While the 49ers are a popular pick to win a vulnerable NFC West, a web site that has found it’s niche crunching NFL numbers isn’t so sure.
Football Outsiders, which combines sophisticated statistical analysis with good old-fashioned film study, projects the 49ers to go 6-10 this season.
Forget the conventional wisdom about the positive trends toward 2010, they say. The authors of the annual Football Outsiders Almanac conclude that the 49ers are instead “teetering on the edge,” of some negative trends, in the Doug Farrar, who wrote the San Francisco chapter.
In fact, Football Outsiders predicts the 49ers will finish last in the division. Here’s how their forecast shakes out.
1. Arizona: 9.4 wins, 32 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
2. Seattle: 7.3 wins, 8 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
3. St. Louis: 6.2 wins, 3 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
4. San Francisco: 6.1 wins, 3 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
Among concerns from their analysis: Alex Smith fared well only against weak competition, the 49ers defense is due for a letdown and the odds are stacked against two rookies making an immediate impact on the offensive line that needs big-time help.
Even one of the things the 49ers point to for optimism – an offensive coordinator in place back-to-back seasons – raises a red flag for the Outsiders. “There’s no statistical evidence that having the same coordinator makes a difference,’’ Bill Barnwell, the managing editor for the site, said in a phone interview. “Anecdotally, it makes sense, but if it’s the same group that isn’t good enough, I don’t know if it really makes a difference.”
The good news for 49ers fans? Because of their willingness to think outside the box, Football Outsiders is sometimes spectacularly wrong. A year ago, for example, they pegged the St. Louis Rams as a team to watch in the NFC West, which was like concluding that the Washington Generals were statistically due to beat the Harlem Globetrotters. The Rams went 1-15. “That one kind of makes me cringe,’’ Barnwell said.
On the other hand, Football Outsiders often unearths trends no one else sees coming. For every Rams-type misfire, there is their prediction like last season’s bet that Miles Austin, and his 18 career catches, would have a breakout season. Austin delivered with 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns.
So, back to those 49ers … .
From my conversation with Barnwell, here are four trouble spots as identified by Football Outsiders:
1. The offense has an identity crisis, with a head coach who likes to be able to pound the ball and a quarterback who operates best out of the spread. “It’s like they can’t decide what they want to do,’’ he said.
2. The defense is due for a regression to the mean. The 49ers forced 21 fumbles last season, which the Outsiders see as a statistical outlier unlikely to be duplicated. Ahmad Brooks, for example, forced four fumbles as a backup linebacker – a feat accomplished only twice previously in NFL history. The Outsiders don’t see it happening again.
3. The guys up front were dead last in Offensive Line Yards last year. While drafting Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round was a good move for the long term, rookie linemen are likely to have growing pains. That, plus an early lack of cohesion up front spell trouble.
4. Alex Smith’s numbers are deceptive. Smith established a career high with 18 TDs and an 81.5 quarterback rating, but Barnwell argues that he did it against “pretty much every weak defensive team.”
A final word, straight from the Almanac:
If the 2010 49ers are to transcend our projections and make any postseason noise, the likelihood is that they’ll do so with a defense-first philosophy and an unusual extension of good fortune with personnel and turnovers. But if they take too much away from Alex Smith, they will go against the recent NFL trends that favor wide-open attacks favorable to former spread quarterbacks. Having seen what works with Smith, and with one year left to figure out just how far he can take them, the 49ers’ ability to think outside the box and still reinforce Singletary’s root principles will be key.