Imagine, as a thought experiment, the following bit of historic revisionism:
2011 – The 49ers hire Jim Harbaugh, and the new coaching staff, by efficiently melding the existing talent with an influx of youngsters, improves the team's record from 6-10 to 8-8.
2012 – The 49ers, despite switching quarterbacks mid-season, finish 9-7.
2013 – The 49ers, with a 10-6 record, lose a wild-card slot on a tie-breaker to Arizona.
2014 – Entering the season, 49er fans hope the mathematical progression of seasonal victories continues, culminating in an 11-5 record and a playoff spot. Still, we worry that the quarterback has not yet quite blossomed, and that the reliance on unproven players bodes for a possible set-back season.
2015 – Super Bowl victory.
A tidy five-year plan, no? Except, of course, it isn't true. Do I think the 49ers really have a five-year plan? Heck, no. I think they want to win every game every season, and the Super Bowl as well. But, more to the point, do I believe they plan for the future, and that they want to compete for the championship every season? Yes, I do. In other words, the organization practices long-term thinking, as well as short. The above thought-experiment merely seeks to place the current season in a longer-term context, while simultaneously reminding us that the outstanding success of the last three campaigns has conditioned us to high expectations. On the verge of the 2014 season, where does the team stand in this long-term context?
Although Trent Baalke co-presided over the 2010 draft, Scott McCloughan and staff had already done much of the legwork. The Baalke/Harbaugh era began in earnest in 2011. Increasingly, from a personnel perspective, the current team reflects Baalke's choices. He hasn't always made good ones, and the 2012 draft, despite the team's on-field success that year, represents a setback season vis-à-vis talent acquisition, although James and Looney still provide some hope. Nevertheless, on the whole, while coping with the draft positioning of a high-wins team, Baalke and crew have stocked the roster with possible impact replacements.
The Seahawks, as almost all NFL fans know, won the Super Bowl last year with an historically young team. The Cardinals have several young stars. And the Rams, other than their unfortunate situation at quarterback, may have the best young talent in the league. But the 49ers have quietly – some might say "grindingly" – transitioned from an ageing, star-laden outfit, to a team with much more quality depth. Obviously, one never knows how this depth will pan out until the individual players get more snaps, but, given the injuries, suspensions, salary-cap casualties, and other attritions, we may find out about these young guys sooner than we anticipated. Sure they will make mistakes, some of them costly. But they will also be fun to watch, not only during the current season, but as we project their performances into the future.
Remarkably, the Niners have relatively new replacements at almost every position, from running back (Hyde) to wideout (Patton/Ellington) to offensive line (Kilgore/Looney/the Martins/Thomas) to defensive line (Carradine/Dial) to all manner of linebackers and defensive backs. They even cut long-time special teamers to keep young talent on the roster. Baalke likes the 2014 draft class, and he likes this squad. He may be right. And he may have pulled off the tricky business of replenishing his team while simultaneously juggling the salary cap.
Poor coaching can squander talent quicker than you can say Joe Thomas. Good coaching, on the other hand, can make good talent seem great. I count the 49ers' bunch of sideline jocks in the latter camp, and one of the joys of the upcoming season will involve watching the younger players improve on the field as the position coaches work with them. These guys will send those enthused kids against the opposition in waves. (Mangini even has a long-snapper now to include in extra tight-end packages!) Sure, the newbies will make some mistakes, but they will learn from them, and this experience will fortify the Niners for the future.
The 2014 season will also challenge assistant head coaches/coordinators Seely, Fangio, and Roman.
After a lackluster special-teams performance in 2012, the 49ers concentrated on improving that unit, and did so. Now, many of those special-teams aces will ply their skills elsewhere, and Brad Seely will need to install new specialists. Yes, the roster tinkering never ends (Osgood appears likely to return as I write), but, ideally, you prefer to have specialty players who can also fill in as quality backups, or who can potentially start some year. So we will maybe get to see Ellington as a returner or McCray as a gunner. Seely will spend much of the season teaching such things as lane discipline, pursuit angles and penalty avoidance, difficult concepts for some players to learn. However, hair-raising as it can be to watch an inexperienced player lose contain or miss a block, youngsters often make up for their gaffs with their gung-ho attitudes and exuberant athleticism. Again, fun, if sometimes trying, to witness.
Vic Fangio will earn his money this season, and 49er fans already know why: missing players. Over half the defensive players who started last January will not line up against Dallas. I will not again belabor the reasons. Suffice to say that Fangio, of necessity, will work new players in while also adjusting his schemes to their abilities/limitations. No longer can the 49ers merely send out their set defenses and expect their own eleven to overcome the opposition's. Now, Fangio may need to employ more creativity, more deception, maybe even more risk, including arcane blitz packages and more mix/match defensive fronts. Can he? Will he? If it means winning, yes. At the very least, we can hope that the new defenders will improve enough so that they have earned rotation status even as their wounded/suspended teammates return during the second half of the season.
Greg Roman says the 49ers "stripped down" their offense this off-season. Sounds sexy I guess, but with what will they replace it? As per their usual, the 49ers gave away very little relevant info during the preseason, even less in intervening interviews with the media. Perhaps they will run a series of quarterback sneaks or punt on first downs. Maybe they will field a team of all tight ends. Coach Harbaugh could even suit up, if only as a decoy.
