The average San Francisco 49ers fan will wake up this morning disappointed to have come so close to the Super Bowl without making it, but buoyed by an undeniably strong season. Nationally, the story will closely mirror the feeling of the 49ers fan. Jim Harbaugh will be lauded for turning around a 6-10 team, and getting to the brink of the Super Bowl. But I’m not a 49ers fan, or a national writer. I’m a Seahawks fan, and I saw it a little differently. I saw a team that won its division in a new coaches first season. I saw a team that won one playoff game before bowing out against a team they had beat earlier in the season. I also see a team that will have trouble repeating their results as the team is currently constituted. I saw the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, and the 2012 Seattle Seahawks.
Alex Smith is a free agent. Seahawks fans should hope that the 49ers focus on his results, and not his underlying weakness as a quarterback. The logical step would be for the 49ers to re-sign Smith on a multi-year deal that is thick with incentives and a clear opt-out structure after 2-3 years. Smith will not be heavily pursued in the market because most teams know he is the player who completed 12-26 passes in the championship game yesterday. His 97.6 passer rating belied the reality that Smith was ill-equipped to lead a playoff offense with any level of consistency. The conditions were horrible, but that did not stop Eli Manning from completing over 50% of his passes, and Manning was under far more pressure from the opposing defense. Moving away from Smith would be risky, but the 49ers could be a surprise pursuant of a guy like Matt Flynn. That’s what I would do.
Repeating their luck with injuries will be nearly impossible. None of the 49ers key starters went on injured reserve, and only a few missed meaningful time. Imagine the 49ers without Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Carlos Rogers, Ray McDonald, and Justin Smith. Think that’s unrealistic? Look at the Seahawks. Look at the Rams. It happens every year. It just didn’t happen to the 49ers this season.
There were things a Seahawks fan could take away from what the 49ers accomplished. They represented the formula Pete Carroll has started to install in Seattle, and they nearly got to the Super Bowl. It was not an accident that they eventually lost in a game when they lost the turnover and time of possession battles. If Kyle Williams doesn’t fumble twice, the 49ers very well may have won that game, even with a QB completing less than 50% of his passes. There was very little in that game the Seahawks could not have done, even this year.
Pressure on the passer was the obvious difference between what SF could do and what Seattle could. Seattle’s secondary is superior, though, as is their home-field advantage. A healthy Seahawks team, with a third-place schedule, and high first-round pick, have every reason to target a 3-5 game improvement over this season. The 49ers helped prove that an elite quarterback is not required to be among the NFL’s best teams. The best quarterbacks did not always win this year. Aaron Rodgers did not win a game. Drew Brees lost to Alex Smith. Tom Brady certainly did not win the game for the Patriots yesterday. Don’t be surprised if hard-nosed football is making its way back in the NFL. Seattle is better positioned to take advantage of that trend than perhaps any other team.
The 2011 San Francisco 49ers had a great season. They have a great (mostly) young defense, and a solid running attack. They protected the ball well, and took it from opponents at an unbelievable rate. We learned that those qualities can be enough to knock on the doorstep of the Super Bowl. We also learned the New Orleans Saints will need to find a path to the big dance that doesn’t lead through the NFC West. Seahawks fans learned that the future is bright, and there is ample reason to expect the division championship returns home in 2012.