A lot is being made about the 4th and goal non-holding call by the referees that essentially ended the game. I don’t think it was necessarily a bad call. It was a borderline call and either team would have had a beef depending on the outcome of the call. Obviously it’s not the way you want a Super Bowl to be decided, but I don’t have an issue with it. At least the refs were consistent. They pretty much swallowed their whistles all game and let the players play so that call went right along with that. That did benefit the Ravens who were being more physical and aggressive (Cary Williams bumped an official and didn’t get tossed), which could lead to conspiracy theories (between this game and all the calls the Ravens got against the Broncos, maybe the NFL wanted to see media darling Ray Lewis go out on top). Still, I have no issue with that particular call.
However, one thing I will say is that it’s important not to judge Kaepernick’s performance on the basis on that call (ie: if the call had gone in the 49ers’ favor and the 49ers had won, Kaepernick is a hero, but since it didn’t, he is a goat). Kaepernick played well enough to win. He went 16 of 28 for 308 yards, a touchdown and an interception and added 62 yards and another score on the ground. It’s a team sport. He doesn’t play defense. He doesn’t play special teams. He didn’t fumble (LaMichael James). He didn’t drop at least 74 yards worth of passes nor did he not play the ball on the one interception he threw (Randy Moss). He led the 49ers to 3 touchdowns and 3 field goals. It’s hard to put this one on him and Jim Harbaugh definitely made the right move going to him.
Not only was it the right long term move (paying Kaepernick 740K in his age 26 season in 2013 is much better than paying Alex Smith 8.5 million in his age 29 season, plus they can probably get a day two pick for Alex Smith), but they wouldn’t have been where they got to without Kaepernick. Alex Smith probably wouldn’t have beaten the Patriots in New England in a game that the Patriots threw up 34 and Alex Smith probably wouldn’t have come back in that first Rams’ game to get a tie. That would have left them at 10-6 and even if they would have still made the playoffs via a tiebreaker over Chicago, they would have been the 6 seed and had a much tougher road to the Super Bowl and with a much more limited quarterback.
With Kaepernick at quarterback, the future is bright for the 49ers. 19 of 22 starters are under contract for the 49ers in 2013 and only three will be older than 30. However, no team has gone from losing the Super Bowl to winning the Super Bowl since the 1972 Dolphins so, like the 2012 Patriots, the 2013 49ers will have 40+ years of history working against them. It’s really hard to play that many games, come that close, and then come back the next year and win it all. No team has done it with a 16 game regular season schedule. It’s too physically and mentally exhausting. No team since the 1993 Bills has even gone back to the Super Bowl and that was in a joke of an AFC back then. The NFC is loaded now.
The other concern is Justin Smith. He’s one of those 3 starters over 30 as he turns 34 in September. He tore his triceps against the Patriots week 15 and even though he only missed 10 quarters, he wasn’t the same when he returned and it was obvious. Aldon Smith recorded just one sack in his final 6 games without a healthy Justin Smith, after 20 in his first 13, and with a lack of a pass rush, their secondary, which actually ranked 2nd in the NFL in YPA, was exposed.
They allowed 25.2 points per game in those 6 games (excluding return touchdowns). Sure, they faced a tough batch of quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco), but Super Bowl caliber defenses should be able to limit those guys. The 49ers’ defense wasn’t. Smith should be healthy for the 2013 season, but how much longer can he be effective and who steps up if he can’t? Can Aldon Smith learn to beat double teams? Harbaugh definitely has this team in the right direction, but they have questions.
Dashon Goldson is a free agent. The 49ers franchised him last off-season, unwilling to commit to him long term based off of one high interception total, but this year he proved that he was much more than interceptions, picking off just 3 passes, but playing much better overall and grading out among the league’s best safeties on ProFootballFocus. He made the Pro-Bowl for the 2nd straight time in his career and rightfully so this time. Retaining him will be a priority of the 49ers’ off-season and, if they can’t, they’ll probably have to replace him externally.
