WARNING - I wrote a lot on this one. If you have the stomach - and the time - for 2500+ words of armchair managing and Tuesday Morning (morning here meaning evening after the super bowl) Quarterbacking, please follow me on this magical ride. It'll be fun! There's a warning (which you are now reading) and a disclaimer and everything! There might even be pie at the end! Anyway, super-long warning over - enjoy super-long FanPost.
I'm not embarrassed to say that I got really pissed off at the end of the NFC Championship game. I was so pissed off, in fact, that I took a two week break from all things sports. No ESPN, no podcasts, no SB Nation, no NBA 2K12 - anything to do with sports whatsoever. I took a break from it all until the Super Bowl.
But it's time for myself, and for us all, to come to terms with what happened. The 49ers should have won that game. They could have converted a third down. Kyle Williams could have fallen on his first loose ball or secured his second. They could have gotten more than one catch for three yards from their wide receivers. They didn't, they lost, and the Giants won the championship (which are words I hope to repeat in nine months). And now it's time for the Niners' front brass to figure out what to do next year. Here's what I'd set my to-do list as this offseason if I were in their place.
DISCLAIMER: I am not pretending to know more than the 49ers front office and coaches. If they make a move I don't like or you don't like, it's almost certainly been well-researched and comes from a place of greater knowledge (and greater information - we only watch as fans, they're observing MUCH more) than any of us has.
- Resign Alex Smith. Was he great in the NFC Championship game? No, he was not. He finished with only 12 completions on 26 attempts, and while some long passes to Vernon Davis inflated his passer rating, his QBR (which isn't the be-all end-all of QB stats but counts for something) was only 30.6 (for the uninitiated, QBR grades on a scale of 0-100, with 50 being average). He also had trouble on third downs - the Niners finished 1 for 13, with the only conversion being on a Hail Mary to end regulation that converted but did not score. That said, though, we must be careful not to let sample size affect our judgement. Remember, Smith was incredible in the New Orleans game, and he had a great season despite not having many weapons to speak of. Besides, we don't have any better options - trading up high enough in the draft to get Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III would require a massive investment, and the only free agent options are Matt Flynn (who is rather unproven, and anyway is likely to follow his former OC, Joe Philbin, to the Dolphins) or Peyton Manning, who is great but would require a massive overpayment and has questionable health. Nay, says I. Alex Smith has earned a chance with a stable coaching staff that's good for him, and the Niners should focus on putting more weapons around him. Since I'm sure Smith's grateful to Harbaugh for having faith in him and does not want to switch systems again when he has a good situation here, I see no reason why this doesn't get done.
- Resign Carlos Rogers. Rogers showed this year that he's one of the best corners in the league. In a passing league, we must have a defense that can hold up against the pass. There's a huge difference between a backfield of Rogers and Tarell Brown/Chris Culliver in the 2 and 3 slots and one in which Brown and Culliver have to cover a team's 1 and 2 receivers. Getting back Rogers is huge for our defense, which has the potential to be dominant.
- Wait out Dashon Goldson. Goldson, while a very solid, opportunistic safety, is somewhat overrated and often botches plays. I'd take a similar strategy to last year - I'd establish a value for him and if he wants a contract that well exceeds the value, let him test the market. While I'd love Goldson to come back, Rogers must be priority number one among our free agents. If Goldson walks, it would be bad but not crushing.
- Sign a wide receiver. There are plenty of good free agent wide receivers this year, including Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Steve Johnson, Mario Manningham, and Robert Meachem. As well, though they are very likely to remain with their teams, Wes Welker and Marques Colston are available. Any of those guys would be a huge addition to a group that had just one catch for 3 yards in the NFC Championship game. With the addition of Josh Morgan returning from injury (assuming we re-sign him), our receiving corps could be a lot better next year - how would Bowe, Michael Crabtree, Morgan, Williams, and Ted Ginn Jr look? - but Lord knows, it better be. Hell, I'd even be OK with a Braylon Edwards style flier on someone like Reggie Wayne. This is the number one need of the team, and they must do something to address it this offseason. More on this in the Draft section.
- Resign the following (assuming they aren't asking for insane money): Ted Ginn Jr (who proved his value by being injured), Ahmad Brooks (very solid OLB - he, Justin Smith, and Aldon Smith should provide great pass rush), Adam Snyder (when he came in, our line instantly got better), Josh Morgan (solid WR who'd be a fantastic #3), and CJ Spillman/Blake Costanzo (two of the MVPs of our all-world ST unit).
- Let the following walk (assuming they don't accept the minimum): Chilo Rachal (should be obvious, but if not, watch some Ravens game tape), Moran Norris (with Bruce Miller in the fold, he's expendable), Reggie Smith (does a mean dougie but not great on the field - take him off this list if we don't re-sign Goldson). I don't really care about anyone not mentioned above.
- Our top five needs, dependent of course on FA: WR, OG, CB, S, OLB. If we can get one of those marquee wideouts I mentioned earlier, WR falls a lot on our need list. If we can't resign Carlos Rogers, CB rockets to the top. Same with S and Dashon Goldson. What positions we need will depend a lot on what happens in free agency.
- If we don't have any significant needs, draft the best player available. This should seem obvious, but many teams fool themselves into not doing this and drafting a perceived need. Note that this only applies if we sign a free agent WR and bring back Carlos Rogers - if not, WR and CB are positions of serious need. However, if we do both of those things and don't have a glaring need, then we should do the smart thing and take the best player available, even if he plays a stacked position like ILB.
- Seriously consider trading up (if we're sure we like the player we're trading up for). I'll get to a more in-depth reason for why we should do this in a bit.
