After nearly a decade of hardship, the San Francisco 49ers are a power in the NFC once again.
But for those who may believe the franchise that once stood as the NFL's model of excellence is willing to rest on its impressive and unforeseen accomplishments of the past season, forget about it.
The 2011 Niners were able to produce a seven-win improvement from the previous season and come within an eyelash of reaching Super Bowl XLVI in the first year of the Jim Harbaugh era by maximizing their strengths. San Francisco punished the opposition with a bruising ground game and was equally as physical on defense, routinely stifling the run and unleashing a furious pass rush on enemy quarterbacks while creating turnovers in bunches.
A breakthrough season by Alex Smith under center also was a major contributing factor to the 49ers' restoration back to prominence, with the oft-injured and much-maligned quarterback finally developing into the highly effective passer the organization believed he'd become when it selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.
Yet for all of last year's success -- a 13-3 record that was the team's highest regular-season win total since 1997 and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game -- there were flaws that still remained.
The offense was efficient yet hardly dynamic, lacking the big-play element that struck fear into its foes. Red-zone breakdowns were prevalent, resulting in consistent kicker David Akers setting a new league standard with 44 field goals made.
Recognizing the glaring need for more playmakers, general manager Trent Baalke made some aggressive moves in the offseason. He convinced veteran wide receiver Randy Moss to join the team following a one-year sabbatical from football once it became apparent that the 35-year-old still had the speed and skills to stretch a defense. Former New York Giant and Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham also was added to the overhauled corps of pass-catchers through free agency, while the draft brought two more possible impact players, Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins and elusive Oregon running back LaMichael James, in the first two rounds.
Harbaugh believes the new additions will provide greater flexibility to an offense that was predictable and overly conservative at times last season, while creating a competitive environment that will push his players to become even better.
"I'm very excited about the competition on this entire football team," Harbaugh stated. "Across the board, I think you're going to see guys with the ability and the license to contribute to this football team and make a difference for this football team. I'm excited to watch it play out."
The 49ers wisely did little other tinkering to the roster, with right guard Adam Snyder the only starter from January's overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC title game no longer with the team.
That continuity should help San Francisco maintain its regained status as one of the conference's elite, as long as the hunger that the fiery Harbaugh masterfully instilled into last year's group still exists.
"We can't get hung up on what we did last year," said offensive tackle Joe Staley. "We have to wipe the slate clean. Obviously, we did a lot of good things last year, but we have a lot of improvements we need to make. We know what kind of talented team we have and we had success last year, but it doesn't mean anything."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the San Francisco 49ers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to N.Y. Giants in NFC Championship
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jim Harbaugh (13-3 in one season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Roman (second season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Vic Fangio (second season with 49ers)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Frank Gore, RB (1211 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Patrick Willis, ILB (97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 26th overall (8th rushing, 29th passing), tied 10th scoring (23.8 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 4th overall (1st rushing, 16th passing), 2nd scoring (14.3 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Randy Moss (free agent), QB Josh Johnson (from Buccaneers), RB Brandon Jacobs (from Giants), RB LaMichael James (2nd Round, Oregon), FB Rock Cartwright (from Raiders), WR Mario Manningham (from Giants), WR A.J. Jenkins (1st Round, Illinois), OG Leonard Davis (from Lions)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Josh Morgan (to Redskins), RG Adam Snyder (to Cardinals), FB Moran Norris (to Texans), TE Justin Peelle (to Steelers), OG Chilo Rachal (to Bears), ILB Blake Costanzo (to Bears), CB Shawntae Spencer (to Raiders), S Reggie Smith (to Panthers), S Madieu Williams (to Redskins)
QB: A collective groan could be heard in the Bay Area when the 49ers decided to re-sign Smith (3144 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT), who never came close to living up to his lofty draft status in his first six seasons in the league due to injuries, erratic play and a revolving door of coaches. He flourished as a game-manager in Harbaugh's system, however, displaying good accuracy and excellent decision-making that led to an NFL-low 1.1 percent interception rate, and demonstrated some serious mental toughness as well in leading a game-winning drive in a Divisional Playoff victory against New Orleans. The 28-year-old is entrenched as the starter after inking a new three-year contract in March, but who emerges as his main backup is being sorted out in the preseason. Colin Kaepernick has the highest ceiling of any quarterback on the roster, possessing game-changing scrambling ability and a cannon arm. However, the second-round choice in the 2011 draft is still an unfinished product and attempted just five passes as a rookie. Newcomer Josh Johnson (246 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT with Buccaneers) brings more experience to the equation, having started five times in four years with Tampa Bay, and he's familiar with the offense after having played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. He's not a lock to even make the roster, however, as the Niners liked what they saw in second-year man Scott Tolzien when he served as the No. 3 on the depth chart last season.
