Road gets harder for 49ers in 2012

January 23, 2012, 8:28 pm
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So getting from six to 13 is easy. You hire a new coach, you keep most of the same players, you dont waste time on frivolities like a training camp, and bang! Youre in the conference championship.

This is the 49ers world today a hard lesson about maxing out your performances, but a warm feeling for the year to come. A tweak here, a nudge there, and glory is theirs forever.

But heres where math is its usual hateful bastard. The rule is simple -- when you improve by a lot in one year, you typically fall back the year after. Not all the time, mind you, but often enough that fans should not assume that the 49ers escape from the crypt means a straight line to heaven.

Since the 1970 merger, 85 teams (give or take; one might have skipped past our notice) have improved themselves by five wins or more, and only 13 have either equaled or won more games the third year. Thats a 15 percent success rate, so that alone should make 49er fans realize that this isnt easy.

Of course, they should know it anyway. The 1981 team that went from six to 13 wins and won its first Super Bowl went 3-6 in the strike year of 1982.

In fact, because were a full-service operation, well give you the 11 teams that consolidated its gains.

BALTIMORE: 1974-6, 2 wins to 10 to 11, three consecutive first-round losses and then nothing of note for another decade.

CHICAGO: 1989-92, 6 to 11 to 11 to 5, and then nearly a decade before becoming a winner again.

CHICAGO AGAIN: 2004-6, 5 to 11 to 13 and the Super Bowl.

JACKSONVILLE: 1995-9, 4 to 9, then 11, 11 and 14. An expansion team under, yes, Tom Coughlin, but topped off in 1996 with a conference title appearance.

LOS ANGELES RAMS: 1982-5, 2 to 9 to 10 to 11. Ray Malavasi becomes John Robinson, but the Rams are up against a budding dynasty in San Francisco, so it seems less magnificent in reflection.

MIAMI: Like Chicago, twice, first 1969-73, 3 to 10 10 to 14, with the 14 being the last perfect record with a Super Bowl win at the end. Later, 1982-5, 7 to 12 to 14, with the Stanford Super Bowl at the end.

NEW YORK JETS: 1996-8, 1 to 10 to 12, which is mostly the difference between the last year of Rich Kotite and the first two years of Bill Parcells. Also 2007-10, going 4 to 9 to 9 to 11 under Eric Mangini and then Rex Ryan, but they leveled off into full-on crisis in 2011.

PHILADELPHIA: 1999-2004, 5 to 11 to 11 to 12 to 12, with Andy Reid taking them to four consecutive conference finals and one Super Bowl. The ideal template, except for . . .
SAN FRANCISCO: 1982-4, 3 to 10 to 15, and the second Super Bowl. Proved that the strike year could be fairly be discarded and that the 80s were in the fact theirs.

TENNESSEE: 1994-2000, the slowest-motion improvement on record, from 2 to 7 to 8 to 8 to 8 to 13 and 13 again. Jack Pardee becomes Jeff Fisher, who eventually gets the Titans to the Big One in 1999. Also did it in 1974-6, going from 1 to 7 to 10 in 14-game seasons, but never made the playoffs.

There are also examples where teams slipped a bit in the win-loss but continued excellence -- Denver, Pittsburgh and Green Bay got to Super Bowls that way -- but the point is made. If you think there is a straight line for the 49ers, history calls you a liar.

Toward that end, the improvements they must make with their wide receiver corps and their general efficiency on third down and in the red zone will be crucial, and may take more than a year. 2012 may be a year full of angst and have-they-lost-the-magic that ends up brilliantly in the end.

But it could also be a false positive. Of the 21 teams that improved by seven wins or more, 19 fell back the following season. In sum, 49er fans should understand that this climb from crummy to very good isnt unusual. The climb from very good to great is extraordinarily difficult. So strap in -- this ride has just begun.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for