Last year the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals in the NFC and the San Diego Chargers in the AFC were the only 2008 division champs to accomplish that feat again in 2009. The Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts also returned to the postseason in the AFC, while the Philadelphia Eagles did so in the NFC. Six old teams, six new teams. So, for example, if a mediocre 2009 team, such as the Atlanta Falcons (or your 49ers), winds up winning the next Super Bowl, absolutely no one will have seen it coming.
The prognosticators predict the status quo for two reasons. One, it's safe. Believe it or not, but there's even more competition in the sports journalism business than in the games we cover and there's a lot of pressure to not look clueless or out of touch with our readers, viewers and especially our colleagues. You just don't want to be that guy. Secondly, it's only human nature in an industry where everyone is guessing and nobody knows anything to be biased in favor of teams, players and coaches with proven track records. Even if the roster of some playoff team from the previous season looks inferior to an up-and-coming division challenger, we still favor the incumbent because of intangibles such as "chemistry," or "experience," or my personal favorite, "they just know how to win."
Again, no one has any idea what they're talking about.
I raise this point because the 49ers are in a peculiar position in this sports forecasting game. They're viewed, rightly in my opinion, as one of those trendy, burgeoning teams ready to emerge. The way they finished last season strong, coupled with the retirement of Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, has resulted in just about everyone picking San Francisco to win the NFC West this season. Really, for a sportswriter, it's a perfect storm. They look bold and daring picking a squad who hasn't made the postseason since 2002 to win their division, when really they're just predicting that the previous season's second-place team will move up because the incumbent had a major offseason loss. The Niners, it could be argued, are actually a safer pick to win the harmless NFC West than the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints are to win their division. Heck, if somebody really wanted to be a daredevil here, they'd pick the Cardinals to repeat with Matt Leinart at the helm.
Except here's the rub; the major reason everybody likes the 49ers in 2010 is because of the way their defense performed in 2009. Statistically, the defense posted their finest numbers since 1997 in many categories. They finished sixth against the run (97.0 yards per game), tied for third in sacks (44) and tied for fifth in turnovers forced (33). It was a banner year for Greg Manusky's unit and I believe too many folks are taking for granted that the defense will be just as good – if not better – in 2010.
Me, I've got concerns about that side of the ball.
Sure, Patrick Willis is All-World, but besides him, who can we count on, for sure? Nosetackle Aubrayo Franklin is coming off a career-season, but he still hasn't signed his franchise tender. He's been a no-show during voluntary OTA's, so who knows where his conditioning is at or how hungry he'll be to improve now that he's making big money? End Justin Smith created a lot of havoc last season, but he's 30 now and entering his tenth season in the league. For a player whose had some difficulty "getting home" the past couple of seasons, who's to say this won't be the year Smith loses a step? Veterans Takeo Spikes and Michael Lewis both had much better seasons last year than in 2008, but at their age, and with their injury history, can we realistically expect an encore performance out of them? Corner Nate Clements got benched for a couple of poor games last year before going on the shelf with a broken shoulder. Can he bounce back or will he give way to Tarell Brown for good? Safety Dashon Goldson really came on strong at the end of 2009, but is he, pardon the pun, a "one hit wonder," or a star-in-the-making? What can the team expect from outside linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson? They're both decent players, but neither has broken thru to be a true difference-maker in this league. Or what about Ahmad Brooks? He came out of nowhere last season, but what will he do now that opposing coaches have some film on him?
We haven't even addressed the backups yet. All things considered the 49ers defense enjoyed a pretty healthy campaign in 2009. The odds are against such a thing happening again in 2010, meaning that some of this club's young reserves will get pressed into duty, whether it's Brown, safeties Taylor Mays and Reggie Smith, linebackers Scott McKillop and Navorro Bowman, or defensive linemen Kentwan Balmer and Ricky Jean-Francois. Who among them will have to step up, and will they be able to answer the bell?
My guess – and that's all it is – is that the 49ers offense will be much-improved next season. The truth of the matter is that they very well might have to be, because it's unrealistic for the defense to be as strong next season. We shouldn't just assume they'll be great again just because they were before. That kind of thinking is just silly in the modern NFL.