By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Darling Clementine
We're still trying to figure out how the San Francisco 49ers managed not to win the NFC West in 2010.
They came into the season on a steady three-year rise, they had the best team passer rating in the division, they had the best player in the division (Patrick Willis), they had the most talent in the division, they went 4-2 in the division ...
End result? 6-10, and third place in the least competitive group of underachievers since the last Cold, Hard Football Facts staff meeting.
Will new coach Jim Harbaugh, after his very successful stint at Stanford, be able to take this team from perpetual mediocrity back to the franchise glory days? Probably not in 2011, that's for sure.
The 2010 storyline: The kind of optimism that hadn't been felt since the early 2000s disappeared quickly as the 49ers started 0-5. Silver lining: they were still in the race in late December, more than they deserved.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 6-10 (19.1 PPG – 21.6 PPG)
Last five seasons overall: 33-47 (.413)
All Quality Stats
Defensive Passing YPA: 22nd
Quarterback Rating: 21st
Defensive Quarterback Rating: 23rd
Relativity Index: 23rd
Statistical curiosity of 2010
The 2010 49ers suffered the franchise's sixth season of 10+ losses since 1999. From 1981 through 1998, the 49ers never lost more than six games in a season.
Best game of 2010
27-6 win at Arizona (Week 12). There must be a lot of Arizona jerseys in the 49ers' 2010 DVD yearbook. San Francisco closed the season with a 38-7 demolition of the Cards, but it wasn't quite as good as the road win in Week 12. The 49ers rushed for 262 yards and, more importantly, kept their playoff hopes alive by climbing to a mighty 4-7.
Worst game of 2010
21-0 loss vs. Tampa Bay (Week 11). Getting shut out at home is pretty much unforgiveable, and getting shut out by a so-so Tampa defense is even worse. This one was Exhibit A in the case against coach Mike Singletary (the defendant lost).
. No team has two better players up front than the 49ers do in left defensive end Justin Smith and inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Not only are they monsters against the run, but they are the best at their positions as pass rushers – Willis led all ILBs with 6.5 sacks, and Smith led 3-4 defensive linemen with 8.5. The 49ers also allowed just 3.46 yards per rush, the second-best number in the league
While they will be looking at quarterbacks in the draft, San Francisco could also consider really making this unit a calling card with upgrades at outside linebacker; put a scary pass rusher with Smith and Willis and the effects could be legendary.
The 49ers have some solid veterans here ready to hit the market, from NT Aubrayo Franklin to ILB Takeo Spikes to OLB Manny Lawson, and should make efforts to retain all three.
Offensive Hogs. Pass defense. San Francisco got good play from one rookie first round pick, guard Mike Iupati, but tackle Anthony Davis was a nightmare in his first season. The loss of veteran Joe Staley to injury compounded matters, and the San Fran blockers were a problem again.
The 49ers rose from 29th on our Offensive Hog Index in 2008
to 21st in 2009
. So the reversion back to the bottom of the league was a real disappointment. Offensive line coach Mike Solari was replaced after one season by Harbaugh's Stanford assistant Tim Drevno, who will at least have some talent to work with. All five starters last year were either first- or second-round picks by the 49ers, four of the five since 2007. Center David Baas is a free agent.
Don't overlook San Francisco's problems in the secondary, either: despite all the talent up front, they still finished 26th in the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating. Only the rare team like an Indianapolis, with a Hall of Fame quarterback, is able to overcome such a dreadful pass defense. And even in the case of the Colts, they struggled through a 10-6 season and failed to win a single playoff game. Bad pass defense = bad teams, almost every single time.
Was the problem with San Francisco's secondary talent or Singletary's schemes? We'll find out soon enough in the Harbaugh Years.
General off-season strategy/overview
When a former quarterback takes the reins as head coach, you can expect him to try and put a stamp on the position. But trying and succeeding are two different things. Jon Gruden was a QB guru, but it took him two years to find Rich Gannon for Oakland and never really got his man in Tampa.
Neither Alex or Troy Smith was terrible in 2010, but neither was really good either – and neither is likely to return in 2011. If Harbaugh is smart (he is), he'll import a veteran and get the quarterback he wants in the draft while moving down for extra picks.
At No. 7, the top two QBs (Gabbert and Newton) will be gone, but there are five solid QB prospects to follow. A move down makes the most sense, if they can find a partner, where they can add a third-rounder and pick their choice of QB somewhere in the teens.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
The good news, of course, is that San Francisco plays in the lowly NFC West (a combined 25-39 last year, and 4-20 vs. Quality Opponents
), which means the playoffs are 8-9 wins away. More good news is that Singletary's team underachieved badly in 2010, and sometimes a new coach is enough to turn things around in a hurry.
But the lockout is pushing everything back, and the 49ers will probably have to bring in not one but two brand-new guys at the most important position on the field, quarterback. Their top players all had good seasons in 2010 and the results were sub-mediocre, so where's the upside? It'll have to come from Harbaugh.