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This off-season could represent a turning-point in the organization, or at least, a break from the previous two years of humiliation. Several factors could come together to make next year's team significantly better than this year's.
First - One way or another, Erickson will likely depart. The prideful York and Donahue cannot afford to jeopardize the nostalgia of the franchise anymore than they already have by employing a coach who does not want to be there but refuses to leave. If Erickson does not appreciate the opportunity he has been given to coach football's most successful franchise, let's bring in someone who does.
Second - John York seems to be getting more personally involved in the organization, which I consider a good thing. Perhaps he is tired of his reputation as a penny-pincher. Perhaps he is beginning to see football as a business challenge aside from the X's and O's.
Third - Donahue's reputation as a general manager is on the line. Firing Mariucci was a risky move that did not pay off. Win totals have decreased the last three years under his stewardship. If there was ever a time for him to prove that he is an above-average general manager, that time is now.
Fourth - Having the top pick in the draft is a tremendous incentive for everyone to do their job well and increases the chances of landing a top-flight coach. Expectations are already low, a large infusion of talent will be entering the ranks, and the coach will likely have considerable influence over personnel decisions. Having an opportunity to make significant strides against the rest of the league this April should inspire coaches to watch more film than ever.
Fifth - The offensive line situation will only improve. Kwame Harris has played well the last two games, and with much more confidence. The return of Justin Newberry will be an enormous upgrade over Brock Gutierrez. Justin Smiley should be reliable next year. On the downside, Scott Gragg appears to be slipping. Nevertheless, if the 49ers spend a first or second round draft pick to replace either Heitmann or Gragg, the line should avoid some of the problems it experienced last season, and produce some semblance of the down-hill power running game we have witnessed in years prior to this.
Sixth - The inner competition on this team will continue to make everyone better. Having the starting running back position contested should make Barlow and Hicks each work harder. Last year the young quarterbacks and receivers practiced together year around. Expect the same to occur this year. If the 49ers draft a quarterback, expect Rattay to do everything in his power to keep him on the bench.
Seventh - While all teams have injuries, most teams do not lose their franchise player, two starting cornerbacks, and best pass-rusher for significant portions of the season. With Plummer, Rumph, and Spencer back, the only thing missing in the secondary is a safety with the size of a linebacker and the speed of a corner who can lay people out. Rumph might be able to fill that role. With Isaac Sopoaga and Brandon Whiting returning from injury, the depth on our defensive line should be better than ever, and may improve even more in the draft.
Eighth - The cap situation is clearing up. The 49ers may not be able to sign many free agents this year, but they should have the cap space to resign their own. Furthermore, they may get a bargain on Andre Carter, who has ties to the Bay Area, and is having a poor year in terms of production (partially due to injury). The rest of the draft class - Winborn, Barlow, Cedrick Wilson, and Eric Johnson - has already been resigned.
These reasons combine to make this one of the more exciting off-seasons in recent memory. A new coach with a track record of coordinating success at the NFL level, the opportunity to load up on quality draft picks, and the gradual clearing of cap space should enable us to make the jump back to respectability. But it all starts with a new coach.