First the good news for 49ers fans: Your team’s window of opportunity for a Super Bowl title did not slam shut Sunday night.
I’d characterize it as open to wide open. The quarterback is young and ascending. The offensive line is young and, other than guard Mike Iupati, signed for the long term. The linebacker corps is young and growing deeper.
Sure, there’s gray hair on the defensive line and on workhorse running back Frank Gore, but the team already has taken steps to rejuvenate those positions. And best of all, it has 13 draft picks – thirteen! – this year, which in the NFL is a veritable Fountain of Youth.
There’s no reason the 49ers couldn’t go to their fourth straight NFC Championship Game next season or become the first team to play in and host the Super Bowl the following year.
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The bad news: The Seahawks’ window only has just begun to lift from the sill.
San Francisco’s arch nemeses have one of the youngest rosters in the league. Quarterback Russell Wilson, cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor and receivers Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin and Golden Tate are all 25 years old. Safety Earl Thomas is 24. Among their core players, the old timer of the group is running back Marshawn Lynch. He’s 27.
That makes the 49ers’ offseason mission daunting and simple at the same time: Figure out how to beat Seattle.
Last year at this time, I spoke with former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan, who now works for the Seahawks, as the 49ers were preparing to go to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. He said he was happy for his former players and organization but was clear the Seahawks would be busy figuring out ways to knock their rivals from their perch atop the NFC West.
Now the tables are turned.
So how do the 49ers reclaim the division? It’s about one position.
From the trade for Anquan Boldin to Michael Crabtree’s Achilles’ injury to the A.J. Jenkins saga to Colin Kaepernick’s final throw in the end zone, the theme of the 49ers’ 2013 season was their wide receivers.
The lesson was twofold: The 49ers were one injury from being a very – to borrow a word from a certain despised defensive back – mediocre offense. Two, even when the 49ers had their full complement of wideouts, it wasn’t enough to defeat the Seahawks and their outstanding secondary.
Fifteen years ago, when the Rams boasted the Greatest Show on Turf, the 49ers spent their offseason figuring out how to deal with Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az Hakim. In the 2000-2002 drafts, they used two first-round picks on cornerbacks, one on pass-rushing linebacker Julian Peterson and one on pass-rushing defensive end Andre Carter.
The new triumvirate they must defeat is Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor, who have dominated the 49ers during their last three trips to Seattle.
The 49ers’ first move should be to re-sign Boldin, who becomes a free agent in March. But even with Boldin on board, the team must bulk up the position. After all, he will be 34 in October while Crabtree has been injury prone and will be entering the final year of his contract.
And as impressive as both players are, neither is known for his speed, which is the best way to thwart a Seattle defense that loves to play one-on-one, use press coverage with its cornerbacks and place a safety close to the line of scrimmage to assist with run defense.
The Colts beat the Seahawks in Week 5 because Andrew Luck was able to throw deep and avoid interceptions. The fastest player on the field, Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, had 140 receiving yards, including touchdown catches of 73 and 29 yards.
Boldin and Crabtree had long receptions this season, too, but they were invariably short to intermediate throws in which most of the yards came after the catch. Kaepernick had one true deep threat, tight end Vernon Davis.
His final throw of the season was symbolic.
Crabtree was being covered one-on-one by Sherman, but he never got past Sherman, who isn’t known for his speed. Sherman had Crabtree blanketed the entire way. The only reason there was some separation was Crabtree gave him a nudge in the back as the ball descended.
The best way to pull past the Seahawks: Pull away from Sherman and the rest of their defensive backs.