Lotsa questions remain, but Niners have reason for hope

I’m thumbing through my Athlon Sports Pro Football 2009 Preview, and I pause on Page 126 to look at the NFC predictions.


Here is the NFC West projected order of finish:

1, Arizona

2, Seattle

3. 49ers

4. St. Louis.


Then, I look at the NFC Power Poll. The bottom looks like this . . .

11, Seattle

12, Washington

13, 49ers

14, Tampa Bay

15, Detroit

16, St. Louis


Question: Do you think the Niners will be in the playoffs this year? I have watched every game such 2002 and I want to really believe. I am still worried about our pass rush, it does not matter how good you are, if you can’t stop the other team. (Larry R.)


Answer: If you ask whether I would predict a playoff appearance for the 49ers this season, the answer would be “no.” But if you ask whether I believe the 49ers have a decent chance at the playoffs, my answer is “yes.”


The main reason the 49ers should feel reasonably confident is because of their competition. The Cardinals represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last season. They are the consensus favorite to repeat as NFC West champions. (But don’t fall asleep on Jim Mora’s Seahawks, either.)


Yet, the 49ers believe – for good reason – they can emerge as the best team in the NFC West. They’ll get their chance early to knock off the defending champs, as the 49ers travel to the desert for a Sept. 13 game against the Cardinals.


But to predict a 49ers playoff appearance requires a huge leap of faith. After all, this is a team that has yet to settle on a starting quarterback. Generally, when a team goes through an entire offseason without a starter at the most important position, it does not bode well for the upcoming year.


There are a lot of other questions, too. Jimmy Raye is the 49ers’ seventh offensive coordinator in seven years. Play-calling is an art. It’s been a long time since he’s had that responsibility. Will he be an effective play-caller?


Quarterback and offensive coordinator are two big question marks. But those aren’t the only ones:


–How will Mike Singletary fare as a game manager?

–Can Singletary keep his composure when things inevitably get difficult?

–Will the offensive line mesh together to play at a high level?

–Can the defense apply pressure on the quarterback?


And, then, there’s the question that faces every team in the league. It’s the question that might determine which teams in the league rise and which teams fall:


–Can they avoid significant injuries to key players?


All that said, the 49ers’ roster looks significantly better than it has at any point since The Great Roster Purge of 2004: Frank Gore is an elite back, and rookie Glen Coffee might be able to really add a lot as his backup . . . the receiving corps has a chance to be pretty good . . . Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker should be a bigger part of the passing game . . . Patrick Willis is a genuine star on defense, and he has a solid surrounding cast . . .  special teams are not a concern.


So . . . basically, the 49ers have enough positives – among them, the leadership Singletary has exhibited up to this point – that they have placed themselves in definite contention for a playoff spot. But they still face an uphill (or upsmith?) fight to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season.


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