2010 Record: 6-10
2011 Record: 13-3 (Lost Conference Championship to NYG)
2012 Record: 11-4-1 (Lost Super Bowl to BAL)
2013 Wins Over/Under: 11.5
Super Bowl Odds: 6/1 (Tied 2nd w/ DEN)
Conference Title Odds: 3/1 (1st NFC)
Coming off a season where the 49ers fell four points shy of winning their sixth Super Bowl, questions remain regarding whether they have what it takes to return to the promised land, and which Niners they’ll lean on in their battle to secure the NFC West. Here are San Francisco’s most pressing questions heading into camp.
5. Super Bowl Hangover – Fresh off a heart breaking 34-31 Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the most obvious lingering question following the 2013 NFC Champion 49ers is if they’ll fall victim to the fabled “Super Bowl Hangover.” In the 47-year history of the Super Bowl, the losing team has only returned the following season to win the championship twice (Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl VI and Miami Dolphins, Super Bowl VII). The Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos have both lost two title games consecutively, but that doesn’t compare to the four Super Bowls the Buffalo Bills lost from 1991-1994. The 1993 edition of the Bills was the last losing Super Bowl team to return to the championship, just twenty years ago.
The Niners face the ninth-toughest strength of schedule this season, seventh toughest in the NFC and they’ll also have to challenge the emerging Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West title. It’s tough to imagine the 2014 playoffs without an even better San Francisco team, but with an increasingly competitive NFC, it’s anyone’s guess come January.
4. Nnamdi Asomugha – After eight seasons and three consecutive Pro Bowl selections with the Oakland Raiders, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha landed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. Asomugha was one of Philadelphia’s myriad of big-name free agent signings that year, but was released after only two seasons as a result of failed expectations and marginal productivity, contributing to a defense ranked 30th last season.
Many of Nnamdi’s supporters are hopeful regarding his one-year deal with the 49ers, which features no guaranteed money. This optimism stems from the belief that Asomugha’s skill set did not mold well with the Eagles’ defense and that Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio presents a scheme similar to the one he thrived under in Oakland. Without Asomugha, San Francisco has arguably maintained the most formidable defense in the NFL, ranking 2nd the past two seasons. This is a low risk, high reward signing for the 49ers. Time will tell if Asomugha is able to return to his prime.
3. Anquan Boldin – Roughly a month after big brother John Harbaugh defeated him in the Super Bowl, 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh struck a deal to acquire wide receiver Anquan Boldin from the Ravens for a 2013 sixth-round draft pick. After Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco signed an unprecedented $120 million deal, the $6 million Boldin was due in 2013 became expendable. Call it a consolation, “Sorry for crushing your dreams little brother” prize for the 49ers.
With Michael Crabtree’s season in jeopardy after suffering a torn-Achilles, and now Mario Manningham’s status listed as questionable to begin the season, Boldin looks primed to serve as the 49ers first option at receiver. Will he be able to take on this responsibility in a new offense, centered around a running quarterback like Colin Kaepernick? Primarily a slot-receiver, the Niners will surely be looking at Boldin to make big plays downfield.
2. The Smith Brothers – Few tandems in the NFL were more terrorizing for offenses across the league last season than defensive end Jason Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Ten seasons separate the two Missouri men, but both operate like veterans. Aldon collected 19.5 sacks in his sophomore year, finishing just second to J.J. Watt’s 20.5. In doing so, he broke Reggie White’s NFL record of fastest player to achieve 30 sacks, a mark he broke in 27 games. This accolade, amongst others, helped him to earn the honor of being named NFC Defensive Player of the Year.
Jason Smith is coming off his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl season, constantly drawing two offensive linemen at a time while opening the door for Aldon to prey on helpless quarterbacks. This two-headed beast serves as the foundation of the 49ers’ lethal defense, providing them with the versatility needed to force turnovers and make red-zone trips infrequent. Can the two maintain this presence? Or will opposing offenses find a way to eliminate the effectiveness of one or the other?
1. Colin Kaepernick – One of the 2012 season’s greatest storylines was the rise to greatness of back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In a moment similar to Tom Brady’s catapult to glory, Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith was sidelined with concussion symptoms. His energy, passion and athleticism helped him not only secure the starting job in San Francisco, but lead the Niners to the Super Bowl in the process. The biggest question this off-season in San Francisco is simply this: Will Colin Kaepernick face a sophomore-slump in his first full season as starter?
We all know from Kaepernick’s theatrics he can scramble and run the ball down field explosively. His ability to orchestrate a read-option offense with little professional experience is beyond impressive. What remains to be seen is if Kaepernick can continue to develop his arm, not only throwing the football accurately, but also understanding which situations dictate a throw-first, run second scenario. If Kaepernick can continue to improve his Football IQ without sacrificing his versatility, he may easily become one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL.