NFL Preview '11: San Francisco 49ers
After going 8-8 in 2009 the San Francisco 49ers were the vogue pick to break out in 2010 but an 0-5 start put the Niners in a hole they were unable to climb out of. Before year's end coach Mike Singletary was fired and San Fran ended the year 6-10.
Jim Harbaugh takes over as head coach but one change that was not made was at quarterback. Once again Alex Smith is the signal caller but he will be under heavy scrutiny especially with rookie Colin Kaepernick right behind him. In 2010 Smith put up his usual paltry numbers: 10 starts, 14 TDs, 10 INTs, 2,370 yards. However, Smith is not entirely to blame. For a fourth straight year running back Frank Gore could not play an entire season due to injury. In 11 games Gore rushed for 853 yards and scored five touchdowns, both lows since his rookie year in 2005. Wire receiver Michael Crabtree flashed his potential in games against Philadelphia and St. Louis but Crabtree has yet to consistently show the talent that made him a first round pick in 2009. Meanwhile Smith probably won't get much help from his offensive linemen who gave up 44 sacks last year and show no sign of improvement this year.
Defense was to be a hallmark of Singletary's teams but in 2010 the 49ers were average, finishing 16th in scoring and 13th in total defense. At one point the linebacker unit was on the way to being one of the best in the league but in the offseason the Niners lost Takeo Spikes and Manny Lawson. Nevertheless, Patrick Willis returns to lead a defense that did finish in the top ten against the run. However the 49ers need improvement against the pass, where they ranked 24th last year. In free agency the 49ers went after safeties Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams. The 49ers are also hoping to add a spark to the pass rush with rookie defensive end Aldon Smith.
Harbaugh certainly has his work cut out for him but incredibly, despite the poor start last year, the 49ers finished only one game out of first place. Such is life in the watered down NFC West where everyone is a contender. It all comes down to Smith. If he finally turns into a leader the 49ers have a shot. If not, it will be another disappointing year.