Moving Into Levi's Stadium
It might not have much to do with football itself, but by moving to a new stadium the 49ers are joining the rest of the NFL - and even pro sports - in the movement towards state-of-the-art venues. Behind them is the archaic and decaying Candlestick Park that housed all five Super Bowl teams and volume of barn burning playoff games. But history can only go so far for today's fan that has the option of staying home and watching Red Zone from the comfort of their own living room instead of dealing with the hassle of getting to an NFL game.
The 49ers will do everything they can to make the stadium experience as fan-friendly as possible, knowing they are competing against home cookouts, lazy boys, big screens and Sunday Ticket. They plan on offering in-game applications for cell phones and tablets, allowing fans to order food, check bathroom lines and watch replays all from their seat. When designing the stadium, it was clear the organization was focused on the fan experience and not necessarily aesthetics like we've seen in other new buildings - particularly baseball stadiums. The stadium doesn't offer great views from the inside, like of boats passing by in the Bay or a downtown city scape. The focus was clearly providing fans the best view of the game, unlike the relic they moved away from at Candlestick Point that featured all sorts of strange seating angles.
The problem with technology generating so much of the fan experience is what it could potentially take away from watching the game itself. The 49ers' home field advantage lies in passionate, knowledgeable fans that are in tune with each and every play. Some of that could be lost with an emphasis on content and utility for personal devices. Instead of fans cheering on the defense on a critical third down, they might be distracted by checking on their order of pinot grigio. But perhaps knowing full well about the impact the "12th Man" can have on a game, fans will refrain from letting the technology inside the stadium become too much of a distraction. On the other hand, having the league's largest outdoor video boards will be a welcomed touch.
The other big adjustment comes in the location of venue. Levi's Stadium is exactly 38.3 miles south of Candlestick Park (if you take 101, it's 50.1 miles if you take 280) in northern Santa Clara. The new location is great news for fans from the South Bay while North Bay goers will have an extra hour of driving to take into account. But given the expansive parking, vastly improved freeway accessibility and public transportation, fans could get that extra hour back simply by being able to get out of the area quickly, unlike the gridlock that came after games at Candlestick.
Overall, Levi's Stadium will offer an incredibly different experience from Candlestick. There won't be a bad seat in the entire place and it will be a much more fan-friendly venue with all the modern amenities football fans in other cities have become accustomed too. But there will be an adjustment period.
As far as the team goes, the new stadium is adjoined to their practice facility. Most of the players and coaches live in the South Bay already, meaning they will no longer have to commute to San Francisco for games on Sunday. Instead, they will have the luxury of parking in the same lot they do each day of the week during practice. Will it make a tangible impact? Probably not. But having all the extra amenities of the team's practice facility right there certainly won't hurt football operations.
Harbaugh's Looming Extension
The trial period of Jim Harbaugh's tenure is over. And after reaching at least the conference title game in each of his first three seasons (becoming the first NFL coach to ever do it), Harbaugh and his talented staff have created sky-high expectations, which are both a gift and a curse. Entering the fourth season of his five-year deal, Harbaugh hopes he has enough leverage to earn a significant raise and extension giving him a similar salary to coaches that have Super Bowls on their resume. The problem, of course, is he has yet to add a Lombardi Trophy to the team's mantel, which will likely be a sticking point when it comes to the dollars Harbaugh will get.
There's also the rumblings of Harbaugh's "creative tension" with general manager Trent Baalke. Reports surfaced this season about conflict arising over roster control, which Baalke has the final say. Harbaugh has gone to bat for looming free agents in the past, telling the media he wants them back, when financially it wasn't the right decision under the salary cap (see: Goldson, Dashon & Dawson, Phil, et al).
Whether or not Harbaugh's relationship with the front office is abrasive enough to impact his contract negotiations is yet to be seen. But at some point he's going to pine for more roster control, which could alter the way his potential extension pans out.
But considering the state of the franchise before Harbaugh's arrival, it should seem like a no-brainer to add two, three or four years to his deal based on productivity alone. There's also his relationship with his quarterback to consider, who could be with the team for a long time following this postseason. Speaking of quarterback…
Kaepernick's Pending Extension
Colin Kaepernick is entering his third year in the league, meaning he has the ability to renegotiate his contract prior to the final season of his four-year rookie deal. He's slated to make $933,766 in 2014 with a $1.6 figure against the cap making him one of the biggest bargains in the NFL alongside Super Bowl winner Russell Wilson ($662,434 in 2014).
