Quarterback Alex Smith will again execute the offense crafted by head coach Jim Harbaugh (right). (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
In the NFL, it’s hard to turn around a losing franchise.
What may be even harder, though, is keeping that team on a winning track once its long string of losing seasons is broken.
That’s the prospect that faces the 49ers as they prepare to open training camp July 21 in Santa Clara.
Yet, based on what the 49ers did last season – an NFC West title, a 13-3 regular-season record and a trip to the NFC Championship Game – and what San Francisco did in the offseason, it’s possible the Niners are now set up for long-term success.
What happened in 2011 may not be just a one-year aberration but the first in a new, winning era.
That doesn’t mean the 49ers will go 13-3 again. With a tougher schedule in 2012, the 49ers may not duplicate that numerical success.
But the team may be built for sustained winning seasons now, writes Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke in his recent analysis of the 49ers’ offseason.
“Led by one of the league’s top defenses, San Francisco turned the corner,” wrote Burke.
Now, he writes, the same formula the Niners used last season is still in place, with perhaps some better, additional pieces.
“With (Frank) Gore and newcomer (Brandon) Jacobs carrying the load behind (Alex) Smith, and with that spectacular defense stuffing opponents on the other side of the ball, the foundation has been laid for another solid season,” he writes.
Burke’s assessment notes the only real losses after last season are guard Adam Snyder, wideout Josh Morgan and safety Reggie Smith, while the Niners added an assortment of new faces: corner Perrish Cox, Jacobs, rookie running back LaMichael James and rookie wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, and two veteran wideouts in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss.
“Manningham alone serves as an upgrade (to the passing game), and this could prove to be a very dangerous unit if Moss has anything left in the tank or Jenkins develops quickly,” writes Burke.
Defensively, the 49ers have the same group, although with the prospect of second-year linebacker Aldon Smith becoming an every-down player, not just a pass-rush specialist.
When Burke lists the team’s strengths, the defensive line and linebacking corps rank at the top.
Like many others, Burke still has his doubts about Smith at quarterback – but notes that even though it was his best season in the NFL, perhaps he still hasn’t reached his ceiling. If that’s the case – and he continues to improve in 2012 – the Niners could indeed become even more dangerous than they were last season, when they were just a win away from a trip to the Super Bowl.
But even if that was Smith at his best, all the other pieces make the 49ers the favorites in the NFC West and among the best in the NFC.
Smith, who signed a three-year deal worth $8 million per season in March, has admitted he is motivated to prove himself again in 2012, especially after the 49ers showed interest in Peyton Manning.
And, with additions that should make the 49ers better in third-down and red-zone situations (a problem last season) – Jacobs, Manningham and Moss, in particular – the Niners offense could be scoring more touchdowns this season instead of settling for David Akers field goals.
“We were so inconsistent when we had to throw the football,” Smith told reporters in May. “Third-and-mediums, third-and-longs, we weren’t very good. Red zone, we weren’t good at times. We got to get better there.”
With Game 1 of the 2012 season at Green Bay on Sept. 9, the 49ers won’t have to wait long to gauge how far they’ve come, or how far they might be able to go.