The San Francisco 49ers have the best record in the NFL since head coach Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011. The team won 36 of their 48 regular season games but suffered three heartbreaking playoff losses (twice in the NFC Championship Game and once in Super Bowl XLVII) and essentially finished each season empty-handed. Is this the year the Niners will finally succeed?
Improving the roster is imperative when you compete in the strongest division in the NFL and the 49ers had quite the turnover in the offseason.
A lot has been made about the departures of S Donte Whitner, CB Carlos Rogers and CB Tarrell Brown, presumably making the secondary weaker, but the acquisitions of S Antoine Bethea (Indianapolis) and CB Chris Cook (Minnesota) are adequate replacements. San Francisco's defensive backfield may lack a superstar but its depth is extraordinary, which is a true asset in a pass-happy league.
C Jonathan Goodwin left for the New Orleans Saints. C Daniel Kilgore, his replacement, comes from within the team's own ranks. He is a versatile offensive lineman but new to the center position. There may be a learning curve involved but the Niners are confident that he gets the job done.
In recent years San Francisco's receiving corps suffered injuries that left the unit thin at this position. The Niners lost WR Mario Manningham to the New York Giants in the offseason but acquired WR Stevie Johnson (Buffalo), WR Brandon Lloyd (New England) and WR Bruce Ellington (Draft) and now appear extremely deep at the wide receiver position. QB Colin Kaepernick has plenty of reliable targets to excel as a passer and San Francisco's aerial attack should become much more dangerous this season.
One big area of concern are the contract negotiations with head coach Jim Harbaugh. He wants to be paid like a Super Bowl winning coach (his brother earns $2m more per year and has actually won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens) and the 49ers want him to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to San Francisco before they give him a pay rise. This must not become a distraction because Harbaugh's main concern should be winning ballgames.
There have also been reports of a growing rift between the head coach and several key players. Whether those reports are true is a different story but good team chemistry is necessary in order to achieve the goals.
The competition did not sleep either. The Seattle Seahawks may have lost some solid contributors but the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots look better on paper than they did one year ago.
49ers Keys to Success
Colin Kaepernick's progress needs to continue. He is a great scrambler but the option offense is so much more effective with great pocket presence.
RB Frank Gore must not slow down. Last year his numbers were down compared to previous seasons, though 1,128 yards, 4.1 yards per carry and 9 rushing touchdowns are still good statistics. Gore's backups are more or less unproven players, hence the Niners rely on another productive season from the 31-year old veteran.
A healthy roster. Derrick Deese, Super Bowl winning right guard with the 49ers in 1995, believes that the Niners should have a great shot at going to the dance again as long as the injury bug doesn't bite them. ILB NaVorro Bowman will miss half the season with a knee injury, so it's important that the rest of San Francisco's key players stay healthy.All things considered, the 49ers are one of the favorites to win Super Bowl XLIX but the road to Glendale, Az is going to be long and tough. Winning the NFC West and clinching home-field advantage are important to avoid going to hostile places. After that, everything is possible.