RB: Frank Gore (1211 rushing yards, 8 TD, 17 receptions) has been a model of consistency for the 49ers, having eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier in rushing yards in five of his seven seasons with the team, but turned 29 in May and is starting to show some signs of wear-and-tear. He'll still be the featured performer in San Francisco's run-heavy attack, but a couple of reinforcements were added to ease his workload. Ex-Giant Brandon Jacobs (571 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 8 total TD) was signed in the spring, and the two-time 1,000- yard rusher fits the Niners' physical mold with his 264-pound build and downhill style. James is an entirely different type of back, a slightly-built speedster with home-run capability and shiftiness in the open field who'll be utilized as a change-of-pace alternative. The best all-around member of the group, however, may be Kendall Hunter (473 rushing yards, 2 TD, 16 receptions), who earned his stripes as Gore's handcuff as a rookie last season and exhibited good hands as a receiver. He's likely ticketed as the main option on passing downs. They'll all be working behind fullback Bruce Miller (11 receptions, 1 TD), a converted college defensive end who quickly transformed into a capable lead blocker in his first pro season. The club also brought in 10-year veteran Rock Cartwright, though the 32-year-old former Oakland Raider's forte is special teams.
WR: The Niners decided to take a gamble on Moss, a player with a reputation of petulant behavior and who looked done in a three-team tour in 2010, but it's a roll of the dice that could pay off handsomely if the seven-time Pro Bowl honoree proves he's indeed regained the deep-ball skills that once made him one of the game's most dangerous receivers after a year off. With 153 career touchdown catches to his credit, he may be able to erase the problems San Francisco had in the red zone last season. Moss is slated to work in a timeshare with Manningham (39 receptions, 5 TD with Giants) at split end, with 2009 first-rounder Michael Crabtree (72 receptions, 4 TD) cemented at flanker after recording career bests for catches and receiving yards (874) a year ago. Jenkins is tabbed as the team's slot receiver of the future, but the surprise first-round pick struggled with conditioning and concentration in camp and may be eased into the mix at first. Holdovers Ted Ginn Jr. (19 receptions) and Kyle Williams (20 receptions, 3 TD), the goat of the NFC Championship loss after fumbling twice while fielding punts, may be competing for just one spot as the primary return man. Williams is the better receiver of the two, with Ginn superior on special teams.
TE: Few teams can match what San Francisco offers athletically at the tight end position with its combo of Vernon Davis (67 receptions, 6 TD) and Delanie Walker (19 receptions, 3 TD). Blessed with sub-4.4 speed on a 250-pound frame, Davis can be a matchup nightmare for opposing safeties, as evidenced by his 180-yard, two-touchdown effort in the playoff win over New Orleans. The 28- year-old lends outstanding durability to boot, not having missed a game in four straight seasons. Walker can run as well and is a surprisingly effective blocker for his somewhat smallish size (242 pounds), and his value is further enhanced by his work on the kick and punt coverage units. Konrad Reuland, one of Harbaugh's former Stanford players, looms as the favorite to be the third tight end after honing his craft on the practice squad last year.
OL: This five-man crew did a fine job of opening holes for the league's eighth-ranked rushing offense in 2011 but could use some improvement in pass protection, as the front line surrendered 44 sacks despite the 49ers having the second-fewest attempts through the air. Staley is a solid tackle who earned his first career Pro Bowl nod last year as Smith's blind-side bodyguard, however, and forms a quality left-side tandem with mauling guard Mike Iupati. Right tackle Anthony Davis, taken along with Iupati in the 2010 first round, has had an up-and-down first two seasons in the league, but drew praise for his play in camp and has the physical tools to become an all-star with continued progress. The team was satisfied with the work of center Jonathan Goodwin, a free-agent acquisition last year who owns 76 starts over his 10 NFL campaigns, and believes third-year pro Alex Boone can make the switch from his natural tackle spot and become the new right guard. As insurance, the Niners signed battle-tested vet Leonard Davis, who went to three straight Pro Bowls with Dallas from 2007-09 but is better suited for a backup role at this stage. The team also drafted Wake Forest guard Joe Looney in the fourth round of April's draft, though the rookie is still getting up to speed after missing time with a foot injury.
