Our friends at Football Outsiders released their 2014 Almanac last week, which you can purchase HERE. As has been the case the last couple years, they see some regression in the cards for our San Francisco 49ers. Their mean projection for the 49ers is 9.0 wins, and they give them a 51.4 percent change of making the playoffs.
Naturally, this has plenty of people scratching their heads in confusion. Aaron Schatz put together some thoughts on this issue over at ESPN Insider. It's a subscription article, so for those without an Insider password, I'll try and give you some of the high points.
Schatz opened by talking about the fact that there is significant churn in the number of teams making the playoffs. Since 2002 (the move to 8 divisions), half of all teams did not make the playoffs the following season. According to Schatz, 49 teams have gone 12-4 or better, and 22 of those teams did not return the following year. And of course, there is the fact that the 49ers are the 11th team to lose to the eventual NFL champions in three straight postseasons. 4 of the previous 10 got back to the Super Bowl the next year, and 6 missed the playoffs.
The 49ers have bucked some of the odds, so thankfully Aaron went into detail as to the specific issues the 49ers face. He pointed to five factors:
1. 49ers schedule - They have the 4th toughest projected strength of schedule based on FO's numbers
2. Conference - The general notion that the NFC is better than the AFC
3. Home Field - Apparently in a new field, home field takes some time to get used to. That makes some sense given that there are quirks to the new stadium
4. Aldon Smith suspension
5. NaVorro Bowman injury
In the conclusion, Aaron did point out that the latter three factors point to the 49ers potentially being an ascending team when the playoffs arrive. Naturally, I think the 49ers can overcome some of these issues. I think the roster depth can help make up for the Smith and Bowman absences, at least to some extent. But depending on the length of Aldon Smith's suspension, the first month of the 49ers season will likely prove critical.
The 49ers open at Dallas, then host Chicago, travel to Arizona, and then get Philadelphia and Kansas City in back-to-back home games. If Smith were to get a 4-game suspension, that covers some interesting offenses. All four games feature offenses that could cause problems. Many will view the Cardinals offense below the other three, but they're nothing to sneeze at.
The 49ers defense will face serious challenges early on, but if they can get through that first quarter of the season in decent shape, things could definitely look up from there. It's hard to say for certain exactly how the team will perform without Bowman and Smith, or even just without Bowman after Smith returns. I'm optimistic, but that's my natural disposition. That being said, the first few games that cover both Smith's suspension and Bowman's injury could tell us quite a bit about how this season could shape up. A poor or strong start does not guarantee anything the rest of the way, but the 49ers have the tools to be ascending later in the season.