The 49ers fell short in last season’s NFC Championship Game, but that didn’t cause panic in the organization.
The roster wasn’t torn apart and fingers weren’t pointed. General manager Trent Baalke lost a few free agents and signed a few others, then had what appeared to be a productive draft.
As the Niners get ready for the opening of training camp later this month, the nucleus of San Francisco’s team that has reached three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl is intact, and Baalke, head coach Jim Harbaugh and many of the players are optimistic that 2014 can be their year.
Yet not everyone is thrilled with what the 49ers did this offseason.
This week, in fact, Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated gave the 49ers a C in his offseason report card evaluation of the team, noting that the team’s biggest push toward a Super Bowl championship “will have to come from within.”
The team may have added wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd and safety Antoine Bethea through free agency and trades and drafted potential difference-makers such as cornerback Jimmie Ward, wideout Bruce Ellington and running back Carlos Hyde, but the 49ers essentially took a conservative approach to the offseason.
“A playoff berth remains the expectation,” wrote Burke. “A Super Bowl run again the plan. Accomplishing those goals will fall on much the same roster that fell inches shy each of the past two seasons.”
Burke also notes that the 49ers – in a very tough NFC West – have the potential to stumble out of the gate because of the loss of inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman to injury over the first half, and the possible suspension of outside linebacker Aldon Smith.
“The schedule does San Francisco no favors: four of the first seven on the road, with the home games against playoff contenders in Chicago, Kansas City and Philadelphia," he wrote. "Can San Francisco weather the storm sans two defensive standouts?”
Of course, the 49ers will miss Bowman – how could they not? – and Smith. And they do have some question marks: Can they find a cornerback to pair with Tramaine Brock? Will quarterback Colin Kaepernick continue to make progress and show he’s the type of player who can take over a game by becoming a more accurate pocket passer? And will the holdouts of tight end Vernon Davis and right guard Alex Boone end long before the regular season?
To get past the Seahawks in their division and stay ahead of the Rams and Cardinals, the 49ers are going to have to keep improving. And that improvement, as Burke notes, will mostly mean better play by the players who were on the team in 2013 that came a play away from reaching the Super Bowl.
Writes Burke: “The plan as the 2014 season approaches is, essentially, to stick with the status quo and hope it finally pays off.”
But by standing (mostly) pat and reaping the benefits from a deep roster, some redshirted players (running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive end Tank Carradine) and what appears to be a strong group of wide receivers (that could make the offense much more explosive), the Niners appear as well-positioned as any team in the NFL – despite a conservative offseason.
It’s possible that the C-grade approach might turn out to be the best route to an A-plus season.