First off, many thanks for the positive feedback last week. It meant a lot to see my work being read and appreciated.
However, now I’ve done that, and got you all on my side, it’s time to upset people. Being the kind of person I am, by my very nature, I am an extremely bold, outspoken person (those who know me reading this are nodding already). So when I started to think about ideas for my next article, I thought I would make some bold predictions, Skip Bayless style. Except I’m much more fun to read and far less of a prick. Regardless, here are four big predictions on the 49ers:
1. Frank Gore is pretty much done.
The howls of derision begin. Look, Frank Gore has been an incredible football player for the San Francisco 49ers over the last few years. For the avoidance of quoting Wikipedia, I’m not going to look up the stats or the records, but in a short form, they’re high, and there’s a lot. One that immediately springs to mind is the all-time rushing record, that he took from Joe Perry last year. This is not all that surprising, as in many ways (particularly during later Nolan and early Singletary eras), he was not only the focus of the offense (“we go out, we hit people in d mouf” – eurgh), but he was the heartbeat of an otherwise dying football team.
And in many ways, it feels like we’ve been here before – many will recall the start of last season when, after a contract dispute, he started the season extremely slowly. This began the first whisperings that, maybe, the 49ers had overused Gore, that he’d passed his peak, and that maybe the new contract was a mistake. Happily, he seemed to move past that, going on to have a solid year, one of his best, in fact, statistically, and being a big part of the run to the NFC Championship game. It’s important to note, though, that he began to share carries on a more regular basis (in some games, getting less) with Kendall Hunter, and occasionally, with Anthony Dixon (guess he doesn’t have to worry about that this season).
Why do I say he’s pretty much done? I said above that I still expect him to have a solid year, but the sentence above this one kind of describes why I think we might see Gore fade from the picture. It’s one thing sharing carries with a rookie Hunter, and a (diabolical in my view) part-time 3rd down back like Dixon, but looking at the probabilities of this season, I can only see more ways to split the same, or less, carries. We now have Hunter (more experienced in the O), Jacobs (big back, more reliable than Dixon, will take his carries and some of Gore’s too, I suspect, especially on 1st down), and finally, the water bug, x-factor, that is LaMichael James. I don’t think Baalke or Harbaugh is interested in drafting someone in the 2nd round to then not allow them to have a significant role in the offense. Moreover, I really think the drafting of Hunter last year and James this year has been done with an eye towards phasing Gore out of the picture. I see that starting to happen this year.
Summation: Yes, Gore is fantastic, and will have another solid year, but watch him start to fade from the picture.
2. Alex Smith will not win a Superbowl. (with Colin Kaepernick references)
I know this one’s going to split people, and I will one day have to expand my arguments presented in this little snippet, so I’m going to write a longer article on this eventually. But for now, a brief summary of the salient points. There is no doubt Alex Smith has progressed under Jim Harbaugh – I touched on that in my last column. Physically and mentally, he’s at his best level since he came into the NFL. Coming into this season, he must be feeling confident, happy, and settled, after finally earning a medium-term deal with the 49ers, with a coaching staff he likes and respects. All this would seem to indicate a good situation for Smith, and it must also be strange to say that Alex Smith won’t win a Superbowl, having seen him get within touching distance of making one (and, in a strange way, I think we might have had the team to beat the Patriots) last year.
So why am I saying it? Well, I normally hate this view, but it can be described in a one word term – ‘windows’. Put simply, I think under his current deal, and with pressure from Kaepernick and Josh Johnson, he has a maximum of two years (and I’m not confident on that) to get a ring in San Francisco. Why? Well, not only have people like Josh Johnson been picked up to add competition (who is familiar with Harbaugh’s system, having played in it at the University of San Diego), but, as with LaMichael James, Colin Kaepernick was drafted with a 2nd round pick – traded up for, in fact.
Quarterbacks are not generally taken so highly, by any team, let alone a team with a QB that’s had one good season (maybe two, one under Norv Turner, if I’m feeling charitable), to never get a shot starting. Indeed, we saw many instances last season of Kaepernick coming in for spot duty, and by all accounts he’s coming along nicely in practice. Combine this with the Alex Smith contract drama, along with the Manning pursuit, and it becomes really clear that, if there’s an improvement to be made, Harbaugh will make it. With that in mind, one has to assume that Smith is on a very short leash. Would that matter if the team plays well again this year?
