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Patrick Willis and the 49ers hope to knock the archrival Seahawks from their perch atop the NFC West
How much heartbreak can a team take and keep pushing for the Super Bowl? The 49ers are about to find out. The 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes died last season with a crushing 23–17 loss in the NFC Championship Game to the Seattle Seahawks. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s first-down pass from the Seahawks’ 18 to Michael Crabtree was tipped by cornerback Richard Sherman in the end zone and intercepted by Malcolm Smith with under a minute left. Two years ago the 49ers suffered a 34–31 Super Bowl loss to Baltimore as their final drive ended with three straight Kaepernick incomplete passes from the Ravens’ 5-yard line. Three years ago the 49ers reached the NFC title game in coach Jim Harbaugh’s rookie season but lost 20–17 in overtime to the New York Giants.
“It’s like Sisyphus, all the way to the top and then the season ends and the boulder rolls all the way back to the bottom,” Harbaugh said in March. “Then we’re pushing again. We’re going to start pushing that rock, that boulder, see if we can get it to the very top.”
After their painful loss to Seattle, the 49ers had an offseason filled with front-office controversy and troubling off-the-field incidents. There were reports of a feud between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke and questions about Harbaugh’s future with the team. Time could be running out for Harbaugh to lead the 49ers to the top of the NFL’s mountain.
After ranking 30th in passing last season at a dismal 186.2 yards per game, the 49ers appear ready to climb at least into the middle of the pack and have a more balanced overall offense. They re-signed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who led the team with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season as a 49er, and traded for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who had three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2010-12. What’s more, the 49ers should have a healthy Crabtree — Kaepernick’s favorite receiver — from the outset. Last year, Crabtree missed the first 11 games with a torn Achilles tendon. In Boldin, Crabtree, Johnson and explosive tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick has four quality targets. Wideout Brandon Lloyd, a free-agent pickup, would make five, if he earns a job. All the 49ers are lacking is an experienced speed receiver to stretch the field.
In his first full season as a starter last year, Kaepernick averaged only 199.8 yards passing per game with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Kaepernick has one of the NFL’s best fastballs, but he needs to improve his accuracy and his ability to read defenses in order to become an elite quarterback. He is already one of the NFL’s most dangerous running quarterbacks. Although offensive coordinator Greg Roman cut back on the number of read-option plays, Kaepernick still rushed for 524 yards in the regular-season and 243 more in the playoffs.
Frank Gore rushed for over 1,000 yards last season for the third straight year and seventh time in his career, but he averaged a career-low 4.1 yards per carry. Gore keeps himself in remarkable shape, and his passion for the game hasn’t waned. But he turned 31 in May, and the 49ers will likely reduce his load by giving more carries to rookie Carlos Hyde and and possibly Marcus Lattimore, who spent his rookie season recovering from a knee injury. Kendall Hunter was part of the equation until he tore his ACL during training camp.
Gore will run behind one of the NFL’s top offensive lines that returns four starters — tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone. Center Daniel Kilgore is expected to replace Jonathan Goodwin.
The 49ers still boast one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses, featuring stars such as Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis and lineman Justin Smith, but a few cracks have appeared in what once was an all but impenetrable defensive wall.
One year after losing free safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent, the 49ers parted ways with three more defensive backs who started during their 2012 Super Bowl season. Strong safety Donte Whitner signed with Cleveland; cornerback Tarell Brown signed with the Raiders; and cornerback Carlos Rogers was cut to clear salary cap room and joined Brown in Oakland.
The 49ers signed ex-Colts strong safety Antoine Bethea as a free agent to replace Whitner. Bethea and free safety Eric Reid, coming off a Pro Bowl rookie season, should form a solid tandem. Tramaine Brock, who impressed while starting seven games for an injured Brown last season, is slated to open this season as a starter. But the 49ers have no proven candidates to start opposite Brock or at nickel cornerback, a role that Rogers owned. Chris Culliver appears to be the leading candidate to win a starting job at corner despite missing last season with a knee injury. He also raised red flags when he was arrested after a hit-and-run incident involving a bicyclist during the offseason. Safety Jimmie Ward, the team’s top draft pick, will likely fill the nickel role, covering receivers in the slot.
Willis, Smith and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, anchor a defense that ranked fourth against the run last season. But inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered a gruesome left knee injury during the NFC title game. Bowman will start the season on the PUP list, meaning he will miss at least the first six games, and it's still unclear whether he’ll return as the dominant force he’s been the past three seasons. Michael Wilhoite is expected to fill in until Bowman recovers. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had a combined 33.5 sacks in 2011 and 2012, could face NFL suspension after two arrests for DUIs as well as a felony weapons charge stemming from a wild party at his home in June 2012. He was also arrested this offseason at Los Angeles International Airport when he allegedly became belligerent and told a TSA officer that he had a bomb. Last year Smith entered a facility for substance abuse and missed five games.
San Francisco also will be without the services of tackle Glenn Dorsey, who tore his biceps during training camp, for an extended period of time. Dorsey has already had surgery to repair the damage and the team is hopeful he will be able to return at some point this season. A free-agent addition prior to last season, the 49ers have been so pleased with what Dorsey has already brought that they signed him to a two-year contract extension after he suffered the biceps injury.
In placekicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee, the 49ers have one of the NFL’s strongest kicking tandems. Dawson, a former Brown, had a stellar first campaign as a 49er, earning a two-year contract extension. He made 32-of-36 field goals, including a team-record 27 straight. Lee averaged 48.2 yards per punt, third best in the NFL, with a net of 41.7, which ranked fourth. Running back LaMichael James averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and 26.8 yards per kickoff return last season. The question is whether James will be on the roster when the season begins. He’s unhappy over his lack of playing time, reportedly wants to be traded and was sidelined early on in training camp by a dislocated elbow.
The 49ers still have enough talent to make another Super Bowl run, but they have plenty of reasons to be concerned. If the 49ers don’t unseat reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFC West, they’ll have to battle again for a wild card spot. Last year’s wild card run included three road games, ending with the heartbreaking loss at Seattle.