The San Francisco 49ers’ remarkable 2012-13 season ended with a loud thud. After storming back from a 22-point deficit to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl, the 49ers ultimately fell short of their goal. The Ravens wound up with a 34-31 victory, claiming the franchise’s second Vince Lombardi Trophy in 12 years, while Jim Harbaugh’s squad needs to get back to the drawing board in order to make a run at Super Bowl XLVIII.
But reflecting on the 49ers’ accomplishments this past season, the organization has a lot to be proud of. For the first time in 17 years, the team has won back-to-back division titles while making its first Super Bowl appearance since 1994.
The defense remains one of the best in football, led by inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Despite not coming up with a sack in his last six games, outside linebacker Aldon Smith should remain a dominating force for years to come. In just his second season, the Missouri product came 3.5 sacks shy of surpassing the single-season sack record currently held by Michael Strahan.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the season (in a negative way), was the play of David Akers. After making 84.6 percent of his field goals last year, the veteran kicker converted on just 69 percent of his attempts this year. Akers stated that he was hampered by a sports hernia for the season, but only he truly knows how much that affected his play. The odds of him returning are slim to none.
Akers’ special teams counterpart Andy Lee had another stellar season, as he was named to his third All-Pro team in four years and finished third with punts inside the 20-yard-line.
On offense, the 49ers sport arguably the league’s best offensive line from one through five. In two straight seasons, San Francisco has ranked in the top-10 in rushing.
Running behind that road-grading offensive line is Frank Gore, who broke the franchise’s all-time rushing touchdown record this year. Playing alongside the veteran runner, Kendall Hunter and rookie LaMichael James provided the 49ers with premier change-of-pace options.
However, Week 10 was the greatest turning point in San Francisco’s season, when Alex Smith was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Then-backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick took over the reins and never let go.
In 10 starts including the playoffs, Kaepernick posted 19 total touchdowns (five rushing), 2,406 passing yards and five interceptions. Harbaugh was clearly convinced that his young quarterback had more upside than Smith to take them over the top, and he was almost right. San Francisco may very well have found their franchise quarterback since the days of Steve Young.
What’s also impressive is that Kaepernick had only two reliable receiving targets in Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Despite losing Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams earlier in the season due to injury, the young signal-caller still made the players around him better.
Kaepernick shows a lot of promise, but he can always get better. His ability to dissect coverages should improve over time, and his short-and-mid-range passing can use some development. He throws a nice fastball, but incorporating a changeup to his arsenal will make him a more complete passer.
Overall, this season was bittersweet for the organization and its fans. The 49ers have young top-notch talent on both sides of the ball, however, it was not enough in achieving their one goal of being crowned world champions.
Looking ahead, the 49ers have stiff competition in the NFC West. After going 3-2-1 within the division this year, San Francisco has to continue to get better if they want to remain a championship contender. The St. Louis Rams have played them tough, and seem to have their number. The Arizona Cardinals could pose problems if they can just manage to field a respectable offense, and with Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks should remain a perennial threat.
The Bay Area has to be excited and optimistic for the future, but in the NFL, you never know what could happen. Once a new season kicks off, everyone has a chance to make noise.
I’m already counting down to the start of training camp.
You can follow Travis on Twitter @RS_TravisChan