by Jason Comack
It seems weird that an upstart team, with a very popular head coach, who by Vegas lines is a Super Bowl favorite would need defending. However, that is the case with the 49ers when it comes to the statistically community.
Football Outsiders has done wonderful research on the game of football and their conclusions and opinions are often very accurate. One of their big predictions for the upcoming season is that the 49ers will have between 7 and 8 wins. There's several very valid points that led them to that conclusion.
- Regression towards the mean and the plexiglass principle. Every team is dragged towards .500 every year, also teams that take a big leap tend to drop off the next year.
- Offense is more consistent then defense and defense is more consistent then special teams.
- Teams that took a giant leap in DVOA (Football Outsiders main all encompassing stat) as the 49ers did fell by nearly 2.3 wins the next year.
- The 49ers were one of the healthiest teams on defense the past two seasons. Injuries regress to the mean.
Bill Barnwell, formerly of Football Outsiders now of Grantland.com, also alluded to the 49ers inevitable demise:
“The Niners improved by a full seven wins last year, going from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 during their huge season last year. Ten other teams have made a seven-win leap since the advent of the 16-game season in 1978. They each declined during the subsequent season, winning an average of 4.7 games less than they had during the previous year. Gulp.”
Barnwell also compares the 2012 Niners to least years Buccaneers:
“I didn't know that the team would quit on their young coach, but I did see a team that had improved by seven wins from the previous season against an extremely easy schedule and doubted that they would be able to maintain their gains. Oh, um, you should probably clean that vomit off the floor, Niners fans.”
All of the above are fair criticisms of the 49ers however, there are plenty of reasons why they can buck these trends.
It's inane to compare Harbaugh to Raheem Morris. Morris was a young head coach, who was very inexperienced. Harbaugh on the other hand paid his dues as an assistant coach for many years and presided over a very successful Stanford program. There's no metric that we can use to assign wins and losses to a head coach. However, we’ve seen coaches can definitely have significant negative value ( Mike Singletary) and significant positive value (Bill Bellicheck.) Harbaugh alone may be able to mask many of the 49ers deficiencies
Speaking of poor head coaches look at the Niners leaders after Steve Marrucci: Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary.
One of Football Outsiders theories is that since the Niners had such a drastic year to year improvement it can't be sustained. But, what if the roster talent was there all along but it was the coaching staff that held them back.
The lack of injuries is a fair point but it also ignores the fact that the Niners have a very deep roster. When Patrick Willis went out Larry Grant filled in and didn't miss a beat. Aldon Smith who only played in certain packages last year is starting (pushing Parys Harrelson to the bench.) Back up defensive lineman DeMarcus Dobbs and Ricky Jean-Francois looked promising in limited action last year. Chris Culliver could easily fill a starting role should either Terrell Brown or Carlos Rogers get hurt. It's safe to assume more injuries, but assuming the 49ers don't have capable backups is a silly one.
Alex Smith only threw 5 interceptions last season. There's no chance he'll be able to keep his interception rate as low as it was last year. However, there's plenty of reason to think the 49ers offense will be better as a unit. By Pro Football Focus's grading system Chilo Richal and Adam Snyder, the combo of right guards started last year, were horrendous. Replacing them this year is Alex Boone, a converted tackle. Boone is an unknown commodity but he did well in limited action as a tackle. It also wouldn't take much to improve upon the production they got last season. The 49ers also signed guard Leonard Davis this off-season to compete with him. Davis has bounced around the league the last few years but by all accounts he's healthy, motivated and in shape this season.
In the NFC Championship game Delanie Walker played the role of WR showcasing the dismal amount of the depth the 49ers had at the position. This off-season the Niners added Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and first round pick A.J. Jenkins. They also re-signed Ted Ginn. This means that Kyle Williams, who started in the NFC championship game is now on the roster bubble.
At running back the Niners added an explosive element to a slow offense with rookie LaMichael James. James, along with last years impressive rookie Kendall Hunter, will add a different dimension to the offense.
For the first team in nearly a decade the 49ers have the same playbook from one year to the next. You can't put a tangible value on how important that continuity is but the best teams in the NFL (Giants, Eagles, Pats, Steelers, Ravens) don't overhaul the playbook every single year.
We also don't know what the tangible value of the 49ers having a full training camp will be. Remember what made last year all the more impressive is that Harbaugh did all this in the lockout shortened season.
Yes there will be injuries, and yes Alex Smith will probably throw a whole lot more interceptions. However, it's foolish to punish these Niners because of the incompetent coaches of the past decade. It's doubtful they'll win 13 games, but, they still play in the NFC West and 10 wins should earn them a division crown.
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