San Francisco 49ers Destined For Big Fall

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 02, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Mean Regressor (@CaptainComeback) 

As fast as their success came in 2011 under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers may find themselves making a quick exit from the rank of the NFL’s elite in 2012.Jim Harbaugh

Sorry, Harbaugh. This Captain Comeback will come right out and say it: the 49ers will not win more than 10 games this season.

That is not a bold claim. Most 13-3 teams, unless they have an elite quarterback like the one San Francisco only “evaluated” this year, see a decline in wins the following season. That should still be enough to win the NFC West, unless Seattle’s rookie Russell Wilson is the new Dan Marino or Ben Roethlisberger.

What the Cold, Hard Football Facts expect to see is the 49ers fall back specifically because of how much success they had in areas that do not tend to sustain themselves the following year.

There is a perfect storm of regression surrounding San Francisco, and perhaps no team in history has ever seen such a volatile mixture of obstacles to overcome. We will go through each of them.

 

Turnover Mastery

San Francisco dominated the turnover battle last season. We detailed this story just before their playoff run began. Here is the recap of the 49ers’ dominance:

  • No team had fewer giveaways (10), which tied the NFL record set by the 2010 New England Patriots.
  • 49ers tied the Saints, Bills and Patriots for the fewest lost fumbles (five) in the league.
  • 49ers tied a NFL record for fewest interceptions in a season with five.
  • No team had more takeaways (38) than the 49ers, giving them a league-best +28 turnover differential, which is tied for fourth highest since 1940.
  • 49ers led the league in forced fumbles (31) and fumbles recovered (15; tied with Minnesota).
  • 49ers had 23 interceptions, which tied them with New England for second most in the league (Green Bay – 31)

It was control on both sides of the ball, and for both fumbles and interceptions. It was truly a rare season-long performance.

A surplus of turnovers did not hurt the offense in their playoff defeat, as such had been the case for many of the past offenses that were so careful with ball security. In fact, the offense only had one giveaway in the two playoff games.

Instead, it was the special teams and Kyle Williams losing two punts in the NFC Championship against the New York Giants. The plays were just devastating, as they happened in the fourth quarter and overtime.

The Giants could do nothing offensively in the second half, but only had to go a combined 40 yards to score the decisive 10 points after the fumbles by Williams.

Without any takeaways, it was only the second time all season San Francisco had a -2 turnover differential. Their regular season differential of +28 in turnovers is one of the best in NFL history, but as you will see, these teams are less fortunate the following season.

Here are the 21 teams who were at least +24 in turnover differential and how they did the following season:

Highest Single-Season Turnover Differential (Since 1940)

Rank

Team

Year N

Record

TO Diff.

Year N + 1

Record

TO Diff.

DIFF

1

Redskins

1983

14-2

43

1984

11-5

15

-28

2

Colts

1958

9-3

30

1959

9-3

26

-4

3

Bears

1963

11-1-2

29

1964

5-9

-3

-32

4

Browns

1960

8-3-1

28

1961

8-5-1

5

-23

5

Patriots

2010

14-2

28

2011

13-3

17

-11

6

49ers

2011

13-3

28

2012

-

-

-

7

Colts

1959

9-3

26

1960

6-6

3

-23

8

Packers

1941

10-1

26

1942

8-2-1

22

-4

9

Chiefs

1990

11-5

26

1991

10-6

11

-15

10

Packers

1943

7-2-1

25

1944

8-2

10

-15

11

Giants

1997

10-5-1

25

1998

8-8

2

-23

12

Bengals

2005

11-5

24

2006

8-8

7

-17

13

Browns

1966

9-5

24

1967

9-5

1

-23

14

Packers

1965

10-3-1

24

1966

12-2

18

-6

15

Packers

2009

11-5

24

2010

10-6

10

-14

16

Packers

2011

15-1

24

2012

-

-

-

17

Giants

1950

10-2

24

1951

9-2-1

14

-10

18

Eagles

1989

11-5

24

1990

10-6

2

-22

19

Chargers

1961

12-2

24

1962

4-10

-6

-30

20

Chargers

2007

11-5

24

2008

8-8

4

-20

21

Seahawks

1984

12-4

24

1985

8-8

3

-21

 

Not only did San Francisco make it, but last year’s Packers come in as one of the 10 teams to be +24. Green Bay also tied for fifth with just 14 giveaways, so keep an eye on their turnover battles this year too.

For the other 19 teams, they all saw their differential decrease the following year, and by an average of 17.9 (note the “DIFF” in last column for the decline for each team). Collectively, the teams went from winning 75.5 percent of their games down to 61.1 percent the next season.

With a team that was just -1 in turnover differential in 2010, do not bet on the 49ers being the anomaly that maintains or improves their +28 from last season.

 

Offense will turn it over more

The offense alone is working off a record-tying season with just 10 giveaways. That will likely double in 2012.

When looking at the 13 teams to average no more than 1.0 turnovers per game, all 13 saw their turnovers increase the following season, and by an average increase of 11.1 turnovers.

Their winning percentage fell from a combined 71.1 percent to 54.8 percent, with every team but the 2002-03 Chiefs losing more games the following season. Five of the teams made the playoffs the next season.

For starters, recovering fumbles is more about luck than skill, and it is unlikely the 49ers will find a way to come up with 15 fumble recoveries to lead the league again.

But the main reason the 49ers will likely have more turnovers is Alex Smith falling back to earth after one of those fluky low-interception seasons. Smith threw just five interceptions on 445 pass attempts last year; an interception percentage of 1.12 percent.

It was the third lowest interception percentage for a season in NFL history (min. 400 attempts).

Rk

Quarterback

Year

Team

Att.

INT

INT %

Year

Att.

INT

INT%

DIFF

1

Tom Brady

2010

NE

492

4

0.81

2011

611

12

1.96

1.15

2

Steve DeBerg

1990

KC

444

4

0.90

1991

434

14

3.23

2.32

3

Alex Smith

2011

SF

445

5

1.12

2012

-

-

-

-

4

Steve Bartkowski

1983

ATL

432

5

1.16

1984

269

10

3.72

2.56

5

Jason Campbell

2008

WAS

506

6

1.19

2009

507

15

2.96

1.77

6

Aaron Rodgers

2011

GB

502

6

1.20

2012

-

-

-

-

7

Josh Freeman

2010

TB

474

6

1.27

2011

551

22

3.99

2.73

8

Aaron Rodgers

2009

GB

541

7

1.29

2010

475

11

2.32

1.02

9

Brett Favre

2009

MIN

531

7

1.32

2010

358

19

5.31

3.99

10

Brad Johnson

2002

TB

451

6

1.33

2003

570

21

3.68

2.35

11

Marc Bulger

2006

RAM

588

8

1.36

2007

378

15

3.97

2.61

12

Tom Brady

2007

NE

578

8

1.38

2008

11

0

0.00

-1.38

13

Neil O'Donnell

1993

PIT

486

7

1.44

1994

370

9

2.43

0.99

14

Chad Pennington

2008

MIA

476

7

1.47

2009

74

2

2.70

1.23

15

Jeff George

1993

IND

407

6

1.47

1994

524

18

3.44

1.96

16

Donovan McNabb

2007

PHI

473

7

1.48

2008

571

11

1.93

0.45

 

In the low-interception season, these quarterbacks combined to throw an interception on just 1.27 percent of their passes. The following year, that rate went up to 3.14 percent.

Everyone had a higher rate except for Tom Brady in 2008, but that’s only because of the first-quarter injury that ended his season after 11 attempts.

Brady would have been playing with Randy Moss again, and that is who Smith will have this season in San Francisco. They have also added Mario Manningham from the New York Giants.

These are not high-percentage receivers, and if Smith is going to get the most out of them, he will have to throw the ball downfield, which involves more risk, but also more reward.

Smith played things rather safe last season. He completed 13 of 39 passes thrown more than 20 yards down the field. Two of his five interceptions happened on those 26 incompletions.

Compare that to Manningham’s former quarterback, Eli Manning, and you will see a stark difference. Last season, Manning was 35 of 96 on passes thrown more than 20 yards down the field.

Smith will not stretch the field that much, but an increase in downfield passing alone should lead to more interceptions.

So far missing here is the fact that Smith has no track record of success before 2011, making him an easy target for the one-year wonder quarterback. Think of journeyman Damon Huard for the 2006 Kansas City Chiefs. Huard threw just one interception on 244 passes (0.41 percent), and was 5-3 as a starter.

The next season Huard threw 13 interceptions on 332 passes (3.92 percent), went 4-6, and was soon forgotten in Kansas City.

