The San Francisco 49ers wanted to be a dynamic team on offense, one that heavily relied on a running game but was able to get the ground game moving from multiple angles. Jim Harbaugh wanted a power running back, a versatile blocking scheme and a quarterback who could turn on the jets whenever he needed to in a never-ending pursuit of keeping the defense off-balance.
San Francisco wanted its defense to be managed by a strong linebacking core and built on solid run defense. They wanted fast, aggressive safeties who played the middle of the field and they wanted the defense to be as physical as any in the league. It would bend occasionally, but it would not break, and Harbaugh would always have faith in his All-World inside linebackers.
Offensively, they were to work on the short game, and when the defense least expected it, they would get the big chunks of yardage and then some. It worked, too, it worked for a while, but it was always on the cusp of falling apart. It eventually did fall apart, despite having excellent personnel that fit the scheme perfectly. I wonder what that team could have been if they stayed on the right track.
Oh, right. I don't actually have to wonder at all because they'll be playing in the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos.
The Carolina Panthers are basically what the 49ers wanted to be, fully-realized. Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick aren't exactly mirror images of each other, but both served a purpose of keeping the defense off-balance while giving a boost to the power running game. Jonathan Stewart has had his bad years and his good years, but he's looked fantastic this season, a whole lot like Frank Gore.
Along the offensive line, the Panthers did a lot of what the 49ers tried to do. On defense, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis aren't quite up to the level of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, but it's a solid, solid No. 2 grouping. Those two are as good as anyone in the league right now, and they dictate the pace of the defense.
Carolina's safeties are hard-hitting, play up the field a whole lot. They're solid in run stopping, along with a defensive front that's relentless. The Panthers ranked near the top in the league against the run this past season, one of San Francisco's top goals every year.
Every time I watch the Panthers, I'm reminded of the 49ers' highs under Harbaugh and the steep, steep decline once they started going in that direction. I wish there was something positive to take out of this, except the fact that a lot of the pieces are still there to build that kind of team.
Can Kelly do it? Well, he surely will have a different offensive and defensive philosophy, but ... I still like a lot of the talent on this roster.
Oh well. Time to watch the 49ers from an alternative universe win a Super Bowl.