I remember how I felt about the 49ers last year after they wrapped up the regular season. It was a lot of optimism for a team that nobody saw coming this far. I had felt that the team was good but not this good. They won games with a lot of grit and passion. More importantly, head coach Jim Harbaugh turned a team into the right direction. This was something special for the community and it got the entire Bay Area buzzing about the 49ers again.
But everything that season was icing on the cake. Because the expectations were exceeded beyond belief, whatever happened in the playoffs just seemed like extra. The fact that the 49ers had a thriller of a game against the Saints only added to the magical season that was. But after the loss to the Giants, the 49ers fans got a chance to take a step back and look at the big picture.
What that big picture became was a foundation for things to come. The 49ers knew how good they can be. Now expectations were to follow them in 2012.
So that brings us to this season. The 49ers were expected to not only return to the playoffs, but some expected them to win the Super Bowl.
Throughout the season, the 49ers endured a season of surprising losses and a defense faltering in various places. The team is still a very solid team, but they were not as dominating as last season. But the expectations remained. And despite not finishing with a better record than last year, the 49ers end up in the same playoff position.
Yet I feel so much different about this team.
Maybe it’s the quarterback switch and how I don’t know what I am going to get with a young Colin Kaepernick. The position has changed with the decision to bench Alex Smith, but somehow I feel that the 49ers might be better off with this situation right now. At least knowing that they have Smith as their backup could give the 49ers some wiggle room in the playoffs.
The defense wasn’t as dominant and Justin Smith is hurt, but I still feel that at least right now, the 49ers defense can win games for the team alone. My concern really lies with the secondary and whether or not the backups have improved much to be viable options in the future.
One thing the 49ers lacked last year that has improved this year is the wide receiver group. Michael Crabtree had a breakout season and Randy Moss has shown he still has some left in the tank. Unfortunately, the loss of Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham means Ted Ginn and A.J. Jenkins are in for a lot of responsibilities. That also adds more pressure on the tight ends. I feel a little bit more confident now than I did then, but not so much.
There’s no way to measure this, but I know that this 49ers team is more prepared than they were last year. They have the tools and likely an easier road to the Super Bowl than they did last year. But maybe my worry comes from the fact that the team couldn’t win three straight games all year long.
That is a sign of a Hyde and Jekyll of a team that I have watched all year. I am not sure what the identity of this team is yet. I know they can run and their defense is strong, but all season long I was still trying to figure out this team. Maybe they are doing the same about themselves too. And as they have this week off to prepare, I hope they figure out it out soon.
How much has this team changed from last year? Aside from a few personnel changes, the group is still essentially the same (except for a major change at quarterback). There’s still the same confidence and belief that they can make it all the way. Their approach and mentality hasn’t changed.
But are they better than last year’s team? It’s still hard to tell. Ask me that question after January 12.