The 49ers have been the kings of the NFC West for two consecutive seasons, but staying on top in 2013 is going to be a challenge.
Veteran running back Frank Gore has seen the growth and improvement of the Seattle Seahawks – who went to the playoffs last season – and the offseason acquisitions made by the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals, and knows the Niners have their work cut out for them.
As the 49ers veterans arrived for training camp Wednesday in preparation for the team’s first full-squad practice Thursday, Gore and his teammates know that they simply can’t be as good as they were in 2012. They need to be better.
“It’s probably one of the best divisions in football right now,” he told Taylor Price of the team’s website. “We like it like that. We like it tough.”
Though the team obviously wants to get back to the Super Bowl, where it fell just short in February, the No. 1 focus has to be on winning the NFC West.
“Our main goal is to get better this training camp, be better than last year,” he told Price Wednesday, after arriving at the team’s training facility in Santa Clara. “Win the first game, win the division and all is right. You win the division and everything will take care of itself.”
When NFL.com posted its division power rankings this spring, the NFC West was No. 1, thanks to the 49ers and Seahawks – expected to be two of the league’s best teams – with a Rams team that made some solid moves in the offseason, bringing in a rookie playmaker like wide receiver Tavon Austin and Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long. Even the Cardinals could be much better in 2013, with the addition of a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer and a new head coach in Bruce Arians. Arizona had a strong defense in 2012, but lacked a quality quarterback.
CBS Sports, too, ranked the NFC West as the best in the NFL, writing: "The scariest thing about the NFC West might be that the 49ers and Seahawks didn't even have the best divisional record last season. That honor belonged to the St. Louis Rams. The Rams went 4-1-1 against division rivals, with the only loss coming by seven points to Seattle."
As Gore, now 30, begins his ninth NFL training camp, he’s coming off one of his best seasons. In 2012, he ran for 1,214 yards, a 4.7-yard average and eight TDs. He now has six 1,000-plus yard seasons in the past seven, and is one of the reasons the San Francisco offense is one of the league’s best. Even though the 49ers have lost No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree to injury, Gore believes the addition of receiver Anquan Boldin is a huge plus.
“Picking up Boldin was real big,” Gore told Price. “Boldin’s a football player. He plays the game like how we play the game. He fits with our team well and he’s going to help our team a lot, especially with Crab gone. … He’ll pick up the slack with Crab not being here and when Crab gets back it’ll just make our team a lot better.”