State of the Franchise: San Francisco 49ers

Last Season: 6-10 (3rd place, NFC West – missed playoffs)

The 49ers entered the 2010 season as the odds on favorite to win the NFC West in what was widely considered to be a down year. Well, the NFC West was surely the worst division in the entire NFL, sending a division champ that finished under-.500 to represent it in the playoffs. One problem: that team wasn’t the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers terrible season eventually cost head coach Mike Singletary his job, who often fought with mercurial quarterback Alex Smith, among others.

Singletary pulled Alex Smith as his starting quarterback after a Week Seven loss to the Carolina Panthers, during which Smith threw for 129 yards on 9-of-19 passing. The following week, former Heisman Trophy award winner Troy Smith took over at the starting quarterback position for the next five weeks. Though Troy Smith led the 49ers to three wins during that stretch, he never proved to be a reliable passer in the pocket. Alex Smith took the reigns back in time for a Week 14 win against the Seattle Seahawks, 40-21. However, the team’s horrendous 0-5 start, coupled with the constant sideline bickering between Alex Smith and Singletary cost the 49ers their season, and they missed the playoffs by one game.

Replacing Singletary at the head coaching position is former stand-out college quarterback and coach, Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh had just finished leading Andrew Luck and the Stanford Cardinal to an Orange Bowl victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Niners gave Harbaugh a huge five-year contract, hoping that the offensive-minded coach could bring some sense and stability to their futile passing attack.

The passing game is the biggest question mark heading into this off-season. Owning the seventh overall selection in this year’s 2011 NFL Draft, the 49ers are one of many teams considering a quarterback at the top. Options that may entice first year head coach Jim Harbaugh include Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallet, and BCS Championship-winning Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. However, one of the notions floating around many NFL insider circles is that Harbaugh isn’t necessarily ready to give up on former number one overall selection Alex Smith.

Smith has played for six different offensive coordinators in his six NFL seasons. Now that Harbaugh is in charge, however, the notion is stability has been brought to the franchise and Smith will be able to adapt under what is thought to be a stable offensive system. The exterior pieces are there for the 49ers offensive attack. They have one of the most reliable running backs in the league in Frank Gore, who ran for 853 yards and six touchdowns before a season-ending hip injury halted his production. The team also has two huge weapons in the passing game in second-year wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight-end Vernon Davis. Davis led the Niners in yards with 914, touchdowns with seven and 56 receptions. Crabtree, meanwhile, added 55 receptions for 741 yards and six touchdowns.

Furthermore, the 49ers are working hard towards establishing a reliable offensive line. Last year, with the team owning two first round picks, the selected two lineman who started for them last season: tackle Anthony Davis out of Rutgers and guard Mike Iupati out of Idaho. Both lineman provided solid production in their rookie campaigns, and should continue to develop into a promising foundation along the front.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive front seven has never been a problem for San Francisco. Led by four-time Pro Bowler and former defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis, the 49ers linebackers and down lineman have always performed admirably. Though the team finished middle of the road across the board on defense, the team was mostly abused by their aging secondary corps. While four-year safety Dashon Goldson provided an unexpected spark in the defensive backfield, recording 80 tackles and one interception, the rest of the unit was utterly disappointing. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Clements disappointed, constantly getting burnt by other team’s number one receivers, and Shawntae Spencer struggled on the opposite side as well.

While the team believes they have a strong pairing at their safety position, with Goldson lining up along side former USC standout Taylor Mays, the team would love to improve along the wings. With Harbaugh apparently leaning towards retaining Alex Smith at quarterback, the team is in prime position to land one of the two top cornerback prospects with pick number seven in the draft: LSU’s Patrick Peterson or Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara. Peterson has been listed as the number one talent in the draft on many expert’s big boards, and if he falls to the 49ers at seven, expect them to make a move on the shutdown corner.

The 49ers have the pieces to compete as soon as next year. This is very much the same team that was expected to put up monster numbers in the weak NFC West one year ago. However, their two glaring holes need to be answered in order for this team to remain competitive. The quarterback position, be it Alex Smith or one of the prospects in this year’s NFL Draft, needs to have a defined starter. The team cannot waffle in between games as it did a year ago. Also, in order for the defensive unit to be complete and function properly, the team must get younger at both cornerback positions. The team will have the opportunity to get an immediate-impact corner if they so choose to draft one. But, that’s the million dollar question with this Niners bunch:

Which direction do they head with the seventh pick in April’s NFL Draft?

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About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

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