The first season of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco could scarcely have gone better. The defense went from decent (13th-ranked in DVOA in 2010) to awesome (3rd), the offense went from bad (24th-ranked in DVOA in 2010) to decent (18th), and the special teams went from poor (22nd-ranked in DVOA in 2010) to awesome (2nd). That kind of improvement led to a stunning 7-win jump from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3, to a first-round bye and a scintillating home playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Divisonal Round of the NFL Playoffs, and a near-victory over the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game.
As a fan, it’s easy for me to give reasons why the 2012 49ers are a lock to continue to get double-digit wins. Heck, just the other day, (as Tre9er mentioned, I was so pleased with the team’s recent roster moves that I said the 49ers were "building a bully."
As a thinking man, however, I feel the need to play Devil’s Advocate from time to time. And it seems to me that the Devil actually has some good reasons why the 2012 49ers could miss the playoffs.
Follow me after the jump to find out some of these reasons…
Before you object "there’s no way the 49ers could drop off the playoff map!" (for many, many reasons), here’s a digression. I have some B.S. for you: In fall of 2010, Bill Simmons wrote a preview column in which he looked back at the seasons 2003-2009 and identified 3 categories of NFL teams in terms of their season-to-season performance: a "creeper"), a "sleeper" (a playoff team that finished 5-11 or worse the previous season), and a "grenade" (a No. 1 or No. 2 seed that missed the playoffs the following year).
Simmons also noticed that every season during that span (2003-2009), at least three of the previous season’s non-playoff teams made the playoffs; he calls this the Three Up/ Three Down Corollary. The same thing has held true in 2010 and 2011 (except that 2010 featured two near-"Creepers" (Steelers and Falcons) that jumped only 4 wins instead of the 5 wins required to qualify). The 2011 49ers were the paradigmatic Creeper, jumping 7 wins from non-playoff team to their first-round bye. Creepers have fared pretty well most of the time, but not always: 2007’s Creeper Packers (13-3) ended up as a Grenade in 2008 (6-10), so there is recent precedent for a team like the 49ers to miss the playoffs.
Click here for a full list of Sleepers, Creepers, and Grenades for the 2009-2011 seasons.
ON TO THE REASONS!
1) UNSUSTAINABLE DEFENSIVE (AND TEAM-WIDE) DURABILITY:
A not-so-secret reason for the stoutness of the 49ers’ defence in 2011 was the incredible durability of the 49ers starting defenders. As Bill Barnwell points out the 49ers defensive starters missed only 8 games in 2011. Before you object, with Eric Branch that this is the continuation of the trend, that actually misses the point from a logical standpoint; unless the 49ers training staff are doing something pretty special, the 49ers as a team have simply had good injury luck. The average Adjusted Games Lost from 2008-2010 was 52.9 (this is for entire teams, not just defenses), and the 2011 number of Adjusted Games Lost was even low by 49ers standards, as they averaged 33.7 AGL during that same period.
While some may point out that Larry Grant stepped up well at ILB when Patrick Willis was out, nobody is going to confuse one for the other, and the obvious (and, yes, painful) counter-example to that is Kyle Williams filling in for Ted Ginn Jr. as KR/PR; having a backup rather than a starter can totally change the level on which your team plays. Bill Barnwell also points out, injury rates within units are inconsistent from year to year. We saw that last year with the 49ers Receiving corps, a position that seemed to be fine for depth, but which was deeply impacted by the losses of Braylon Edwards and Joshua Morgan.
Imagine if a position at which the team does not have a lot of depth—like Outside Linebacker, where the team carried only three guys and miraculously managed to have them all stay healthy except for Haralson's injury in a half of the Lions game—had been hit with a similar set of injuries. Suddenly the pass rush is gone and the secondary looks even more porous.
Bottom line: while the 49ers have had injury luck the past number of seasons, there’s no guarantee that this will continue.
2) UNSUSTAINABLE TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL:
The 49ers had a ridiculous +28 turnover differential in 2011. That’s the highest total since beyond 2002 (which is as far as ESPN’s stats go).
This is likely unsustainable for a number of reasons. First, 5 lost fumbles in a year is a really low number. It’s not unprecedented, but it’s very low. Second, it’s not clear that Alex Smith can be counted upon to throw an interception on only 1.1% of his throws. If he had thrown interceptions at the 3% rate that he averages for his career, he would have thrown 13 interceptions. That would’ve made a massive difference, given that opposing defenses often end up taking turnovers in for touchdowns (it seems like Arizona does this at a startling rate. Heck, the Lions took nearly 1 of every 5 turnovers their defense forced back for a touchdown this season…but I digress).
The 49ers generally conservative offensive style capitalized on the fact that the defense and special could be counted upon to set the offense up with great field position: in fact, they had the best average drive start yardage (33.38) of any team in the league by a margin of over 2 yards (2nd place Seattle started their average drive at the 31.21), which is massive, considering the fact that the worst team in the league (Indianapolis) started their average drive at the 23.64-yard line.
Finally on this point, turnover differential is difficult to predict. While the Green Bay Packers have been great at keeping this key number in check over the last 4 years (2007-2011), they seem to be the only team locked into the top 5.
Bottom line: If the 2012 49ers want to make the playoffs, they cannot expect to win simply by having an offense that doesn’t turn the ball over and a defense that takes it away. They need an offense that can take over the game.
3) SIGNIFICANTLY MORE DIFFICULT SCHEDULE
One of the perks of the 49ers finishing 3rd in the NFC West in 2010 was that they got to play a slightly weaker schedule than they otherwise might have. The 49ers played a weak Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a horrible Browns team, a feisty but unfinished Detroit Lions team, two games against a Rams team that seemed to be throwing the season, and the NFC East in what looks, in retrospect, to have been a down year. Next year the 49ers will face the mighty AFC East (Patriots, Tebows, er Jets, Dolphins, and Bills), the NFC North (Packers, Bears, Lions, and Vikings—the toughest division in the league, in my opinion), and they have their non-division NFC games against their 2011 playoff opponents—the Giants and the Saints.
Bottom line: The 2011 49ers were road warriors, but the road is going to get tougher in 2012.
Look, as fans of the team we all expect the team to get better in 2012. In fact, Jim Harbaugh is counting on it.
But the New Orleans Saints, who went from 3-13 in 2005 to 10-6 and the NFC Championship game in 2006 ended up missing the playoffs in 2007 with a 7-9 record. This goes to show that NFL could well stand for the Nothing’s Free League, as everybody except for Freddie P. Soft would admit.
What do you think? Could the 49ers miss the playoffs? Why?
What other reasons do you think are more important?