Of course not, and I think the team is talented enough around him to keep him in the job for the entirety of his new contract. I’ve already said in the last column that I think Harbaugh coaching us will leave us in contention for the playoffs each year, and despite a slight decline (as I previously explained in my last column), I think that will remain the case. But in my view, a combination of Kaepernick’s continual development (and let’s not rule out Josh Johnson, who has much experience with Harbaugh and his system), and the slight decline in wins (again, last column), will keep Smith away from both getting to and winning the big game. I believe, for the first time, that Smith has the mental and physical makeup to win one – unfortunately, it’s come at a time when the development behind him is slowly starting to push him out of a job.
Summation: I would be happy to see it happen, but I don’t think Alex Smith will win a Superbowl. He’s capable himself, but his window is closing, and in my view, with the team around him as well, it’s closing too fast to see it happening. Colin Kaepernick or A.N Other, however, may later benefit from the level Smith leaves the team at.
3. Randy Moss is going to be fantastic. As is AJ Jenkins (eventually).
A definite focus for the 49ers this offseason was the WR position. While we had needs at guard and possibly defensive back, it’s hard to question that line of thought from Baalke and Harbaugh, particularly after the ‘one catch for 3 yards’ debacle in the NFC Championship game, which may or may not have been a result of having to play people like Joe Hastings and Brett Swain at the position last year. The busting of Braylon Edwards, the injury (and loss in Free Agency) of Josh Morgan, and the inconsistency of Michael Crabtree probably also contributed to the decision to make the position the one of the utmost importance.
The position was addressed both in the draft and free agency, with varying levels of popularity. There were two undoubtedly controversial moves made via both methods. Sandwiching the popular signing of Mario Manningham (which, considering his stature after the Superbowl, was done cheaply, efficiently, and sensibly by Baalke), were two polarizing, extremely bold moves – firstly, the signing of freakish athlete and future Hall Of Famer Randy Moss, out of retirement – and then, at the NFL Draft, taking under-the-rader Illinois WR AJ Jenkins in the 1st round.
Unlike some, I love both moves, and here’s why. Firstly, I firmly believe Randy Moss is going to be fantastic for the San Francisco 49ers. While I highly doubt we will see the Moss of the Patriots (due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is the gulf in quality between the two team’s QBs), because of his time retired, even Moss at 50% gives the 49ers something that they haven’t had in a long time – both a good mentor for the young WRs (there are already reports that he is the first in every meeting, and all the WRs are joining him as a result), and a genuine deep threat that will scare teams. I rate Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis (I know he’s a TE, but follow me on this), but neither will frighten a D quite like someone of Moss’s speed and physical ability. Indeed, while I rate Crabtree, he seems more like a very good possession receiver than someone who will frighten Ds. Perhaps Moss will help him develop and/or provide that threat himself.
Regardless, I feel confident that I’ll see Moss have a great year. He has a lot to prove to a lot of people, not least himself, and to repay the faith shown by Harbaugh and Baalke. When indulged, admired and wanted by the teams he is on, in a strong environment, we see Moss at his best. With Harbaugh and an assortment of respected veterans (Carlos Rogers, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore), this is a perfect environment for Moss to thrive in. He’s going to have a fantastic year, one way or another – if it’s not visible on the field, it will be off it, as the younger guys develop because of what he can teach them.
Speaking of younger guys, the second controversial move was the drafting of AJ Jenkins. First off, enough with the ‘reach’ talk. At the end of the first round, there’s always a couple of tweener players, who fall between the first and second rounds. When you combine that with the fact that the Rams were supposedly planning to take him at the top of the second round – which, considering they took Brian Quick, may have a ring of truth to it – it’s easy to see why, if Baalke rated Jenkins so highly, his name was on the card for us at the 30th pick.
Now onto the actual player. I cannot deny that, thus far, the reports haven’t been good. There’s clearly a lot to work on for him, not least his strength and durability. With that in mind, I can’t, like with Moss, predict a huge season, and I’m not going to. What I will say about AJ Jenkins is that I believe, with time, he’ll become worthy of the pick we made. Rather like many other WRs picked in the later slots in previous drafts (Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt, Dez Bryant), it may take a while for him to hit his true peak, or even, with Manningham/Moss/Crabtree and possibly even Kyle Williams in front of him, to find the field. But I do believe, with hard work and application, AJ Jenkins will prove himself worthy of a first round pick.
4. The 49ers will win a Superbowl under Jim Harbaugh.
This one’s easy, and short, because I already explained it in my last column! Jim Harbaugh, for me, will become one of, if not the, top coach in the NFL. I believe he’ll do that by winning a Superbowl, if not multiple. And it will happen at the San Francisco 49ers. After taking last years team to the NFC Championship game, it can only be imagined what Harbaugh is going to cook up with a better, more developed, more knowledgeable side. I look forward to more success under him.
And with that, I’ve strapped these predictions on my shoulder to weigh me down, and I’m done. Comments, feedback and abuse are welcome.
Til next time.