The 49ers and their fans would prefer to forget most of the stretch between 2003-10 -- a gap that saw San Francisco finish at .500 but once amid a postseason drought. The three seasons since, all under Jim Harbaugh's watch, have returned football prosperity to the City by the Bay.
And in an odd way, they may have been equally frustrating.
Harbaugh posted 36 regular-season wins in that timeframe, with three straight trips to the NFC title game. The 49ers have been close, devastatingly so in Super Bowl XLVII. One near-miss after the next, leaving San Francisco now wondering how in the world to get over the top, particularly in the NFL's tougher conference and its most difficult division.
The plan as the 2014 season approaches is, essentially, to stick with the status quo and hope it finally pays off.
Harbaugh said in his season-ending press conference that the 49ers' 2013 was "a great year of football with a capital G", also raving that "the players played superbly. I thought they were prepared superbly by our coaching staff." By most measures, he was correct in such a glowing assessment. San Francisco lost the NFC title game by six points in Seattle, Richard Sherman sealing the outcome with an interception in the end zone late. Considering Denver's Super Bowl collapse, an argument can be made that the 49ers were football's second-best team in 2013 ... just as in 2012.
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The final boost will have to come from within, hence the decision to hand QB Colin Kaepernick a potentially lucrative long-term deal. He is the clear centerpiece around which the current offense is built, with a very familiar corps of weapons around him in 2014 at receiver and running back. The new faces arrived via the draft: RB Carlos Hyde and WR Bruce Ellington, who might provide more punch come the later years of Kaepernick's contract than in 2014. Defensively, San Francisco dropped in another rookie, first-rounder Jimmie Ward, to help offset the loss of CB Tarell Brown. He eventually may have to pick up some of the slack left behind by Donte Whitner's departure as well, though free-agent signee Antoine Bethea will carry that baton into the foreseeable future. An injury to LB NaVorro Bowman and possible suspension for fellow defender Aldon Smith could hinder this team's early-season success.
A playoff berth remains the expectation. A Super Bowl run again the plan. Accomplishing those goals will fall on much the same roster that fell inches shy each of the past two seasons.
Best acquisition: Jimmie Ward, CB/S.
A few years back, the Ravens and Terrell Suggs battled over Suggs' franchise tag designation, with the two sides ultimately agreeing to label the defensive star an OLB/DE with a salary landing between those two levels. This offseason, we had Jimmy Graham versus the NFL in the franchise-tag court -- Graham was deemed a tight end, something that may cost him several million dollars in 2014.
The next debate could come from a player like Ward. A cornerback early in his career at Northern Illinois, Ward later moved to safety and was drafted at that position. But with 2013 draft pick Eric Reid and ex-Colt Antoine Bethea locked into the starting safety jobs in San Francisco, Ward will open his NFL career mainly as a slot cornerback.
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Any franchise tag argument for Ward is years off, of course. The designation will not matter to the 49ers or to Ward in 2014. What will count: Ward's versatility.
"He’s a good hitter, but he also makes plays on the ball. He’s extremely fast and has great instincts," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He covers up for other people’s mistakes because he has a knack of seeing things quicker than everyone else on the defense and can react to them quicker, therefore he makes football plays."
Spearheading the need for Ward to make an immediate impact is the 49ers' slightly alarming lack of depth at corner. Tramaine Brock and either Chris Culliver or Chris Cook likely will make up the starting lineup, but no one outside of Brock sets up as a sure thing. Ward delivers a little upside, regardless of where he lines up in the long run.
Biggest loss: Donte Whitner, S.
The 49ers, as good teams are wont to do, kept their nucleus very much together over the offseason. The two most pressing losses on paper were Whitner and Brown. Should Ward flop as a slot corner or that Cook/Culliver tandem tank, letting Brown walk may loom as a regretful decision.
It is Bethea whom San Francisco targeted in free agency to take Whitner's place. Without question, Plan B could have been a lot worse. Bethea has not missed a start since 2007 and he finished last season with 110 tackles in Indianapolis' secondary. His four-year deal provides another veteran presence to pair with Reid, plus later allowed the 49ers the leeway to draft Ward as a multi-position threat.
All that said, Whitner had been one of the faces of San Francisco's D for the past three seasons -- a hard-hitting, intimidating threat. He, too, had been durable, suiting up in 47 of a possible 48 regular-season games while with the 49ers. And Pro Football Focus graded him out as the NFL's sixth-best safety for 2013; Bethea, by comparison, landed at No. 50.
The drop-off should not be as steep as those rankings indicate (and Bethea's knack for playing within the rules, as opposed to Whitner's penalty-inducing ways, will be a benefit). There might be a slight step back, though.
Underrated draft pick: Bruce Ellington, WR.
San Francisco landed some props for its selection of a fourth-round receiver a year back: Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton. The promise failed to come to fruition there in 2013, with Patton spending a large chunk of time on the sideline due to a broken foot. He is back and battling for a roster spot this summer, but he may lose out to the 49ers' latest Round 4 WR project.
That would be Ellington, a reliable and athletic 5-foot-9 prospect out of South Carolina.
"He’s picked things up very quickly," 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick said of Ellington last month. "Very good feel for the game and he’s made plays when we’ve given him the opportunity. ... He’s faster than he looks and he can separate. So, we’re very excited about what he can add to this team."
Even with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson around, opportunity could present itself for Ellington unless Patton really solidifies himself as the No. 4 receiver. At the very least, Ellington's experience on special teams will give him a rookie boost. There's much more in the tank than that, however, and it is only a matter of time before the 49ers allow Ellington to prove it.
Looming question for training camp: Who will fill the vacancies left by Bowman and (possibly) Aldon Smith?
Smith tied for the 49ers' team lead in sacks last season with 8.5, despite missing five games. Bowman more or less lapped the field in tackles, his 145 among the top totals league-wide.
The 49ers have been prepping for a Bowman-less start to the season since the NFC title game, when Bowman suffered a gruesome knee injury. He's not expected to be back before midseason, leaving a brewing position battle between former backup Michael Wilhoite and steady 2014 third-round pick Chris Borland. Either could be serviceable; neither will be able to match Bowman's impact from inside linebacker.
Playing time could be up for grabs in similar fashion at OLB, depending on how hard the NFL hits Smith for a string of off-field miscues. The fallback choices there include Dan Skuta, an eight-game starter last season, and second-year man Corey Lemonier. Again, even in the best-case scenario here, the 49ers will feel Smith's absence for however many games he's forced to miss.
The schedule does San Francisco no favors: four of the first seven on the road, with the home games against playoff contenders in Chicago, Kansas City and Philadelphia. Can San Francisco weather the storm sans two defensive standouts?
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