2014 Cowboys Opponent Preview: San Fran 49ers

Getting off to a good start isn’t imperative to a solid season, but it certainly doesn’t hinder things. Let's take a look at the offseason of the Cowboys first opponent in 2014, the San Francisco 49ers.

Head-to-Head History

Series Tied: 16-16-1
Current Streak: Dallas has won last three in series
Last Matchup: 2011 Week 2, Dallas wins 27-24 in Candlestick Park. The “Punctured Lung’ Game. The “Miles Austin Stretch” Game. The “Jesse Holley Exists Forever” Game.

2013 Season Review

The 49ers made the NFC Championship game for the third consecutive season in 2013, putting the second piece of bread on top of their Super Bowl loss to the Ravens. San Fran finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak to reach 12-4. That was good for second place of the NFC West behind the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Seattle Seahawks.

The 49ers had the league’s third best net point differential, +134, on the year. Their net yards per attempt (NY/A) differential, a key indicator of overall team strength, was +0.8. Their offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), measuring how much better the offense performs than league average in the same down/distance/game situation against the specific defense, ranked 8th last year. Their defensive VOA was 13th. Their offensive EPA, Expected Points Added and how well they improved their chances of scoring on a play-by-play basis, ranked 13th while their defense ranked 7th.

On offense, their best players according to Pro Football Focus’ cumulative game grades were LT Joe Staley (+24.4, 5th in league), WR Anquan Boldin(+15.5, 6th) and TE Vernon Davis (+13.2, 6th). Those were the only three players to grade in double digits.

On defense, their highest graded guys were LB NaVorro Bowman (+23.9, 1st), LB Aldon Smith (+23.4, 5th), LB Patrick Willis (+18.6, 3rd) and S Donte Whitner (+12.1, 7th) Of those guys, only Willis is expected to see action in Week 1. Bowman was lost in the NFCC to a knee injury and will be out until midseason while Smith faces suspension. Whitner left San Francisco in free agency. Not listed here but having great seasons were LB Ahmad Brooks and CB Tremaine Brock.

Their worst losses of the season occurred in Weeks 2 & 3, back-to-back blowout defeats at Seattle (29-3) and home against Indianapolis (27-7). They bounced right back, winning their next five games by a combined score of 175-61. Those five opponents, St. Louis, Houston, Arizona, Tennessee and Jacksonville, all appear on the Dallas 2014 schedule as the less daunting part of a rigorous 16-game gauntlet.

2014 Offseason Headlines

The team has spent the offseason in the news. Chief amongst the incidents include star pass rusher Aldon Smith faces sentencing on July 25th after pleading no contest to DUI and felony weapons charges. In an unrelated incident, he had a run-in after using the word bomb in an airport. Smith was again suspended by the league, and he will miss the first 9 games of the season.

Starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick received a new deal that was “sort of” lucrative. He received what in essence is a series of one-year contracts and allows the 49ers to walk away from him after any season, although the decision would have to be made prior to that year’s draft. Kaepernick has essentially bet on himself to continue to lead a dangerous 49er offense as a dual-threat quarterback while also evolving in his ability to dissect defenses.

The front office dealt with two key members of their offense holding out for new contracts. NinersNation.com had the skinny , but alas, both players are in the fold. Boone did not report until the 49ers caved in the last week of the preseason, extending his deal.

Also in the San Fran headlines this offseason was the rumored courting of head coach Jim Harbaugh by Cleveland to be their leading man. Draft pick compensation was discussed and based on reports that he and GM Trent Baalke didn’t always see eye to eye. SI’s Peter King did a good job debunking the thought that the relationship had reached dire stages by the Bay. At least, not yet.

Surrounded by this, the team made several roster transactions of note. In the May draft, they acquired S Jimmie Ward, who by many accounts was actually the best single-high safety available. Also in their 12-man draft haul, RB Carlos Hyde, OL Brandon Thomas, WR Bruce Ellington and OLB Aaron Lynch. They also get redshirt players from the 2013 draft DE/OLB Tank Carradine and RB Marcus Lattimore to team up with sophomore stud S Eric Reid. The cupboard is definitely not bare in San Francisco.

Through free agency and trades the club brought in WR Stevie Johnson, G Jonathan Martin, QB Blaine Gabbert, S Antoine Bethea… while losing S Donte Whitner, CB Tarell Brown and C Jonathan Goodwin.

Things had appeared to be settling down for the 49ers, until Ray McDonald was arrested on suspected domestic abuse of his pregnant girlfriend. Head coach Jim Harbaugh had previously publicly stated that "putting hands on a woman" is the one transgression he will not forgive. It will be interesting to see if the team sits McDonald, with a nudge from the league office, to avoid Joe Buck soap-boxing the situation on the first weekend of the new football season. The aforementioned Carradine would start in his place.

With Bowman, Smith, and Glenn Dorsey already sitting out, losing McDonald could keep the 49ers defense from resembling what most fans are used to seeing.

2014 Outlook

San Francisco is expected to remain a contender for the NFL throne this coming season and should be a strong test for the Cowboys right out of the gate. It might actually be a best case scenario for an opening day opponent. A loss is expected by most, and short of a blowout shouldn’t affect any aspirations for the season. A win, and the team should gain the confidence of knowing they can compete with anyone in the league.

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