The Niners Won't Strike Gold in 2012
Bill Barnwell
August 6, 2012

The San Francisco 49ers are, in some circles, the trendiest Super Bowl pick going. They return 21 of 22 starters from last year, when they went 13-3 and came within a questionable call of making it to the Super Bowl. They even went out this offseason and upgraded their weakest position, wide receiver, by bringing in a Hall of Famer and the guy who made the biggest play in that Super Bowl. Their style of play — built around dominating field position and winning the turnover battle — is associated with the simplest narratives of classic winning football teams. And they're led by a head coach who might have been the best in football during his first season at this level. The case for the 49ers throwing up a second consecutive dominant season is simple enough, and it's one that the gambling public is buying into.

On the other hand, I personally think the Niners are going to win nine games or fewer. I see a team whose performance is unsustainable in a number of ways, one that will struggle mightily to re-create all the advantages they had in 2011. I think of it like a credit score: There's no one individual item that guarantees a Niners collapse, but instead a variety of extraordinary factors driving last year's success erode their current expectations from multiple angles. San Francisco simply has too much to overcome in 2012 to repeat their 13-win season. And once you've seen the evidence in context, I suspect that you'll agree with me.

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It makes sense to start with the simplest metric of all: Wins. The Niners improved by seven games last season, as their disappointing 6-10 season from 2010 gave way to a 13-3 juggernaut last season. That's a seven-win improvement, and as I noted in the over-unders column last week, it's been an unsustainable one. Since the advent of the 16-game season in 1978, 10 other teams have improved by seven wins in a given season. During the subsequent year, those teams won an average of 4.7 fewer games. Ten teams is a pretty small sample, though, so let's expand it. Since 1984, 31 teams have improved by a figure between six and eight wins in a given season. Of those teams, 25 declined after their big leap forward. Collectively, those 31 teams won an average of 3.2 fewer games the following season.

That decline doesn't happen because of the math, of course; it happens because there are simply too many things that have to go right for a team to repeatedly put up 13-3 seasons. Independent of their track record in previous years, the average 13-3 team has won an average of just 9.3 games the following year, with just three of the 32 examples maintaining their 13-win record from the previous year. That leads to the bigger question: Which aspects of San Francisco's performance from last year are unsustainable?

Well, let's remember what the Niners were good at and start from there. More than anywhere else, Jim Harbaugh's team established themselves as a squadron that consistently dominated the turnover battle. San Francisco only lost that turnover battle in three games last year, and they lost two of them. The Niners finished the regular season with a turnover differential of plus-28; that was the best in football, with only the plus-24 figure of the Packers anywhere close.

That sort of turnover differential just isn't going to happen again, unfortunately. There have been 21 other teams since 1978 who produced a turnover margin of plus-20 or more, and as you might suspect I'm about to say, they weren't able to keep it up. The following year, their average turnover differential was just over three. Not per game. Over the whole season. On average, they shifted by more than 20 turnovers over the course of the campaign. That decline was joined by a decrease in wins: Those teams won an average of 2.5 fewer games the following season.

There are reasons to think that both the Niners offense and defense will cede their turnover advantage in 2012. Start with the Alex Smith–led offense. Last year, they had the fewest interceptions per drive and the sixth-fewest fumbles per drive. That combination meant that they only turned over the ball once every 18.5 drives, which was the best rate in football.

While the Niners will likely fumble a couple more times in 2012, the more predicative (and meaningful) figure here is Alex Smith's interception rate. Smith — a quarterback who had thrown interceptions on 3.5 percent of his passes before 2011 — threw picks on just 1.1 percent of his attempts last season, a figure which led the league and rated as the fifth-best figure in the history of the National Football League. That's from the same guy who was inspiring "We Want Carr" chants 10 months earlier.

If it's safe to bet on any stat correcting itself from year to year in football, it's interception rate. Before last season, I mentioned the fluky-low interception rates of guys like Tom Brady (0.8 percent), Josh Freeman (1.3 percent), Ben Roethlisberger (1.3 percent), and Matt Cassel (1.6 percent). Each of those players saw his INT rate double during the 2011 campaign. In fact, if you go back and look at every player who has produced an interception rate of 1.5 percent or less over 300-plus attempts (virtually all of which occurred after 1990), they as a group threw interceptions twice as frequently during the subsequent season.

While part of Smith's low interception rate is undoubtedly due to pure luck, let's be realistic about putting it in context. If you watched Niners games last year, you know that San Francisco really built their entire offense around keeping Smith from making bad throws and producing turnovers. If that meant checking down on third-and-whatever and punting, doing so wasn't a problem. That hyperconservative offense undoubtedly helped keep Smith's interception rate below that of a quarterback in a more typical offense.

The problem with expecting that low interception rate to continue is that it won't make sense for the Niners to build an offense like last year's. They've brought in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, players who are expected to stretch opposing defenses vertically. They're supposed to upgrade that weak spot of the San Francisco offense, but if Smith is still going to be the checkdown machine that he was a year ago, how can they really have an impact? It's a catch-22. If the Niners stay with their old scheme, Moss and Manningham will mostly be useless. And if they expand their...
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