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Last year, San Francisco realized its potential in going from Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers were never out of any games in 2011, as the largest loss was by 10 at Baltimore in a game that was tied in the fourth quarter. San Francisco was a few non-fumbles against the Giants away from reaching the Super Bowl in Harbaugh’s first year.
The expectation, after such a leap, is that there will be some fall back the next year. This is certainly supported by the evidence, as teams that take a big jump tend to regress more than normal the following year. In San Francisco’s case, a couple of other factors also make that more likely. First, they were driven by their defense, and defenses tend to be more variable from year to year. Second, they had an absurdly low offensive turnover rate, and were +28 overall in turnover margin. Some drop back in those categories and the 49ers have a few fewer losses.
However, I do feel that this San Francisco team is likely to be just as competitive this year, even if 13 wins is not likely because plenty has to go right for any team to win 13 games. First, we can ask whether big leaps in a new coach’s first year matter in a different way than other big leaps.
Here are the results for all seasons since 1978 where a team had a losing record, improved their wins by at least 4 games, and finished with a non-losing record.
- Big Leap in Coach’s First Year: 27 cases, 4.1 wins prior year, 9.7 wins in breakout year, 8.3 wins the following year.
- Big Leap in all other cases: 74 cases, 5.2 wins prior year, 10.6 wins in breakout year, 8.3 wins the following year.
While the win totals were the same in the year after the breakout, the change was not. The coaches who had a breakout in their first season had relatively worse teams the year before, and did not win as many games in the breakout. As a result, they only experienced a 25% decline in their average wins relative to the prior year’s leap. (44% for all others).
You could make a case that San Francisco was a talented team in need of a good coach, and that the leap wouldn’t have been as pronounced but for the difference between Harbaugh and the erratic Singletary. The 49ers were more like an average team waiting for an infusion of coaching, and not a truly bad team that came out of nowhere (i.e., the 2008 Dolphins with Sparano). While I expect some decline from the 49ers, I think that is more in the 9-11 win range and contending for a division title and in the hunt for a bye again.
The 49ers set a record last year for rush defense in terms of touchdowns allowed, giving up only 3 scores on the ground all year. When we look at other teams with dominant rush defenses (3.6 ypc or less, fewer than 6 touchdowns allowed), they did tend to hold their value, with some notable exceptions. The average the next year was still a salty 3.8 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns allowed. The recent Ravens teams, Steelers teams, Buddy Ryan-influenced teams and the 49ers of the late 90’s dominate the list. I think that this 49ers team will still continue to be very difficult to run on, with Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman and company, and they will never be out of games as a result. Teams will not be able to ice games easily against the 49ers.
So I expect this team to be similar to the 1990’s Chiefs. Sprinkle some 13 win years in amongst years with 9, 10, or 11 wins, with luck determining specific years. They won’t have the same turnover margin, but it will still be above average, and the 49ers aren’t going away any time soon.
[photo via US Presswire]