The San Francisco 49ers are coming off a 13-3 campaign in which they out-performed what all analysts and fans predicted. With that success comes new expectations and their days as underdogs are over, just like that. As an underdog in his first season as head coach, Jim Harbaugh led the team to the NFC Championship game, losing in overtime to the New York Giants. In his second campaign, the stakes are far greater.
Last season, Harbaugh got underachieving quarterback Alex Smith to play within himself, executing the offense efficiently and effectively. With a staunch defense on the other side of the ball, the 49er offense was able to control the clock and play patient football, capitalizing on the opposing team's mistakes. They will be returning almost all of the major players from last year's defense, but the offense will have to pick up if they intend to make another leap.
With a solid running game, anchored by Frank Gore, and offensive line already serving as the pillars of the offense, the major jumps will be made throwing the ball. Smith enjoyed the best year of his career and will look to carry that momentum into the new season. In order to make it easier on Smith, the 49ers executives brought in as many quality wide receivers as they could.
With the signing of Randy Moss, the 49ers now have four first-round draft picks at the wide receiver position. That is the most of any roster in the league. Michael Crabtree is coming off his best year, Ted Ginn Jr. is back as a solid deep threat and special teams ace, and rookie A.J. Jenkins is eager to produce. The corps looks great as it stands, but what will happen if Smith struggles to get them the ball consistently?
We all know about Moss' troubles, sitting out last season due to a lack of appropriate suitors and struggling to win the locker room with his previous teams. Crabtree struggled at the beginning of his career and often reacted poorly to the lack of immediate success. Keeping this duo happy may prove to be Harbaugh's toughest job this season as head coach.
Not only does the team need the passing game to step up on the field, there may be significant discontent in the locker room if the team is unable to improve in the passing game. With personalities like Moss and Crabtree, it's hard to tell what kind of response to expect when adversity strikes.
That's where Harbaugh will make his money. It remains to be seen how well these receivers will respond if things get tough. If Smith progresses like scouts thought he would, leading him to be drafted first overall in 2005, Harbaugh's job will be a lot easier.
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