If you believe the 49ers had a turnaround season in 2011, made improvements during the offseason, have a coaching staff that knows what it’s doing and is poised for long-term success, you probably think the folks at the MGM Sportsbook in Las Vegas are geniuses.
This week, the MGM’s odds on the 49ers to win the Super Bowl climbed all the way to 4-1, making San Francisco the NFL favorite to win it all.
The Niners opened at 10-1 on Feb. 6 but now have moved up the ladder to the top of the oddsboard, climbing over such stalwarts as the Packers, Patriots, Broncos, Bears, Cowboys and Eagles.
But in this pre-training camp portion of the NFL’s annual calendar – before any holdouts or hamstring injuries, tantrums or touchdowns – analysts, oddsmakers and fans willing to place bets can look at a team like the 49ers and see the glass half full or half empty.
Or, in the case of football analyst Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, he sees the 49ers’ glass in 2012 having hardly anything in it at all.
Schatz has studied the 49ers and believes they will plummet this season from 13-3 and an NFC West championship to 7-9.
Football Outsiders gives the Niners just a 39.5 percent chance of returning to the playoffs, much less winning it all.
Schatz’s thinking follows a couple of lines:
First, that the 49ers’ defense – its strength – was basically untouched by serious injury last year. In fact, the entire 49ers roster was remarkably injury free, with a league-low two players going on injured reserve once the season started, reports Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. The odds of the 49ers going another full season without major injuries are long, Schatz says.
And secondly, Schatz says the 49ers remarkable spike in victories last season – improving from 6-10 to 13-3 – is too much of a statistical aberration to believe that the win total in 2012 won’t drop.
Schatz cites baseball analyst Bill James’ thinking that teams “regress towards the mean,” meaning that the natural tendency of teams over time is to “drag toward” a .500 record. A spike in one direction would result in an eventual spike in the other.
Though on paper San Francisco looks as strong or stronger than 2011 – he cites the team's “clear upgrades at wide receiver,” for instance – and the NFC West remains a weak division, Schatz’s analysis sees the Niners dropping.
“There are a lot of reasons to like the 49ers,” Inman quotes Schatz as saying on his video. “But it’s very difficult to fight against the power of regression towards the mean. Fans of advance stats and other sports know that. It’s just as true in football and it is a reason the 49ers are not a leading Super Bowl contender going into 2012.”
Schatz explains in his video that team formulas are computer simulated “a million times” and that in the 49ers’ case the average victory total for 2012 comes out to 7.2.
The upside? The NFC West is so weak that the 49ers remain co-favorites in the division, tying the Seattle Seahawks for seven projected victories.
It’s certainly true that the 49ers enjoyed good fortune in 2011, not only with a lack of injuries but in giveaway/takeaway ratio, quarterback Alex Smith’s success in avoiding interceptions and the excellence of special teams.
But, it could also be that – under a new leadership of head coach Jim Harbaugh and staff – this is the Niners’ new norm; that comparing the 49ers of 2011 to the 49ers of 2010 and earlier doesn’t hold as much water because the team played a different style, didn’t play to its talent strengths and didn’t play with as much discipline.
So, is the glass half full or half empty? Are the Niners Super Bowl favorites, or favorites to fall into mediocrity again?
It’s certainly a wide disparity.
As Schatz says in his video presentation, it’s “our most controversial projection” for the coming season.