The 49ers identify their own weaknesses, and attack them.
Going into the off-season, many perceptive Niner-watchers focused on three areas of roster need: pass defense, special teams, and free agency losses. The 49ers, after the smoke screens cleared, addressed each of these perceived needs.
First, they have replaced the main free-agency losses almost one-for-one with early draft picks and free-agent signings of their own: Dorsey replaces Sopoaga, Reid replaces Goldson, and McDonald replaces Walker. These new additions may or may not play as well as the departed initially, nor will their assignments necessarily coincide, but the rookies have the advantage of youth, and their differing skill sets will tweak their respective positions, perhaps, for 49er fans, pleasingly. Meanwhile, we can also hope that Quinton Dial or one of last year's holdover defensive linemen or the Downton Abbey refugee with Olympian athleticism can replace Ricky Jean Francois.
Second, the Niners' brass obviously noticed, possibly even fretted over, the decline in the 2012 season's special teams play. They will have a different placekicker this year. Additionally, they have added talent by every means possible to bolster coverage and return units. Players such as Skuta, Dahl, Moody, Cooper, and others will serve not just as backups, but will be expected to jolt the special teams. Further, LaMichael James, not exactly a back-of-the-roster player, has been working on his return skills, along with legions of the usual suspects.
Third, regarding improving the pass defense, the 49ers, for now, appear to come down on the chicken-or-the-egg pass-rush-versus-coverage debate slightly on the side of pass-rush importance. While awaiting the injury recoveries of the Smiths and Cam Johnson, they also drafted two potential pass-rush rotation (and future starting?) players, Carradine and Lemonier, in the early rounds. Of course, many 49er fans wish the team had done more to strengthen the secondary coverage. We shall see. Asomugha may prove better than expected, or one of the long-shot youngsters, or last year's reserves, may burst out as a shut-down demon.
In a perfect world, the Niners might have addressed all their needs perfectly, and nitpicking will always thrive within the brash light of hindsight. But, for now, give the 49ers credit. They addressed roster needs as they saw them. They did not pussyfoot. They pounced. Other challenges, such as the Crabtree injury, will come along. But the team has assembled enough talent so that future such surprises should not leave them completely bereft. And, rest assured, this bunch will continue to tinker with their roster year-around.
A team-first attitude applies not only to the players, but to the coaches.
Did certain other teams out-coach the Niners last season? The 49ers' staff works hard and usually has the team primed to play well every game. On the sideline, the head man and his assistants display enthusiasm, alertness, and a passion for the game. However, most of the current coaches have been together for several seasons, going back to their Stanford days and beyond. In such almost symbiotic situations, a subtle form of intellectual incest can creep in, unalleviated because undetected. In fact, the very discipline and daily focus that enables success can also cause a single-mindedness verging on myopia. In these cases, a fresh point-of-view may help.
Enter Eric Mangini. Others have speculated, thoughtfully, on exactly what role Mangini could fill. Suffice to say here that, though the Niners themselves may yet not know precisely how Mangini's magic might fit, part of his responsibilities will surely entail providing that fresh point-of-view. Even before they hired the former wunderkind, the 49ers showed concern that their self-scouting had become stale, that the team had become too predictable on defense, and that opposing teams seemed to have inordinate success anticipating red-and-gold offensive plays. Craig Dahl's revelations about the Rams' pre-reads last season only confirmed to fans what the Niners' staff already suspected. So, as with their perceived roster deficiencies, they attacked this weakness with the Mangini hire.
Mangini's role will undoubtedly become more defined as the season progresses, but his intellect, experience, as well as the sense of renewal he may feel from working with his fellow coaches as he embarks on a new challenge, will surely serve the Niners in good stead. Al Sacco wrote, a while back on this website, a recommended article on Glenn Dorsey in which he detailed how the man may have been miscast, and given a bad rap. As with Dorsey, the Niners may find a niche for Mangini in which he will excel, benefitting both the team and his own career. The former target of hooligan anti-intellectualism may yet achieve a creative revival.
But Mangini will not succeed if the other Prospector coaches indulge in petty jealousies, back-biting, or public handwringing about their own job securities. So far, they have not. So far, they have put the team first, modeling in their own behavior the very dedication and teamwork they ask of the players. In fact, those veteran coaches have heretofore seized the prospect of working with Mangini as a chance to better both themselves and the team, and to learn. Let's admit it: someday the 49ers will likely face a brain-drain as staff members depart for opportunities, including head-coaching positions, elsewhere. When that inevitably happens, it won't hurt to have an extra brain or two around the place.
The 49ers intend to restore their status as a model NFL franchise.
Not only on the field, but off the field as well, from the new stadium, to the use of analytics, to their crackerjack medical staff, the 49ers seek to stay ahead of the curve. NFL owners recently awarded the team the honor of hosting Super Bowl L, another marker of the franchise's enhanced regard throughout the league.
The Prospectors do not sit around hoping providence will deposit opulence onto their laps. Rather, they anticipate, and act. They do not follow trends, but set them. Their front-office maneuverings, also, keep fans enthused. What will they attempt next? Who knows, but we await with the gold-dust-laden eyes, the forward-looking ardor, of sheer 49er faithfulness. Do we expect too much? Probably, but why not? What's a football heaven for? The possibilities extend deep into the distant football future, full of promise, dread, and pizazz, toward a glittery faraway vanishing point that the 49ers almost surely already grasp.