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The 2010 San Francisco 49ers

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 1, 2010

The 2010 San Francisco 49ers intrigue me. I'm not the only one: David Fucillo of the blog Niners Nation wonders whether this is the most important season in franchise history. Let's take a look at how they got here:

  • From 1983 to 1998, the 49ers won at least 10 games in every season. Joe Montana captained the team for the first half of the run, while Steve Young drove the offense for the last eight seasons. The team won five Super Bowls.
  • San Francisco drafted Alex Smith with the first overall pick in the '05 draft. He had one of the worst rookie seasons in history with 1 TD, 11 INTs and a horifically bad 1.1 ANY/A average. San Francisco had a -11.1 SRS score, and ranked 32nd in the league in both total offense and total defense. Despite ranking 30th in both points and points allowed, the 49ers won four games by five or fewer points, en route to an overachieving 4-12 record.
  • In 2006, the 49ers weren't much better. They ranked 24th in scoring and 32nd in points allowed, and had the league's second worst SRS score at -8.7. The 49ers were a terrible team that somehow managed to win 7 games. Doug blogged about how bad they were for a 7-9 team, as their points differential was the worst of any 7-win team in league history. Then, the 49ers won their first two games in 2007 -- by a total of four points, of course -- despite being outgained by 257 yards. That prompted this post by me where I wondered how could San Francisco be so bad over an 18 game stretch but still win half of their games? The answer: they were really, really lucky. The 49ers lost their next eight games, most of them in embarrassing fashion, and ended 2007 with a 4-12 record.

The 49ers from 2004 to 2007 were a perennial doormat in the league with an average SRS score of -11.3 points below average. But some interesting things have happened since then. Frank Gore, a 3rd round pick in '05, developed into a franchise running back. Patrick Willis, the 11th pick in the '07 draft, played like a dominant linebacker from the moment he first stepped onto the field. Vernon Davis, the 6th pick in the '06 draft, broke out in a huge way in 2009, tying the NFL record for touchdowns in a season by a tight end. Michael Crabtree frustrated fans and was frustrated by a long holdout in '09, but he eventually signed with the team and played very well for a rookie receiver. Justin Smith -- yes, that Justin Smith, the 4th pick in the '01 draft -- came to San Francisco after seven years with the Bengals and made his first Pro Bowl in 2009. Smith, who failed as an elite edge rushing end, fit in perfectly as part of the 49ers 3-4 front. And nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has become one of the games' hidden young gems. Oh, and Alex Smith no longer stinks.

For much of the last decade, it's been easy to write off the 49ers as irrelevant. From 2003 to 2008, the 49ers went 6-33 against playoff teams, with four of those wins coming by less than a touchdown (and the other two coming against NFC West teams). But the 2009 49ers were a very different team. And what they accomplished in '09 makes me anxious to see what will happen over the next few months.

The 2009 49ers finished the season 8-8, which is an accurate reflection of how good the team was. San Francisco lost a heartbreaking, last-second game to the Vikings early in the season, and lost five other games by a touchdown or less. They had an expected won-loss record of 9.5-6.5 because of those factors, explained by a defense that ranked 4th in points allowed and 18th in points scored. On the other hand, the 49ers' SOS was one of the three or four easiest in the league. They may have been "unlucky" in failing to win 9.5 games, but they were really lucky with their schedule; essentially, their SRS says an average team with that schedule should win 9.5 games, so we can comfortably call the 2009 San Francisco 49ers an average team. That's a big improvement over what they've been. And they continue to improve.

In the draft, San Francisco took Anthony Davis(OT-Rutgers) and Mike Iupati (OG-Idaho) in the first round; along with LT Joe Staley, the 49ers will sport three first-round offensive lineman in the starting lineup in 2010. They have elite veterans at running back and tight end, and a potential star in the making at wide receiver. Brian Westbrook and Ted Ginn bring speed to the offense, and more veteran targets for the unproven quarterback. And the defense? It's got potential to be the best unit in the conference.

Aubrayo Franklin finally signed his franchise tender and reported to camp on Saturday. Franklin played at an elite level last season, and between him and rising Ricky Jean-Francois, a former star at LSU, the 49ers should be set when it comes to beef in the middle. Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith are the defensive ends, and while they won't get many sacks, they're strong against the run. With Franklin, Sopoaga and Smith up front, and Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes playing behind them, it's no surprise that teams struggled to run the ball against the 49ers in '09. And with the drafting of Taylor Mays -- an incredible athlete and linebacker in a safety's body -- San Francisco could be even tougher to run on in 2010.

The (second) biggest worry for the 49ers relates to their pass defense. The 49ers aren't elite at either getting to the quarterback or in coverage. Fortunately for them, Matt Leinart, Matt Hasselbeck and Sam Bradford aren't elite, either. CB Shawntae Spencer emerged late last season, while Nate Clements is now fully healed from the broken scapula he suffered in the team's seventh game in '09. Tarell Brown has been impressing in camp, and gives the 49ers a strong nickel package. What about the pass rush? The 49ers will have a three-way rotation at outside linebacker, the key pass rushing position in any 3-4 defense. Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks (who missed much of August with a lacerated kidney but is expected to play in week one) and Parys Haralson may be the keys to whether this is a mediocre season or a memorable one for the 49ers. All three have flashed potential (Lawson, a first round pick, led the team in sacks last year; Brooks had 6 sacks and forced four fumbles in 14 games last season, and Haralson had 8.5 sacks in '08), but none have been consistently successful at disrupting opposing passing games.

The biggest question mark for the team, of course, resides at quarterback. In some ways, the '10 49ers look like the '09 Jets. With Frank Gore running behind one of the best run blocking units in the league, there's no reason why Mike Singletary can't get the dominant rushing game he's been craving. And anchored by Willis, the 49ers now have enough talent to be far and away the best defense in the division, and one of the best in the league. With Crabtree, Davis, Ginn, Josh Morgan, Gore and Westbrook, there are more than enough options for Alex Smith to make plays on the rare occasion when the 49ers choose to pass the ball. In '09, Smith only ranked 24th out of 32 quarterbacks in net yards per pass attempt, an ominous sign for fifth year quarterback. But he's never going to have it easier than he will in 2010. The team he inherited had nothing everything; the team he's on now is ready to compete at every position but his. This is certainly a make or break season for Smith, and if he can take a step forward in 2010, the 49ers may one again be on the precipice of another period of dominance.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 1st, 2010 at 8:18 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.