The San Francisco 49ers made way too many mistakes in Super Bowl XLVII and were utterly dominated in the first half by a poised Baltimore Ravens team. But then the lights went out in the stadium -- and went on for the 49ers. And a fantastic football game ensued.
Even though the 49ers lost 34-31 on Sunday night, that doesn't mean it's all doom and gloom for San Francisco fans. In fact, the 49ers are in awfully good shape to return to the Super Bowl next year.
What do they have to do to get there?
Many will say that Colin Kaepernick was overmatched in this game. He did have a few moments when he looked overwhelmed, clock management was a problem and his footwork was poor on the interception that sailed on him. But for the most part, he threw the football incredibly well. And remember, this was only his 10th start. Think what an amazing learning experience this was for him -- he might have just been the best player on the field Sunday night. Kaepernick will be a great quarterback, if he isn't already. And with a great quarterback in this league, your team should always be competitive.
Going forward, the 49ers face a massive challenge within their division, as Seattle is very young and very threatening. San Francisco has stayed healthy over these past two seasons, particularly with its great defense and offensive line this season. Can that continue? Probably not.
What might they address this offseason? QB Alex Smith is sure to be somewhere else in 2013 and TE Delanie Walker is an unrestricted free agent, along with S Dashon Goldson, WR Randy Moss and DTs Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois. With Justin Smith's age and the possible loss of Jean-Francois, who played the run well in Smith's absence, San Francisco should use a high pick or two on the defensive line, at end and nose tackle, where Sopoaga could depart. Re-signing Jean-Francois and/or Sopoaga seems prudent though, and if they do that then using only one high draft pick on the defensive line would suffice.
Also on defense, there isn't another starting option at safety if Goldson leaves. However, this is a very deep safety draft, so that would lessen the blow if they couldn't re-sign him. The 49ers do play really with only 12 core defensive players game after game (which has worked out very well), but adding more options on that side of the ball could pay off, especially late in the year from a stamina perspective. San Francisco's defense was not the same in the postseason as it was for the majority of the regular season. And while much of that had to do with Justin Smith's injury and the disappearance of Aldon Smith, San Francisco's defensive players logged a ton of snaps this season.
On offense, with A.J. Jenkins still a question mark at wide receiver (although I have high hopes for him as soon as next year), Moss' contract up and Mario Manningham's injury situation, a big-play wide receiver should certainly be a consideration. Michael Crabtree emerged as a true No. 1 wide receiver this season, but a speedster opposite him would be an excellent complement, as might a quick and shifty slot wideout. The 49ers also will need to add a backup quarterback. Walker could demand quite a bit on the open market and is rather underutilized in San Francisco, so he seems to be a logical candidate to move on, opening up a need for a second tight end. This draft could be a very good resource to find Walker's replacement, but he would be a bigger loss than many realize because he's so good as a blocker, threatening receiver and special teamer. With David Akers' struggles, the 49ers also would be wise to find another kicker in the offseason.
Finally, few teams got as little from their rookie class as the 49ers did this year. That isn't to say that guys like Jenkins are busts, but you would think this group would have had more of an immediate impact. Maybe they collectively couldn't get on the field much, as the 49ers' starters are obviously a very strong group. But the first-year 49ers outside of LaMichael James remain mostly a mystery at this point. And of course, San Francisco will be drafting with the second-to-last pick of every round in the next draft, which makes it more difficult to find impact rookies for the 2013 season.
Still, at the end of the day, this isn't a difficult wish list to fulfill and San Francisco's roster could conceivably be stronger next year than it is today. This isn't a team that is missing a major piece or is a player or two away from greatness. Instead, the 49ers just need to stay the course.
With the league's top offensive line, the best and most diverse running game that also getsKendall Hunter, who was very impressive this year, back from injury, a great and proven defense, along with possibly the league's most promising young quarterback and one of the NFL's best head coaches, this team is not going away any time soon. Don't be surprised if the 49ers are playing in the Super Bowl once again next season … perhaps with better results.