Smith has been given many chances having been a No. 1 overall pick in 2005, but few quarterbacks ever get a seventh season to finally show they are worthy. With 2011 being such a pass-favorable season, Smith had a lot of numbers that failed to wow you outside of his ball security, and he lacks the track record to suggest 2011 was anything more than another 1990 Steve DeBerg kind of season.

There is a good chance Smith will finish September with at least as many interceptions as he had in all 18 games last season (five).

More turnovers will hurt the defense, which is still the strength of the team. But more turnovers will also hurt the starting field position, which is another area the 49ers dominated (No. 1) on both sides of the ball.

 

Close wins won’t come so easy again

Without the turnover battles being dominated, or the great field position, it will make it harder for the 49ers to control games. Last season they led in the fourth quarter in 17 of their 18 games, and did hold a brief fourth-quarter tie with Baltimore the one time they did not.

Alex Smith doubled his career total by leading six fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in 2011, including one of the wildest finishes in NFL history in the playoffs against New Orleans.

The 49ers had all the right calls on those final drives. Just like how Smith was able to get the touchdown on fourth down to Delanie Walker to beat Detroit. The way Eagles’ kicker Alex Henery missed two fourth-quarter field goals enabling the 49ers to come back that day. Who can forget the fourth-down stop of the Giants midway through the season?

It was all working out for the 49ers last year…until Kyle Williams fumbled those two punts and gave the Giants such incredible field position. Things sometimes just simply happen.

As we looked at in Captain Comeback this week, teams with a lot of fourth quarter/overtime wins like that almost always regress the following season.

Of the 36 teams since 1980 with at least six such wins, only two (1991 Dallas Cowboys and 2009 Indianapolis Colts) managed to improve their overall record, comeback record, and overall fourth quarter/overtime record the next season.

The 49ers will almost undoubtedly have a worse record in clutch games this season. Their overall team record will also likely fall as a result of that. When you show such elite performance in situations that are very difficult to win, it is not a recipe for consistent success.

Before last season, Alex Smith was 4-12 at fourth quarter comeback opportunities. In 2011, he went 6-3. Quite the change of fortune.

San Francisco is a prime candidate for becoming one of those teams the media will brand as having “forgotten how to close games” this year. We are not sure when they ever really learned it.

They just had a great season of results in 2011, including a very unusual 5-0 record on the road in games that had a 10 a.m. start time (PST). This season they are only scheduled for three such games, so there is a positive.

 

How can 49ers improve?

So if San Francisco cannot dominate turnovers, field position and win so many close games again, what can they do to get better?

They can get better at the areas they were flawed in last season. There were enough of them. How else do you explain David Akers setting NFL records with 44 made field goals and 52 field goal attempts?

San Francisco was poor in the red zone. They ranked 30th in red zone touchdown percentage (40.74 percent). Smith only completed 40.0 percent of his passes (24 of 60) in the red zone.

Maybe a bigger threat in the passing game will help them avoid the red zone. Last season the 49ers only had 18 touchdown passes and threw for 3,193 yards, which does not even exclude the 263 yards lost on 44 sacks.

Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree are good receivers, and maybe they can get something out of Randy Moss that no team has found since 2009 in New England. Add in Manningham, and this sounds like a legit offense now full of weapons.

But it still starts with the quarterback, and if Smith is not willing to take any chances for fear of a turnover, then the offense will continue to struggle in the red zone.

They also struggled mightily on third down, converting just 65 of 221 attempts (29.4 percent), which was the second worst rate in the league.

If San Francisco opens up the passing game, they will get better on third down, kick fewer field goals, score more points, and avoid having to win as many close games with a late game-winning drive.

It may come at the risk of more turnovers, but they should expect that number to go up anyway from last year. No one should expect a record-tying performance two years in a row, though that is also part of the problem the 2012 team brings.

Jim Harbaugh was the rookie with no track record as a NFL coach, Smith was the long-time bust that never had success, and they just had career seasons from Carlos Rogers, Navorro Bowman and Dashon Goldson to name a few players.

Now they have to hope most of these players are ready to approach that level again, while also relying on Randy Moss to be at least a recognizable version of himself and not the fraud that took the field in 2010, and was not even around last season.

San Francisco is a team that can easily be better this season than they were last year, yet have three or four fewer wins come playoff time. How better prepared they are for a Super Bowl run remains to be seen, but count on them having to win games differently than last year’s statistically unsustainable ride.

There’s a storm coming, 49ers fans. You better batten down the hatches.

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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