DL: San Francisco yielded league lows of 77.3 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per attempt during last year's breakout, in no small part due to the stellar work of the three-man front of Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga in the trenches. Smith (58 tackles, 7.5 sacks) is the line's unquestioned anchor, an absolute rock against the run with the quickness to double as a pass-rushing force from the interior. His first-team All-Pro citation in 2011 was certainly well deserved. McDonald (39 tackles, 5.5 sacks) didn't get enough credit for his performance on the opposite side, but the unheralded end is stout in all phases and regarded as a cornerstone player in his own right. The 330-pound Sopoaga (31 tackles) is the classic space-eating nose tackle who's difficult to move off the ball but isn't much of a factor in the passing game. Top reserve Ricky Jean-Francois (15 tackles) is a smaller and more agile option at that spot who can fill in at all three line positions, while returnees Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams provide further depth.
LB: It's hard to find a better arsenal of linebackers than the 49ers' four-man contingent of perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis and rising star NaVorro Bowman on the inside and 2011 rookie sensation Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks manning the edges. Willis (97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) has been a dominating presence ever since arriving in the league in 2007, with the former Defensive Player of the Year able to excel whether he's playing the run, blitzing the quarterback or dropping into coverage. Bowman, meanwhile, was terrific in his first season as a regular last year, racking up a team-best 143 tackles and contributing greatly to San Francisco's No. 1 overall ranking in run defense. Smith (37 tackles) immediately made a mark by notching an eye-opening 14 sacks while being deployed almost exclusively as a pass rusher. The 2011 first-round selection will now to match those tremendous numbers while handling three-down duties, but there's no question he has the requisite talent and athleticism for the job. Brooks (50 tackles), a washout in Cincinnati who's resurrected his career in coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme, tallied seven sacks on the other side while also proving his worth in run support. Depth is also strong with former starter Parys Haralson (30 tackles, 2 sacks) on the outside and the capable Larry Grant (39 tackles, 2 sacks) in the middle, while fellow inside backup Tavares Gooden (11 tackles) is among the team's top performers on special teams.
DB: A secondary that helped the 49ers finish tied for second in interceptions (23) and fifth in pass efficiency defense also returns intact for 2012, with cornerback Carlos Rogers (43 tackles, 6 INT, 19 PD) and ball-hawking free safety Dashon Goldson (67 tackles, 6 INT, 10 PD) the backfield's headliners. Rogers delivered a career season in the ex-Redskin's first year in San Francisco, displaying sound coverage ability and a flair for big plays while operating opposite steady counterpart Tarell Brown (40 tackles, 4 INT). Goldson is a proven ball-hawk who's come up with 11 interceptions over the past three years, and his nose for the ball landed him his first-ever Pro Bowl honor at season's end. Veteran strong safety Donte Whitner (62 tackles, 2 INT) is the crew's intimidator, a true thumper in the box who's valued for his leadership as well. Chris Culliver (35 tackles, 1 INT), a third-round pick in last year's draft with blazing speed, acquitted himself well in his debut season at nickel back, though he'll have to hold off Perrish Cox to maintain that role with the controversial free-agent pickup having a strong camp. A nine-game rookie starter for Denver in 2010, Cox spent last year out of football because of sexual assault charges in which he was eventually cleared. The Niners are thin on the back end behind the starters, though rookie Trenton Robinson (6th Round, Michigan State) has shown promise during the preseason.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Though Kyle Williams' devastating fumbles in the NFC title game were a black mark on the unit, the 49ers were otherwise stellar in the special teams department a year ago. A busy Akers established new NFL season marks for points (166) and field goals attempted (52) in addition to his 44 three- pointers made, with the six-time Pro Bowler going a clutch 7-of-9 from beyond 50 yards. Punter Andy Lee also etched his name in the league record book by producing a 44.0 net average to go along with a sensational 50.9 gross, earning himself a trip to Honolulu as well. Ginn placed third in the NFC in both kickoff (27.6 avg.) and punt returns (12.3 avg.) and owns six touchdown runbacks over his five-year career. Long-snapper Brian Jennings is the dean of the 49ers, with the 35-year-old entering his 13th season with the organization, and is as reliable as they come at the position.
PROGNOSIS: On paper, the 49ers are more talented than the team that nearly gave the franchise its first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years last season. Matching or exceeding that stratospheric win total from 2011 will still be quite a challenge in Harbaugh's second go-around, however. For one, San Francisco won't be sneaking up on the competition this time around, and a schedule that includes road stops in Green Bay, New Orleans and New England plus a home rematch with the defending world champion Giants isn't a cakewalk. And having Alex Smith healthy and able to replicate last year's success is also a must, as the backup quarterback options are either unproven or uninspiring. With a defense that should remain one of the league's best and a few interesting new weapons on offense, the 49ers are still the heavy favorites in an NFC West that doesn't appear to have any other powerhouses, and consider it a disappointment if they're not in the title hunt once more.