My best guess? The 49ers in 2014 will run the kind of offense that they believe will lead to a Super Bowl victory. If that means the same old grind-it-out, so be it. But it may mean more. Back to the five-year-plan perspective. When Harbaugh and crew arrived in San Francisco, they assessed the team and found, on offense, a game-manager quarterback, a passable set of receivers, and, a superb dual-purpose tight end. After a year and a half, the team would jettison that QB, Alex Smith. The Niners would not (ouch, A.J. Jenkins) build a quality receiver corps until, possibly, this year. Meanwhile, they discovered that Vernon Davis could block like a bulldozer.
And the 49er offensive brain trust, already prone to power-running from their Stanford days, discovered something else. Two of the most talented players on the team, guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis, both then-recent first-round draft choices, excelled at power blocking. Pass-blocking prowess? Not so much. So the new coaches adjusted to their roster's latent strengths, and leaned even more on the grind-it-out offense. Nor did it hurt to have one Frank Gore to run behind that stellar line. Remember how great that running game was in 2011? I think its effectiveness may have surprised even the coaches. It certainly surprised, and sometimes in its creativity flummoxed, the opposition, until they caught up with it. Quality defenses, however, have learned to slow, if not completely stop, the Niners' running game. Divisional foes have specifically built stout defensive fronts to stymie it. Meanwhile, both Iupati and A. Davis still struggle in pass protection. Yes, sometimes Kaepernick seems to bail too early, but consider the situations. How can a team throw forty times a game against such pressure?
Except … all the other changes to special teams and the defense may force the 49ers to pass more while the other two units catch up. Of course, many of the Faithful have long craved a more wide-open passing offense. Be careful what you wish for? We'll see, but, either way, the Niner offense's travails and triumphs will continue to fascinate. Circumstances may well conspire to put Greg Roman, and, indeed, Gentleman Jim himself, through their play-calling paces.
As part of the five-year plan, the 49ers also sought to bring in, and develop, a young quarterback. We all know the Colin Kaepernick saga well enough by now: extreme athletic ability but suspect in some of the subtler aspects of quarterback play. And we also know how important the quarterback position is to the long-term success of any NFL team. True, mediocre quarterbacks do sometimes win Super Bowls. But excellent quarterbacks win them more often. Thus the always-under-the-microscope effect for NFL signal callers.
However, organizations with long-term plans also recognize the importance of factors that lie outside the microscope's range, that is, the importance of the team and teammates around the quarterback, and so essential to his development. We've already mentioned, in this regard, the offensive line. And many trumpet a sound running game as a quarterback's best friend. Also helpful: a quarterback-friendly receiver corps.
Note that "quarterback friendly" does not necessarily mean "athletically freakish." As the 2013 wideout fiasco shows, Kaep prefers to throw to a certain type of wide receiver: veterans in whom he can trust. Several draftniks thought the Niners might select a first-round wideout in last spring's draft, particularly an athletic "field-stretching" specimen. The 49ers did not. Instead, they brought in the formerly retired Brandon Lloyd and traded for another veteran, Buffalo's Steve Johnson. Even the receiver they did draft, fourth-rounder Bruce Ellington, brings a reputation, abetted by his basketball experience, of an expert in spatial awareness/positioning. In other words, the Niners have accumulated the sort of wideouts favored by their young quarterback, players who might well enhance his development.
What traits does Kaep most "trust" in his receivers? First, since Kaepernick has trouble reading defenses, he prefers receivers who can read them for him. Second, he likes receivers who can "present" themselves as coming open and then actually be in position when the ball arrives. This derives from Kaep's difficulty in anticipating routes and route adjustments, because, before he arrived in the pros, the fastballer could pretty much wait for a player to come open and then rifle him the ball afterwards. Not in the NFL. So he relies on the body language of experienced pros. Third, he likes catchers with the wherewithal to actually catch his sometimes-wayward power throws. Crabtree in 2012, and Boldin in 2013, embody these three preferences. Both Patton and Ellington have the potential to do likewise.
In addition to catering to their young QB's taste in receivers, the 49ers have also provided him with non-threatening backups. Not only did the team trade away Alex Smith, but neither have they brought in a high-draft-choice guy to provide Kaep serious competition, and this from a team that thrives on competition at all other positions. Unless Colin really goes into the dumpster, I doubt many will seriously call for his replacement by Blaine Gabbert anytime soon. Also, of course, the team has expressed some confidence in Kaep as a potential franchise quarterback by rewarding him with a new contract. Matter of fact, the team has done almost all it can to nurture their young QB. The coaches, also, have bolstered him in the media. Now, Colin himself must step up to the next level.
So, bring on year four of the fanciful five-year plan. Sure, we will watch for weekly wins and losses. But, regardless of the record, we also have other, longer-term developments to monitor in this season of transition. These developments may also have a decisive impact on the futures of Coach Harbaugh and his staff. (And I haven't even talked about the handling of the many off-field issues.) Despite all the 49ers' recent success, 2014 may turn out to be the team's most pivotal season since Harbaugh's arrival.