SANTA CLARA — The 49ers are picked by most of the national and local pundits to finish relatively low in the division. With the Cardinals (13-3) and Seahawks (10-6) both punching tickets to the playoffs last year, it would appear on the surface that those two teams would be the front runners to take the division once again. However, both the Rams and 49ers are young. Young in the sense that they’re right where Seattle was a few seasons ago before they began their ascent to the top of the division.
There are many reasons why both the Cardinals and Seahawks could slide and the Niners and Rams could begin to emerge. It’s not going to be a walk in the park anyone.
The 49ers added Chip Kelly, who is a very underrated and innovative football mind. The 49ers went 5-11 last season and had a couple of games that could have gone either way. The roster was plagued with injury and was coached by a very incompetent and in-over-their-heads coaching staff.
Now that the Niners are healthy and have what most could justify as being a better coaching staff, they aren’t going to be as bad as last season. I say that with conviction. Below, I will give reasons why I believe the 49ers could actually jump in to the wild card discussion this year…
LOS ANGELES RAMS – First and foremost, the Rams will be playing behind the arm and inexperience of a rookie quarterback in Jared Goff. He will have second year running back Todd Gurley to lean on early on assuming he stays healthy for the time it takes Goff to get used to the speed of the game. They also, per Pro Football Focus had one of the worst offensive lines in the entire NFL.
The defensive side lost a couple of leaders in veterans Chris Long and James Lauranitas as well. While they still have youthful leaders like Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, losing the aforementioned will most likely take its toll. Jeff Fisher prides himself on having a hard nosed defense but the inexperience could very well lead to coming up short in a few more than they would like.
ARIZONA CARDINALS – Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer, Chris Johnson… these are the leaders of that squad. They’re all long in the tooth and many think and believe that this team may have missed their window last season when they got hammered in the NFC Championship Game. Statistically, teams who have lost the Championship Game in either the NFC or AFC have come back to have an underwhelming season the following year; not in every scenario but it is more common than the exceptions.
The Cardinals will undeniably have one of the best defenses in the NFL again. That can be said for certain barring any injuries or major set backs. I do believe that the Cards will be in the ring swinging for another playoff birth but there are some holes and there are some weaknesses that can be exploited. They will not go 16-0 and they can and will be beaten by some.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS – The Seahawks largest downfall is going to be across the offensive line. Seahawks homers will tell you that they have had a bad offensive line for the past four years but it’s not true. Statistically, the numbers would suggest that they did not have a top five offensive line but a lot can be attributed to how that offense is ran with all the read option. However, when you lose a Max Unger, J.R. Sweezy, and Russell Okung, you’re going to feel that. It limits the quarterbacks time in the pocket and also puts your number one asset, Russell Wilson, at risk of injury from lack of protection.
Marshawn Lynch charged that crowd. The Skittles Era is no more. Thomas Rawls showed flashes of being a serviceable NFL running back but he has also shown that he isn’t durable. Until he can prove that, color me unconvinced that he can go a full season as the bell cow like Lynch was.
The Seahawks do have a lot of the same veteran leadership but some of those said leaders have also dipped in production. You could see the decline as they lost last year in the playoffs. Guys who normally did not get beat, were getting beat.
While the 49ers have their own concerns and holes across the roster, Chip Kelly has proven himself as a football coach at this level; at any level he has coached for that matter. One could argue that they do not have the quarterback position figured out. One could argue that they do not have their wide receivers set in stone or figured out. There are some positions on the defensive side of the ball such as corner and inside linebacker not set in concrete just yet. But the one thing that they have done is stacked depth. They have addressed the areas of concern for the most part. The offensive line was one of the worst in the league last season and they drafted one in the first round of this years draft, some assuming that they stole that pick from Seattle, and also signed a former Pro Bowler in Zane Beadles.
I’m not going to go out here and claim that there are parallels between the 2016 San Francisco 49ers and the 1981 San Francisco 49ers just yet but there are similarities. They are a young team that is hungry and ready to prove, not only to themselves but the rest of the world that they are not who everyone thinks they are.
Whether it is Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert who is behind center, Chip Kelly is an NFL coach with a winning record and did it with Nick Foles and Sam Bradford. He went 10-6 in his first two seasons when his primary focus was just to coach football. Granted, this is not the NFC East… Dallas, New York, and Washington were not exactly world beaters the past few seasons while Kelly was with the Eagles. The competition in the NFC West may be a little more stiff but one thing we can say about Chip for sure is that he loves the challenge and will never back down from it whether it’s playing the New England Patriots or the Tennessee Titans. When he took this job, he realized what he was up against. Being back on the west coast may just be the type of atmosphere that helps Kelly gain the status he had in college as one of the greats at the pro level.
Innovation and execution is what wins football games. Chip Kelly understands and preaches that. Every player in the NFL has talent… it just takes the right coach to bring out things and the said potential in them that they themselves didn’t even realize they could accomplish.
The 49ers have not had a dynamic or innovative offense in quite some time. It will be refreshing for Niners fans to see that change heading in to this season.
49ers football WILL be exciting again.