At the beginning of the season the 49ers had three problems they had to resolve to take make the leap form perennial underachiever to playoff contender. They had to develop a pass rush, find an effective starting quarterback, and protect the quarterback from excessive pressure. The general consensus was if the 49ers could protect the starting quarterback and open holes for Frank Gore, all the while creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the season would end somewhere in the playoffs.

True to the last, oh - seven years, the 49ers failed to reach the post season. The offensive line did not protect Smith (or Hill) when it needed to. The defense could not seem to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks consistently. And Alex Smith still has not erased all doubt with his up and down performances over the final stanza of the season. The 49ers are exiting the season with only an inkling more answers than they entered it.

In the 49ers' 7 wins, they sacked the opposing team 21 times while allowing 14. The quarterbacks played predictably when they were getting shoved into the dirt, clawing to a paltry 56.4 average quarterback rating. Alex Smith and Shaun Hill were effective when there was adequate protection, averaging a passer rating of 85.4.

The other side of the pillow, unfortunately, is not so cool. In their 8 losses, the 49ers have pretty much flipped their sack totals reaching the opposing quarterback 15 times while allowing 21. And expectedly the quarterback ratings reflect this protection and pressure flip. Opposing quarterbacks thrived with an average rating of 96.3 while the 49ers' quarterbacks could only get to an average of 72.6.

Don't let the season's totals blind you like the 40 time blinds Al Davis. Sure, the 49ers currently rank 11th in the NFL in sacks. This almost top 10 team is the same team who couldn't get within a grasp of Aaron Rodgers flowing locks despite Green Bay's charted inability for protecting the quarterback. The 49ers defense is feast or famine - they recorded 44% of their sacks in just three games (STL, JAX, and SEA) leaving quarterbacks with a bit too much time in other games (ahem - BRETT FAVRE).

Even with the defensive shortcomings, the 49ers glaring problem is still that pedestrian offense. The NFL is, without a doubt, a passing league. Advanced NFL Statistics even went into ridiculous depth on the "defense wins championships" and came up with the answer that anyone who watches football already knows - good offenses are better than good defenses. The NFL's rules are even set up to favor passing teams. The 2000 Ravens were the exception, not the rule.

The 49ers cannot allow the NFL to pass them by. Alex Smith can be a productive starting quarterback in this league. When he has time, he can make the right read and hit the open receiver. But Smith is starting to show the early signs of David Carr Disease. (David Carr Disease: Feeling phantom pressure from being hit/sacked so many times. The leading symptoms are rushed throws, constant check-downs, and/or moving in the pocket frantically when there is no need to.) Two of Smith's best games were against Seattle (in Seattle) and Jacksonville. In both games Smith had time to throw the ball. The team did not allow a sack against Jacksonville and only allowed one versus Seattle.

The 49ers are exiting the season with only a little more clarity about those pesky pre-season questions. Smith is now clearly entrenched as the starter despite his inability to take the team on his shoulders. Ahmad Brooks is seemingly coming into his own as a pass rusher. And the offensive line will benefit from continuity and maybe a first round draft pick.

The problem is this is a similar story to the end of 2008. At the time, Hill was entrenched as the starter after proving he could "do enough" to win games. Parys Haralson was coming into his own as a pass rusher (he has 4.5 sacks this year as opposed to 8 last year) and the offensive line was going to benefit from continuity and a slight upgrade at right tackle. That upgrade never materialized.

Another offseason with the same questions - who will pressure and how will they protect? It's time the 49ers find some answers.