The San Francisco 49ers end another season with a loss while they though lifting the Super Bowl trophy will be a more fitting ending. Colin Kaepernick needs to improve, but there are far greater concerns for Jim Harbaugh to deal with, especially at wide receiver and the secondary if next season is going to be like the previous three, which means looking like Super Bowl contenders and possibly finally winning one.
Everyone likes to argue about Colin Kaepernick, but he’s not that much of a worry. The 49ers didn’t win because of him and didn’t lose solely because of him, although this season was an example of him being very far from a good and reliable passer. The 49ers tried making him a pass-0nly kind of player early in the season and that exploded in their face. Getting Crabtree back from injury did help him a lot, but Kaepernick is as good of a passer as his receivers and offensive line allow him to be. He’s not going to make them look better with his passing skills; it’s the other way around.
The biggest need for improved quality is at cornerback. The 49ers are a very good defensive team mostly because of a front seven that’s very hard to overcome against through an entire game. Tramaine Brock did improve this season, but he shouldn’t be a number one or number two receiver on a Super Bowl caliber team. Carlos Rogers has declined a bit this season, and he’s turning 33 when next season begins. He also makes $8 million next season, which makes cutting him an option. The problem will be filling in for him, while Tarell Brown also hits free agency, giving them another headache. Safety Donte Whitner is also hitting free agency, and Harbuagh is going to be battling to retain him for another season (and a few more).
An issue for most of this season has been wide receivers, which brings the 49ers into an interesting summer. There’s no doubt Michael Crabtree, when healthy, is one of the best and most explosive wide receivers in the league. At 26 years of age, the 49ers have a 1000-yard number one type receiver for a few years before they need to start thinking of a chance. The problem is what comes after him.
Mario Manningham was injured most of this season but hasn’t impressed in his brief time with the Niners. He becomes a free agent this offseason there won’t be too many battles from Jim Harbaugh, who usually fights strongly for his players to get re-signed, to keep him. The development of Quinton Patton into someone who doesn’t only catch 3 passes in an entire season is crucial, especially with Anquan Boldin hitting free agency. The trade for him paid off; the Niners got 1179 yards and 8 touchdowns from him in the regular season, and filling his role will be tough if he isn’t re-signed. However, he’ll almost be 34 when next season begins, which means the Niners and other teams won’t be fighting over him if his demands are too high.
One thing the 49ers have no control over is injuries to key players sustained in the loss to the 49ers. The less serious of them is Mike Iuapti, the 26-year old guard who was selected to the Pro Bowl these last couple of seasons and was an All-Pro in 2012. He suffered from a broken fibula. That means about two months out, and the 49ers not having to worry about him or their precious offensive line starting to erode. Possibly their most important unit (although slightly disappointing in some games this season) is staying intact for another season.
On a more serious note is NaVorro Bowman, a Pro Bowl selection the last couple of seasons and an All-Pro since Jim Harbaugh took the job. He has torn his ACL, which usually means being back by the time this season begins, but tearing his MCL as well means that he’ll have to wait for the ACL surgery, which might also mean missing some time of the regular season.
The 49ers handled the Patrick Willis injury this year (not too much, only a couple of games) by using more of Michael Wilhoite. The 3-year veteran did a good job when he was called up to spend more time on the field, but he’s a free agent heading into next season, and it might not be such a bad idea to re-sign him to have insurance in case Bowman doesn’t recuperate in time for the new season.
The 49ers have made it to three consecutive NFC championship games in a row because someone has been doing the right things over there. The overall direction is fine, and a major overhaul isn’t needed. However, taking success for granted can quickly turn on you in the NFL, and the Niners know that whatever worked this year isn’t going to stay that way forever, while what didn’t isn’t going to fix itself.