San Francisco 49ers 2010 Season Preview: Another Gold Rush?
The 49ers earned their 8-8 record in 2009. They lost three games by three points, which indicates that they were close to being a playoff team. They also won five games in their division and added three other wins against teams that missed the playoffs, which indicates that they weren't really all that good.
The conventional wisdom has it that the close games are the truer sign of where the Niners are as they enter the 2010 season. A young team is growing into the image of Mike Singletary, not a bad one if you're looking for success in the NFL. But, as it always does in this league, making good on those lofty aspirations will come down to the quarterback.
Offense -- Judging by the amount of NFL lives he's had, Alex Smith must have a little feline in him. He's looked down into the abyss and he's climbed back up the mountain, leaving 2010 as the season that will define which one will be his long-term home. The pieces are in place for him to succeed. Jimmy Raye is back as offensive coordinator, giving Smith much-needed continuity, and Frank Gore is a durable bull in the backfield. Vernon Davis is the beast everyone thought he was coming out of college and could have a special year, if he's added consistency to his skill set this offseason. There's a nice mix of options at receiver, including Michael Crabtree. Rookies Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati may struggle at times, but they are a huge upgrade over what came before, and the offensive line is no longer a glaring weakness. In other words, no more excuses for Smith. If this team flops, it will be on him. Heat Index: 6
Defense -- You could make a pretty strong argument that Justin Smith had the best year of any defensive lineman in football last season, something that probably comes as a bit of a surprise because of his low profile. Aubrayo Franklin is similarly under-appreciated, although not by the centers whose Sundays he makes a nightmare. Patrick Willis grabs all the headlines, but that's OK because he deserves them for being the heart of a very good defense. The rest of the front seven fills roles around those three, and they do it well. Ahmad Brooks is a great pass rusher, Manny Lawson does a nice job in coverage and Takeo Spikes plays veteran leader. Safety was a trouble spot last year, but rookie Taylor Mays could give the 49ers a dose of speed and help erase some mistakes. Heat Index: 8
Special Teams -- The 49ers would like to see Ted Ginn become a deep threat for Smith on offense, but they'd settle for him helping them win the field position battle in the kicking game. Punter Andy Lee is also a weapon in that particular assignment, while Joe Nedney still has enough leg to help bail out the offense when they fall short of six. The coverage units will have to be good, since the Niners don't figure to have enough margin of error to cover for miscues. Heat Index: 6
Coaching -- In this era of Belichick clones and wunderkind offensive minds, Singletary stands out for taking a different route to the top job. He was a dynamic player and then toiled as an assistant for many years before getting a chance to lead the 49ers. His early battles with Davis helped change the trajectory of the franchise, and the coach is a big reason why everyone is so bullish on the Niners entering this season. Now he just needs to win to make everything truly take hold. Heat Index: 7
Intangibles -- Have they done enough to beat the good teams? They are clearly the best NFC West team on paper, but another year of poor performances when they step up in class will doom them to a nail-biting finish and/or another year out of the playoffs. If they do take a smack in the face against such a team, like in Week 2 against the Saints, will they be able to respond? Heat Index: 6
Total Heat Index: 33/50 -- San Francisco is good enough to win the division and they might even be good enough to win a game or two in the playoffs, but only if Smith proves to be a worthy NFL starter. We're not going to know the answer to that question until well into the season, but if it is a yes then this is probably too conservative a projection for this team.