Last year, 49ers fans were happily surprised by the team’s record. This year, the happy surprise will be a revitalized offense.
Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman kept the offense basic last season for two reasons: 1) Quarterback Alex Smith was learning a new system — again! and 2) The 49ers didn’t have the receivers to open up the field.
Both problems are behind them. Smith has learned the offense in half the time Harbaugh expected — one year instead of two years — which shouldn’t really be a shock. This is a young man who got through college in three years, instead of the usual four.
The 49ers also loaded up on receivers in the offseason, signing Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and drafting A.J. Jenkins. Ted Ginn Jr. has also looked much better in practice. The competition should also force drama queen Michael Crabtree to play to his potential.
Smith played well under the buttoned-down system last year, throwing for 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions. That was one of the big reasons the 49ers led everybody in turnover ratio, the one factor coaches continually cite when they’re asked about the keys to victory. Meanwhile, the defense was dominant, especially against the run.
The 49ers don’t have the option this season of relying on the defense to win, because they’ll be playing against the best quarterbacks in the league, starting with the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers in the opener in Green Bay.
The NFL has encouraged passing offenses with rules changes, to the point that the league is reminiscent of the AFL in its early years. Opponents will be filling the air with footballs, and it’s unreasonable to expect the 49ers’ secondary to shut down these passers.
So, there will be games when the 49ers simply have to have big offensive outputs to outscore their opponents.
I think they will be capable of this because I’ve seen enough of Smith in games and practice to know that he can make the necessary deep throws — if he has the receivers. Moss has been that kind of receiver throughout his career, when he’s motivated. He’s motivated now because he knows that if he doesn’t do the job, Harbaugh will ship him out. Even at 35, Moss has that gliding motion which makes his speed deceptive.
Manningham may be even more of a key because he’s only 26 and has a knack for coming up with key catches, as he did against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
The Niners will also have more versatility in their running game, especially with rookie LaMichael James, who has blinding speed. He played in an unusual formation in college at Oregon, so he’s not going to be an every-down back, but he adds explosiveness backing up Frank Gore, the all-time leading rusher for the Niners, and second-year back Kendall Hunter, who is both a hard runner and an explosive one. When Brandon Jacobs comes back from an apparent minor injury, he can be important in the red zone.
Winning is always the goal, but when you can also be exciting ... that should be the 2012 49ers.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.