Expectations are high in San Francisco, where coach Jim Harbaugh leads a 49ers team that came up just short of reaching the Super Bowl last season.
The sting of a Super Bowl near miss stuck with linebacker Parys Haralson for months.
He thought about it as he worked out in the offseason and prepared for a new year that brings even greater pressures. And Haralson is hardly the only one on the San Francisco 49ers still bothered by just how close they came to reaching the NFL’s showcase event in Jim Harbaugh’s first season as coach: three points, in overtime, a loss on their own field to the eventual champion New York Giants.
“I think we feel like we came up short last year,” Haralson said.
The 2012 team is built not only to return to the postseason this time but reach the Super Bowl. General manager Trent Baalke brought back all 11 defensive starters for one of the league’s best units of last year — almost unheard of in this age of free agency. Baalke brought in Randy Moss after a year out of football along with former Giant Mario Manningham to upgrade a receiving corps that failed to come through in the NFC title game, and added another Super Bowl champion in Brandon Jacobs to boost the depth at running back behind three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore.
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These Niners are chasing the championship this year with everything they’ve got, a new stadium being constructed all around them to serve as motivation for bigger things to come.
“The way it works here, we have higher expectations and have our own expectations,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “I don’t think we pay much attention, I really don’t, to what else is going on. To what people, what they’re guessing, what they think we’re going to finish. We all know what they thought we were going to finish last year and how right they were about that. So, it’s no different this year. It’s all about what we expect and we have to go out there and we have to do it.”
The 49ers re-signed Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick who is coming off the best showing in his seven NFL seasons, for three more years in March.
The 28-year-old Smith threw for 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions as San Francisco went 13-3 to win its first division title since 2002. The 49ers snapped an eight-year drought without a winning season or playoff berth.
“We feel, obviously, much further along than we were last year,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “Last year we were really just diving into the playbook and trying to wrap our head around the concepts.”
Harbaugh hasn’t changed much in his second go-round, still sporting his signature look of black fleece pullover sweatshirt and khaki pants. Day in, day out. That’s Harbaugh. And he’s always ready to praise his players. There will certainly be plenty more chants of “Who’s got it better than us? Nobody!”
For years, the Cardinals struggled playing defense and running the ball. Going into this season, those are their strengths, and they’ll need them if they expect to improve on an 8-8 season of a year ago.
With problems at quarterback and along the offensive line, the passing game is a big question mark, even though Arizona features one of the most prolific wide receivers in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt waited until the end of the preseason to name John Skelton the starting quarterback. Neither Skelton nor Kevin Kolb distinguished themselves in practice or in games.
Whisenhunt says he hopes the offense will surprise people from the opening kickoff. If not, he’s comfortable leaning on the defense for a while.
Arizona returns nearly every player from last year’s defense, a unit that once it got the drift of new coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme, was a main reason the Cardinals won seven of their last nine games.
On offense, the Cardinals are expecting a strong 1-2 running punch with Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams.
St. Louis Rams
After a year away, Jeff Fisher returned to the NFL refreshed, renewed and best of all, patient. Rebuilding the St. Louis Rams might take time.
Fisher inherits a handful of key veterans from a 2-14 season that got coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney fired. Surrounding quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Steven Jackson, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, defensive end Chris Long and select free-agent pickups, there’s mostly kids.
Expectations are realistic heading into the opener at Detroit, and not just because of what happened last season. Take away a seven-win season in 2010 that seemingly marked the Rams as a franchise on the rise, and they’re 8-56 since 2007.
For the new regime of Fisher and general manager Les Snead, there’s no better time to build from the ground up.
“If there’s a drop-off in production or there’s mistakes and things like that or there’s a younger player that’s got an upside, we’re going to give that younger player a chance,” said the 54-year-old Fisher, entering his 17th season as an NFL head coach. “In those certain areas where there is competition, we tried to create at least an even opportunity for them as best we can.”