Meanwhile, Donte Whitner also made the Pro-Bowl, but only by association. He really didn’t play that well and could be upgraded (he allowed two touchdowns in the Super Bowl alone). There was talk before the season of only using him in base packages, primarily as a run stopper. Heading into his contract year in 2013, the 49ers could bring in a 3rd safety to compete with him, even if Goldson is re-signed. The 49ers use a lot of sub packages anyway so extra defensive back depth is not a bad thing.
The 49ers don’t use a traditional 3-4 nose tackle that often. “Starting” nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga played on just 393 of 1280 possible defensive snaps for the team this season and he played pretty poorly as well. Heading into age 32 season, he sounds unlikely to be retained so the 49ers will need someone to play his snaps as purely a base package run stuffer, at the very least.
Backup tight end Delanie Walker is a free agent. He does some nice things, but he also had the worst drop rate in the NFL this season, dropping 11 of 48targets, and only catching 26 of them. The 49ers love using two tight ends so the backup tight end is actually kind of a starter for this team. Walker played on 713 of 1229 possible offensive snaps. Given that, they could attempt to replace him with a starting caliber player. Without a ton of huge needs, a tight end like Zach Ertz could be an option for the 49ers’ at the end of the 1st round.
The 49ers have most of their starters under contract for 2013 and most of them are pretty young too, which is a great spot to be in. However, center Jonathan Goodwin will be in a contract year in 2013, his age 34 season and I don’t know if the 49ers have a successor on their roster. Goodwin still played well last season on an overall incredible offensive line, but they could use a mid-round selection on a developmental center.
3-4 Defensive End
The player they bring in to play Sopoaga’s snaps could also provide some depth at 3-4 defensive end if he’s versatile enough. They probably will want to limit Justin Smith’s snaps a little bit as he gets older and they don’t really have good depth here. Before getting hurt against New England, Smith sat out just 56 snaps in 13 games and once he returned, he sat out just 20 snaps in 3 games despite playing with a torn triceps. He’ll also be a 34 year old in a contract year in 2013. Depth is needed, but a long term successor could also be looked at. Look for them to bring in at least one, maybe two young defensive linemen this off-season.
Here’s another position where they completely lack depth. Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are great outside linebackers in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, but if either of them were to get hurt, they’d be in serious trouble. They clearly don’t trust their depth as reserves played a combined 78 snaps for them at that position this year. They don’t have very many pressing needs, so they can once again use their early picks on depth and they desperately need depth at that position for insurance and to give those two a little bit more of a breather. Parys Haralson is technically still on the roster, but owed 2.57 million in 2013 after missing an entire year with a torn triceps, they probably won’t see it worth it to bring him back purely as a depth player.
After tearing his ACL in December, Mario Manningham’s status for 2013 is definitely up in the air. Owed a non-guaranteed 3.85 million in 2013, the 49ers may decide it’s better to just cut him than to deal with the headache. A half year of Manningham is not worth that much money. Randy Moss is also a free agent and he’s heading into his age 36 season anyway. He may not be welcomed back. They still have high hopes for AJ Jenkins even though he didn’t see the field much as a rookie, but they could use some more depth here.
This isn’t an overreaction to Chris Culliver’s horrible Super Bowl (and Super Bowl week). He played solid overall this year, but the 49ers use a lot of sub packages, so extra defensive back depth is not a bad thing. Perrish Cox really struggled when he did see the field this season. Besides, Carlos Rogers turns 32 in July. He should be safe for 2013, but owed 13.5 million in 2014 and 2015 combined, he might only have one more year on the roster. Cornerbacks take a while to develop anyway so they could use a mid-round selection on a developmental cornerback and ease him in.
David Akers is coming off a miserable year, hitting just 33 of 47 field goals, including just 9 of 19 from 40+. 2013 will be his age 39 season so this is probably the end of his ride. The 49ers will need to bring in a new kicker this off-season.