While Kaepernick's three fourth-quarter turnovers went a long way towards the 49ers losing the NFC Championship game, he accounted for 283 of the team's 308 total yards against the vaunted Seahawks defense on their home field. He was one throw away from winning in Seattle and getting back to the Super Bowl for the second-straight season.
And watching Peyton Manning score just 8 points against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl likely didn't hurt Kaepernick from a leverage standpoint.
Kaepernick's extension won't make him Aaron Rodger's average of $22 million per year, but he could be in line to get something between Eli Manning's $16.25 million average and Jay Cutler's $18.1. Kaepernick sold more jerseys than any player in the league last year and is becoming one of its most marketed players. ("I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the ma'an")
The three-year vet said during Super Bowl week he wouldn't want an extension that would force the team to make sacrifices elsewhere on the roster. His free agency comes at the same time as Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Aldon Smith, meaning the more he gets the harder it will be to retain the others given the monetary restrictions. But more than likely Kaepernick will get a back-loaded deal that works for himself and the 49ers. The sticking point, as always, will be the guaranteed money.
Once Kaepernick is extended, the team can begin to look at contracts for Crabtree, Iupati, Smith and the remaining free agents that are due to hit the market following the upcoming season.
On the field, there might not be a more important storyline to follow than that of NaVorro Bowman's recovery from his gruesome knee injury suffered in the NFC Title Game. Bowman tore his left ACL and MCL and underwent surgery Tuesday done by Dr. James Andrews in Florida.
Doctors advised the All-Pro linebacker to wait two weeks to allow swelling to subside and to give the MCL time to heal on its own prior to repairing the ACL in surgery. The prognosis for his return is reportedly six-to-eight months while the regular season opens almost exactly seven months from the surgery. The 49ers would be wise to give Bowman as much time as he needs to fully recover before getting back on the field, which could mean starting the season on the PUP list allowing him to miss the season's first six weeks, much like Mario Manningham did in 2013.
Manningham returned to action just over 11 months after tearing two ligaments in his knee (also in Seattle) the previous December. He suffered a set back in December and was placed back on injured reserve, ending his season prematurely for the second-straight year. Manningham is a free agent and unlikely to return to San Francisco.
Manningham's injury was different than Bowman's - he tore his PCL and his ACL. Generally MCL's heal much more rapidly, which bodes well for Bowman. Another case to consider is Robert Griffin III, who returned for the regular season opener after tearing his ACL in the Wild Card round of the playoffs the season before. Griffin didn't appear healthy all season and likely did more harm than good be returning for the first regular season game of the year.
Should Bowman be forced to miss any time, the 49ers have initial contingency plans in Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody. Wilhoite played well early in the season alongside Bowman while Patrick Willis dealt with a groin injury. But neither Wilhoite or Moody have much experience to lean on. That means the 49ers could find a short-term replacement for Bowman in free agency or even the draft. Bowman finished the season as a candidate for defensive player of the year finishing behind Luke Kuechly and will be an awfully tough player to replace if he isn't fully habilitated by opening day.
The 49ers will have plenty of ammo with 12 picks in the upcoming draft, including six in the first three rounds. How free agency shakes out over the coming months will go a long way toward determine their draft needs. But as of now, their needs lie at receiver, cornerback, safety, interior offensive line and backup quarterback, in no particular order.
Baalke has done well of late finding players in the draft, particularly on defense. With Tarell Brown, Eric Wright, Perrish Cox and Carlos Rogers all having futures up in the air, corner will be a priority. Their needs at safety and receiver are tied to the pending free agency of Donte Whitner and Anquan Boldin. The 49ers have exclusive negotiating rights to their free agents until March 8.
But with the draft pushed back toward May this year, there will be plenty of time to dive into draft needs as the free agent process unfolds. For now, the 49ers will spend their offseason in evaluation mode from everything from their head coach to their kicker Phil Dawson, who is also a free agent.
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