In case you didn’t know, I am a San Francisco 49ers fan.
And, like many 49ers faithful, I pay attention to a lot of what much of the national sports media says about them. After the hit they took after this year’s NFC Championship game, for example, I basked in the almost-universal praise the organization received after the NFL Draft.
On the other hand, I don’t take it very well when I believe the 49ers are being slighted. After all, this was a team in 2013 that, despite the Aldon Smith turmoil, missing Michael Crabtree for a significant amount of time, and losing 4 of their first 10 games, still finished one bad play away from the Super Bowl. That said, I didn’t take kindly to the idea that the Niners would finish third in the division, behind the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals.
So, you can imagine what I thought when I found out about Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz’s claim that the 49ers, a team that had won at least one postseason game every year under head coach Jim Harbaugh, stand at a 51.4 percent chance of making the playoffs in 2014.
According to Schatz (whose article can only be accessed currently with an ESPN Insider subscription), he believes that a combination of statistical trends, team circumstances and a number of other factors imply that it wouldn’t be surprising to see a good team like the 49ers out of postseason contention. More specifically, he bases it on the following:
We rank San Francisco fourth in projected strength of schedule. That starts with six games against the rest of the NFC West. The 49ers also play the AFC West, which sent three teams to the playoffs last year, and the NFC East, where only Philadelphia looks really good, but all four teams are at least competitive.
San Francisco also has more competition simply by playing in the NFC instead of the AFC […] That means more competition for playoff spots.
During the past two decades, teams generally seem to need a little time to get used to the quirks of their new stadiums […] for the first couple of months, San Francisco’s home-field advantage might be a little smaller than usual.
The 49ers are still waiting to find out if [Aldon Smith is] going to be suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell for off-field problems that include substance abuse and felony gun charges.
… this refers to the one major injury the 49ers already know they need to overcome: the knee that NaVorro Bowman tore up in the NFC Championship Game.
I’ll admit, Schatz – as well as other analysts who believe this could be a down year for San Francisco – makes some good points. That doesn’t mean I agree with any of them. Again, this is coming from a 49ers fan, but, who better would know how to counter these particular arguments?
Now, I’m not going to lie – at first glance, it is an intimidating schedule for any team in the NFL. It’s ranked fourth-strongest for a reason: first of all, you talk about six games against what many consider the league’s best division, and that’s bound to get chippy. Then again, you also have to remember that, for the 49ers, this is nothing new – after all, San Francisco can hang their hat on a 5-1 in-division record last season. And, even with upgrades to each team, there’s no reason they can’t pull off something like that again.
Then you look at a division in the AFC West that sent three teams to the playoffs (Denver, Kansas City, San Diego). It isn’t out of the realm of possibility the 49ers could go at least 2-2 against those teams. And, lest we forget, former San Francisco QB Alex Smith plays for KC – that could work in the defense’s favor, in that case. And the NFC East? While they always play the 49ers tough (2-2 head-to-head the past two seasons), a potentially high-octane passing offense could neutralize anything those teams could throw at them.
I mean, this argument goes along with “Schedule,” right? I can easily see a 10-win season for the 49ers, and that usually gets a team into the postseason. Granted, it didn’t work out for the Arizona Cardinals last season, but I’m not counting on that happening two years in a row.
Playing in a different city, in a new stadium – I get it. That could have an adverse effect on the team in its first year. Then again, when you hear the horror stories about their old, beloved Candlestick Park – from players and fans, themselves, no less – something tells me that acclimating to a new home field will be a dream compared to what they had to deal with in their old stomping grounds. I should know – I’ve personally seen (and smelled) the awful locker rooms that the 49ers called home all those years. New digs will likely not be a hinderance, here.
Call this some good, ol’ fashioned optimism, but the as-yet-determined suspension for key LB Aldon Smith (reportedly 6 to 8 games) will not be a make-or-break circumstance for this 49ers defense – at least, not as much as you think it will. Sure, they will miss his production – and, considering what I’ve heard out of training camp, that production could be the best of his career, thus far – but, lest we forget that they were without Aldon’s services for five games in 2013, and it certainly didn’t break their backs then – they went 5-0 in his absence. Granted, none of those five teams made the playoffs, but two of them (St. Louis, Arizona) played for the NFC West.
And, it’s not like the 49ers didn’t address this in the draft – South Florida edge rusher Aaron Lynch could fit in at some point in Smith’s stead. Ironically, he’s also had issues in his past, but if he put said issues behind him, it’s possible he could emerge as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. I’ve heard he’s that talented.
Again, this goes back to some of that home-cooked optimism, courtesy of this year’s NFL Draft: The loss of NaVorro Bowman obviously hurts the team, as one of the defense’s best players. As of now, he’s targeted to come back at midseason. But, his absence, like Aldon Smith, will not cripple this defensive team as much as you think.
It’s why the 49ers drafted Wisconsin tackling machine Chris Borland in the third round: he is currently competing with Michael Wilhoite – who, by the way, filled in admirably when LB Patrick Willis sat out at times last season – for the coveted spot beside Willis. And this is a coaching staff who is all about a “Next Man Up” philosophy.
Furthermore, the 49ers have set themselves up to succeed in both the short-term and the long-term this offseason.
Lost SS Donte Whitner to the Cleveland Browns? Grab veteran Antoine Bethea from the Colts, and draft Jimmie Ward to eventually replace him (while grooming him as a nickel CB to replace the departed Carlos Rogers).
Problems in the passing game? Bring in WRs Stevie Johnson (trade) and Bruce Ellington (fourth-round pick) to bolster the receiving core.
Potential running game issues? Bring in Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde, who looked great in his first preseason game last week.
Ultimately, I’ll concede that Schatz’s evaluation could be right: Despite the impressive draft class, the offseason moves, and a schedule that could easily be lax as well as difficult, the 49ers could find themselves out of the postseason. But, I simply believe a Jim Harbaugh team, injected with toughness and resolve all around, simply will not crumble that much.
All the 49ers can do now is prove one of us right on the field.