Last year in these hallowed digital pages I expressed some skepticism over the direction of the Mike Singletary 49ers. It was (is?) a little disconcerting to me that the NFL is obviously a passing league, most of the elite teams are elite b/c they have a great passing game, and Singletary seemed intent on building a smashmouth running team that would try and win games 16-13. I said they’d go 7-9 and they went 8-8. You can’t win them all, but you can win one for every one you lose apparently.
The 9ers did some good things in the offseason: they attempted to improve the weaker points of the team, they kept the offensive coordinator for the 1st time in 6 years and they stayed in the NFC West.
If you are going to run the football you need to have a good offensive line. Last year the 9ers’ offensive line was…not good. They led the NFL in runs for 0 or 1 yards, although that might have had a little to do with the Reverend Glen Coffee doing his best Derek Loville impersonation. Really, though, the fact that Frank Gore got 1100+ yards and averaged 4.9 yards/carry with the group they had last year is pretty remarkable. So what did they do? They became only the 2nd team in the last 15 years to use 2 1st round picks on offensive linemen. Mike Iuputi should be a plus starter from day one and Anthony Davis will be up and down but should at least be an improvement over the execrable Adam Snyder.
Another problem area was the return game. They might as well have accepted every kick at the 20 without a return attempt for all the explosiveness they had with it, and Arnaz Battle, the main punt returner, averaged 2.9 yards per punt return, which seems incredible considering he is 6’0” tall and so if he caught every punt and just fell forward down on his face he would have averaged 2 yards a return. Former Ohio State Buckeye great Theodore Ginn Jr. was brought in to take kickoffs back past the 20 and rookie Kyle Williams was brought in to get more than 3 yards on punt returns.
The passing game should be improved this year as well, with the same coordinator and system returning finally, a hopefully improved Alex Smith, a full season of Michael “Practice? We talkin’ about practice?“ Crabtree and some speed on the outside in Ginn.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the 9ers are still in the NFC West. It is very hard to see the Rams, Seahawks or Cardinals winning more than 8 games so you would think if the 9ers could just improve by 1 game they would win the West. And with the improvements on offense and special teams, a very good defense returning basically to a man and a relatively weak schedule I see no reason why they can’t go 9-7 and make the playoffs for the 1st time since 2002. And once you get to the playoffs anything can happen. Maybe I like this kind of party after all.