- Personnel-wise, do nothing. Our coaching staff and font office is fantastic. Trent Baalke deservedly won executive of the year, Jim Harbaugh deservedly won the coach of the year, Vic Fangio and Greg Roman (despite some criticism from this blog) are doing their jobs admirably, and many other coaches (Jim Tomsula, Geep Chryst, and Brad Seely come immediately to mind) have been great. In fact, I think we're lucky no one got hired away to a more prestigious job. Yet.
- Gameplan-wise, More Alex Smith to Vernon Davis. For reasons unknown, Davis regressed a bit during the regular season (though he was absolutely fantastic in the playoffs, as I'm sure you all remember. While he had more catches this year, he had fewer touchdowns and yards per catch, and just about every stat is worse than it was two years ago. People have given their reasons as to why this happened despite Alex Smith playing better - he was involved in blocking schemes more often, the 49ers were ahead more and therefore running more, etc. The truth is, no one knows. This year, I'd like to see that connection from day one, because we already know it's there, and I'd like to see more Alex Smith in general. He's proven that he can take over and win games - we saw that in the NFC Divisional Round game vs the Saints. It's time to open up the offense, give Smith the keys, and let him take us to the promised land.
- Take full advantage of the offseason. We still haven't seen what Jim Harbaugh can do with a full offseason to install his gameplan. Well, we're about to find out. The Niners should take care not to waste the mini-camps and training camps and use them to prepare the team to execute from day one. This seems obvious, but remember that Harbaugh has never had a full NFL offseason - hopefully he knows what to do with one.
Keep the same mentality we had last year. I'm a big believer in the "Nobody Believes in Us" mentality. So is Jim Harbaugh. This team should be hungry and mad next year, after they way this season ended. Keep that fire stoked, and let's take that mentality to the next level. We need to adopt the mentality of the 2007 Patriots (or at least, what it was during the regular season) and be ready to stomp the heads of anyone who doubts us or stands in our way right into the curb. I want this team to be pissed next year. As well, we must be cautious to not let the curse of expectations drag us down. Last year, we were picked to finish third or fourth in our own conference, so no one saw us coming and we were able to play the "Nobody Believes in Us" card to its full extent. We will not have that luxury this year, as most will no doubt pencil us in as the winners of the NFC West. We can't get complacent and take it for granted. Freddie P. Soft lives in complacency.
- Consistency, Consistency, Consistency. This is the first time in years we don't have a major change to some part of our game. That's huge, and it is the reason I use whenever I'm arguing for Alex Smith - he's never had that in his career. We need to take advantage of that, and have our players executing from day one - I repeat that from an earlier point because it's just that important. Football so often comes down to luck, and teams that execute better often create their own luck. Just look at the NFC Championship game.
So that's basically it. If we follow this guide this offseason, at least in my opinion (feel free to retort below), we should be well-equipped to make another deep run into the playoffs next year. In fact, I think that we could be one of the favorites to do so. Just look at many of the other top teams in the league.
The Giants are a very solid team, but I don't think they're that great. They have a rising defensive star in Jason Pierre-Paul, and Eli Manning is great, but they are due for regression - there's no way Victor Cruz repeats his fantastic season, the offensive line is aging, and the defensive line was inconsistent all year, ranging from incredible to mediocre. I think we're ALREADY a better team then them.
The Patriots are a great team, but they are aging fast and have major issues on defense. The offense should be back and better than ever next year, but they did NOT look good in the Super Bowl. The Packers have the same issues, as do the Saints. In addition, all three teams rely on their primary quarterbacks too much (assuming the Packers lose Flynn to free agency, nearly a given) - an injury to one of them will seriously hurt that team's playoff chances. The Ravens and Steelers could crumble to dust any year now. The Lions, Falcons and Bengals, while young, have major issues, and I think we're already better than all three of them. The Eagles are tremendously talented, but we still have yet to see if they can turn that talent into wins.
Really, the only team I see with the youth, talent on both sides, and drive that we could have is the Houston Texans (who, by the way, scare the [SITE DECORUM] out of me - they're really, really good, especially if they bring back Mario Williams. If that happens, they're the best team in the AFC next year. By quite a bit. Possibly the best team in the league. But enough on that). The opportunity is there. We have talented playmakers in their prime all around. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Justin (still in his prime for a bit) and Aldon (just entering) Smith. A young offensive line growing together around Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, and Anthony Davis. Vernon Davis and Delainie Walker (for my money, the best tight end duo short of Aarob Gronkandez. Even the much-maligned Alex Smith.
What I'm trying to say is that we have the opportunity to be one of the best teams in the league for years to come. The iron is hot - it's time to strike. That's why I think we should consider trading up in the draft if we see someone we like - we have a great team and we're just a few great players away from having an incredible team. Sure, some people will point to the Atlanta Falcons - they went 13-3, traded up from 24 to 6 (giving up most of their draft) to get the playmaking wide receiver they thought would put the team over the top, and proceeded to lose 24-2 in the first round of the playoffs. And while that is a case that failed, their logic was sound - they thought the iron was hot for them (and who knows, it still might be - don't sleep on them next year) and they struck. While I wouldn't go as far as they did, it's an option that must be considered.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that this is a very exciting time to be a 49ers fan - as they say, the window is opening. I know that no matter what happens this offseason, I'll be watching with bated breath and
screaming at Baalke and Harbaugh every time they do something I don't like patiently observing each move and the logic behind it. After all, the only thing better than watching our team is rosterbating about our team. Should be a fun ride - let's strap ourselves in.
*Also, there is no pie. Sorry for leading you in like that. Won't do it again. Promise.