I like to ask this question in the preseason, as part of a process of setting reasonable expectations. Part of the reason I like to do this is because I think people come up with inappropriate definitions of success at times.
For example, someone might say we have a successful season if we make the playoffs. But given where we're coming from, if we go 10-6, and miss the playoffs on tiebreakers to the Rams, and 10 wins doesn't get a wild card, well, given where we were last offseason, and how much harder our schedule is ... isn't that a successful season?
By and large, when talking about a losing team, I hate coming up with a definition of success that depends on how other teams do. That is to say, making the playoffs is great - but the team has probably had a better year if they go 10-6 and miss the playoffs (which I admit is unlikely) than if they go 7-9 and make them.
Even talking about win totals, however, is somewhat suspect. For example, I expect Arizona and the Rams to be better than they were last year. And instead of the AFC West - the second weakest division in football last year - and the NFC South who was only so-so (remember, all those teams have their records inflated by playing the NFC West) we have to face the NFC East and the AFC North. So we could hypothetically be a much better team than last year and still go 6-10 or 7-9.
Therefore, I think it's useful to think about other measures of success. What do you want to see?
First of all, I want to see that Harbaugh gets the pro game as a coach. Does the team adapt its scheme, and win the battle of halftime adjustments?
Second, I want to see player development. I want to see the offensive line play show that it might be a strength in future years. I'd love it if we went into the next season confident about our QB situation (either because Smith improved a lot, or because Kaep took over and showed us enough). But mostly I want to feel confident about our O-line going forward. If we have that, I think the QB situation will take care of itself.
I want to see Gore average more than 4.5 YPA attempt, but I'd like to see him in the realm of 15-16 carries a game.
I want to see Smith complete 62% of his passes, with an under 2.8% int%, and a YPA over 7. If he does that, I'm probably going to want him back.
I'd like to see 60 yards/game from Davis, although I recognize that this isn't entirely in his control. As a marker of team success, anything less means the team isn't maximizing it's talent. I want to see Crabtree playing like he's on the same page as the QB.
I want our passing attack, overall, to feel dangerous. If by the end of the season, I'm excited when they come on to the field, if the feeling in my gut is, "Oh boy, let's see what they're going to do this time!" then something is going right. (Last year it was more, "oh god, here we go again ... please don't do <blank>").
I want our pass defense to be able to come up with some big stops when it counts.
Lastly, really, I want to see development towards these goals over the course of the season. Given the short offseason, and the fact that a new coach doesn't usually transform a team until his second season, the team has a lot of rope with me. Unless the wheels come off completely, I'm willing to be patient this year, so long as by the end of the year we're looking like a team that could achieve those goals over the course of a full season - I fully expect some early season hiccups.
I may amend this list over this week, see if I come up with new benchmarks. Obviously, wins are great - but like I said, if we hit all these benchmarks, go 10-6, and somehow miss the playoffs ... well, I'll be a little bummed, but you won't hear me complaining about it (much).
What are your benchmarks for success?