kick returns and fourth in punt returns.
The Niners have a QB that appears to be on the brink of delivering what was anticipated when drafted. Expect Smith to once again rise to new heights in his second year with coach Harbaugh. The past is exactly that: Smith can forget what’s been and focus on the future. San Francisco front office has provided him with the offensive depth and talent: Gore, Jacobs, Moss, Crabtree and Davis to complement a forceful offensive line. They possess the leagues number one run defense and did I mention Patrick Willis and Justin Smith pull on the red and gold each week. Add to that the top special teams unit in the league.
The Niners are going to be extremely competitive this season, both against their opponents and with each other due to their depth. Expectations are high in San Francisco and so they should be. At 15-1, I am more than happy to have my money on the Niners this season.