Alex Smith

Experts not picking 49ers in 2012, Harbaugh probably not losing sleep over it

49ers fans have certainly been enjoying the ability to parade their newfound powerhouse around this offseason, and deservedly so. The club went from a 6-10 mess – the butt of national mockery and “dadgum Yahoo commercials” – to 14-4 with a trip to the NFC Championship. It seems that the team has found the right GM, the right coach and the right players to be a contender for now and into the foreseeable future.

Right on cue, here come the “experts” to rain on this parade.

Ray Ratto tweeted out this article by Joe Fortenbaugh of the National Football Post cautioning 49ers, Lions and Texans fans to not get too excited over the continued progress of their favorite teams.

Okay, that’s no surprise. Ratto has a keen sense for finding (and writing) the most – how should I say it – objective articles about the teams he covers. But wait! It gets better.

Along comes Grant Cohn the next day, relaying to his faithful following the Football Outsiders’ prediction for the 49ers’ 2012 campaign, which found that the team will only win 7.2 (yeah, 7.2 – perhaps because each win against the Rams only counts for .1 games).

So what’s the rationale here?

Fortenbaugh opened his piece using the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an example, a team that went 3-13 in 2009, then 10-6 in 2010 before falling back to a dismal 4-12 in 2011. The regression was pretty astounding – they shutout the 49ers 21-0 in ’10 and lost 48-3 in ’11.

Fortenbaugh goes on to say this:

Over the last ten years there have been 29 instances in which an NFL team went 7-9 or worse and then came back the following year to win at least ten games.

In 26 of those instances, teams followed up that impressive 10-win campaign with a record of 9-7 or worse. What does that tell us? Since 2002, there’s an 89.6% chance that a team who bounces back from a losing season to post ten or more wins the following fall is headed for a step in the wrong direction come year three.

What’s even more shocking is that the drop-off that takes place in year three is more significant than you might expect. In those aforementioned instances, the 26 teams that qualified for this study lost an average of 3.9 more games the year after they broke through with ten or more wins the previous season.

That makes sense. The NFL has a formula for strength of schedule which ensures that a team on the upswing faces more evenly matched opponents the following year. That means that the 49ers will face a more formidable schedule of opponents following a 13-3 season than they would had they gone 5-11.

The Grant Cohn article – which was relaying a disconcerting message from a site that requires payment for membership – basically hypothesizes that the 49ers are due for a regression to the mean. Here’s what Football Outsiders had to say:

The 49ers actually won 2.2 more games in 2011 than they should have according to Estimated Wins. Since 1991, that discrepancy translates to about two more losses the following season. The 49ers outperformed their Estimated Wins number due in part to a fabulous 7-2 record in close games. We’ve found that a team’s record in close games almost never carries over from one season to the next, so the 49ers can’t expect to win as many games in 2012 without getting out to some bigger leads.

Their prediction of 7.2 wins in 2012 is based on “the average of a million simulations,” the accuracy of which I couldn’t even begin to fathom. How you simulate what the weather might be, who will be healthy, who will be performing, etc., I have no idea. This is just what one “highly respected publication” has to say.

Nay-saying the nay-sayers

-First and foremost, I don’t think the 49ers are going 13-3 again. As mentioned earlier, the 49ers 2012 schedule is a formidable one, with the team facing clubs like the Lions and Giants at home and the Packers, Saints and Patriots all on the road. Then again, I don’t think any person with their head screwed on straight actually believes that the 49ers will only lose three games if they’re honestly evaluating the schedule.

-That being said, I think the 49ers are in a unique set of circumstances that may contradict the National Football Post’s premise. Their primary example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, went 10-6 in 2010, with those 6 losses all against teams with a record of over .500.

They play in a division that employees two teams that ventured into the playoffs last year in the Falcons and Saints. That means they have to play 4 more games against playoff teams that the 49ers don’t have to play. Simply put, the road to an NFC West title is much easier than the road the the NFC South title.

-The 49ers turnaround came in their first year with head coach Jim Harbaugh, amidst a lock out that saw an extremely shortened offseason. They had to install an entirely new system with a whole new coaching staff and still found a way to venture to the doorstep of the Super Bowl. It’s hard for me to imagine that the 49ers would regress to a disastrous 7-9 record with continuity on their side when they found 14-4 in lockout-driven chaos.

-Football Outsiders said that “the 49ers can’t expect to win as many games in 2012 without getting out to some bigger leads,” and I don’t dispute that. I’m fairly certain, however, that Trent Baalke had the same theory in mind when he bolstered the offense this offseason with players like Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and LaMichael James. As much as this city seems to enjoy “torture,” the 49ers are in the business of winning football games. Their defense may not be sneaking up on anyone this season, but the offense just might.

-The Football Outsiders’ Editor-in-Chief tweeted out that he felt 7 wins was a little low – saying that his prediction was 9-7. Given the 49ers’ opponents this season, that prediction isn’t all together offensive; then again, in the NFC West, 9 wins is likely more than enough to get to the dance and have a shot at taking home the prom queen.

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