SANTA CLARA — The San Francisco 49ers expect to be right back competing for a Super Bowl with a new coach following the frustration of a lost year that saw coach Jim Harbaugh depart for Michigan.
General manager Trent Baalke believes there are plenty of options to replace Harbaugh and ensure the Niners are contenders again. CEO Jed York won't accept anything less.
“It's up to us to make sure we compete for and win Super Bowls. That's our only goal,” York said. “We don't raise division championships banners. We don't raise NFC championship banners. We raise Super Bowl banners.”
Under Harbaugh, they came darn close, losing 34-31 to his big brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens after the 2012 season.
Now, there's the daunting task of finding another coach who can produce similar, immediate success.
“This organization has had to replace some awfully successful head coaches in the past, and Jim is no different – a very successful coach,” Baalke said. “Are we confident that we can replace him? You always go into that with that strategy. There's a lot of good football coaches out there. What we need to do is go out and find a coach that can come in here now and lead this football team.”
No matter who succeeds Harbaugh, there are significant questions surrounding San Francisco going forward. Perhaps none is bigger than getting quarterback Colin Kaepernick to top form again after a disappointing season on the heels of his hefty contract extension last June.
He is considering working with a mechanics guru to make some tweaks, which has proven positive for other NFL quarterbacks.
“The quarterback position is the most important position in all of sports. Period,” York said. “I think Colin did some things very well this year. And there are things he needs to improve on. And that's something that is very important.”
Here are some things to take from the Niners' 8-8 season:
STAR LINEBACKERS: NaVorro Bowman never made it back from that devastating left knee injury in last January's NFC championship game at Seattle. Then close friend and fellow star linebacker Patrick Willis didn't play after an Oct. 13 win at St. Louis and needed surgery for a strained muscle in his left big toe.
Getting these two back on the field will be paramount for a defense that has been among the NFL's best.
“It's my career, I want to be sure I do it smart,” Willis said.
DAVIS' DOWN NUMBERS: Vernon Davis followed one of his best NFL seasons with the lowest output since his rookie year of 2006, leaving doubts whether the Niners will bring him back with a year left on his contract.
Davis matched his career high with 13 touchdowns in 2013, then became a bit part of the offense. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman regularly said he wanted Davis involved and that didn't happen.
Davis had only 50 targets, down from 84, and finished with just 26 catches and two TDs.
“I don't know what the main issue is,” Davis said. “Everybody's numbers are down, (Michael) Crabtree, Frank (Gore), myself. We're all down. We've just got to figure it out. Just like any sport, whenever you're part of a team, whether you're a coach or anybody, your goal is to get the key guys involved, the guys who make plays, so they can contribute and help the team win.”
BIG NAMES, KEY DECISIONS: York and Baalke must decide whether franchise rushing leader Frank Gore returns, along with Crabtree, Davis and left guard Mike Iupati.
And that's just a start.
It's unclear whether 14-year veteran defensive end Justin Smith will play another season before retirement.
“I tell him I don't care if he gets away all the way until before the first week of the season next year and he comes back then,” Willis said. “I'm going to talk to his little boys, he has three young boys now, see if they can run him a little ragged and give him back.”
WHAT HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE? The 49ers finished 4-4 in their inaugural season at $1.3 billion Levi's Stadium and hardly established the kind of home-field advantage they'd hoped for — not even close to what Seattle offers at CenturyLink Field.
York apologized via Twitter on Thanksgiving night, when the 49ers lost the first of two games to rival Seattle in an 18-day span. He said Monday fans who chose to spend their holiday in the stands deserved more.
“We didn't give you enough to cheer for this year. But that didn't stop you from coming out even in the last two games, where we really didn't have anything to play for,” he said in opening his Monday news conference. “We weren't playing for a playoff contention and you guys brought it.”
SECONDARY CONCERNS: The Niners are weak at cornerback and could see Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver leave, so that's a spot to be addressed through free agency and the draft.