Here we are, merely days away from the San Francisco 49ers season opener against their hated rival, the Green Bay Packers. The Packers and 49ers have a history slightly tipped in Green Bay’s favor, with the Packers holding a 30-26-1 advantage over the Niners. Twelve of those wins compared to only two losses were fairly recent, coming while Brett Favre wore the number 4 with the Packers. Those were the days of Steve Young, Jeff Garcia, Alex Smith, Cody Pickett, and Tim Rattay, and while some of those names were wildly successful, this 49ers team is a different beast from when Steve Young stumbled over his own feet, split Pat Terrell and Darren Sharper and hit Terrell Owens in the end zone to win a playoff game with 0:03 seconds left on the clock.
These two teams played at Lambeau week 1 last season, with the 49ers pulling out the win, 30-22. The game was no where near as close as the score suggests. Alex Smith threw for 211 yards and two TDs, Frank Gore rushed for 112 yards and a TD, and Michael Crabtree grabbed 7 balls for 76 yards in the 2012 opener. The 49ers scored quickly and often, finding themselves up 23-7. Randall Cobb returned a punt for a touchdown and Jordy Nelson caught a 2-point conversion to make it 23-15. The 49ers went 3 and out, Aaron Rodgers was picked off by Bowman and Frank Gore ran 23 yards up the right side on the next play from scrimmage to put the Niners up 30-15. With just under 9 minutes left, Rodgers hit former San Jose State standout James Jones for a 10 yard score. The Niners walked away feeling pretty good about themselves after a devastating end to the 2011 season, losing in the NFC Championship Game in overtime to the New York Giants.
Fast-forward to January 12, 2013 and we saw a far more explosive San Francisco team. Potent offensively, they were hungry to prove that they belonged in the upper echelon of the NFL. Kaepernick set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game by gashing the Packers for 181 yards. Kaepernick passed for another 263 yards, accounted for 4 TDs and started a new fad by ‘Kaepernicking.’ Gore rushed 23 times for 119 yards and a score, and Crabtree caught 9 balls for 119 yards. The final score was 45-31, but again, the score was really not that close. The second half served as a coming out party for Colin Kaepernick allowing him to prove he had the moxie to throw a pick-six on the first drive and bounce back to make a highly touted team like the Packers look like they shouldn’t have made the trip to Candlestick.
Anyone who says the 49ers caught the Packers or anyone else in the NFL by surprise is merely looking for excuses. By the time the Niners played the Packers, Kaepernick had started 7 games, showcased his running and passing ability, and had given notice that he was a special talent. Dom Capers had a chance to plan for Kaepernick by watching any of his games before the playoffs, watching his college film, or by watching a similar offense run by Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson. Dom Capers has been an NFL defensive coordinator since 1992 and has been a coach in the NFL since 1986. To say that he was unable to prepare for Kaepernick is an excuse and not one that should be made for a man who has 27 years worth of NFL coaching experience.
The Packers bring an eclectic passing game with an exceptionally talented quarterback to the week 1 matchup in San Francisco. Aaron Rodgers lost trusted wide receiver Greg Jennings to the Minnesota Vikings, but still has Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finely, and James Jones. Rodgers also has the ability to run for gains, even if he is not quite as dynamic a runner as Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers have added Nnamdi Asomaugh and Eric Reid to the secondary, adding what they hope will be a true free safety and a lock down corner to a slightly suspect unit. Tarrell Brown showed flashes of greatness last year, as did Donte Whitner, but this group was clearly the least productive on the defensive side of the ball and possibly the least productive on the team collectively. Green Bay still lacks any threat of a running game, so much so that they may be one of the only teams in the league who could have Adrian Peterson on their roster and not be successful in the run game due to their porous offensive line. Losing Bryan Bulaga and relying on a rookie to protect the most important player on the Packers sets the Green and Gold at a decided disadvantage in the pass protection war. With Justin Smith and Aldon Smith being completely healthy, the defensive line/linebackers should have little to no issue with putting pressure on Rodgers. James Starks and Eddie Lacy are facing an uphill battle with the front seven of the 49ers being so productive and the offensive line of the Packers being among the least productive in the NFL last season.
The defensive side of the ball for the Packers also had a lot of issues to address during the offseason, and it is unclear how their new players will do in replacing their recently departed counterparts. Charles Woodson signed with the Oakland Raiders, leaving the secondary without the first ballot Hall of Famer and the linebackers group has several personnel issues. Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk are household names, but had severe problems against the 49ers in the playoffs last year, and Nick Perry and Brad Jones don’t exactly instill fear into the hearts of opponents.
The 49ers will look to utilize Vernon Davis against a highly suspect secondary and a linebacking group that could struggle with the speed of a tight end who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. Kaepernick has a new toy in Anquan Boldin, who will likely give the Packers secondary fits with his great route running and his insane ability to come down with balls he has no business catching. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter will provide a nice counter to the prolific passing game plan that Greg Roman will have in place for the Packers, and Kaepernick will take what he is given and try to beat Green Bay in whichever way they will let him. Atlanta forced him to beat them as a pocket passer, which he did with no issue in the second half of that game. Baltimore dared Kaepernick to beat them with the pass, and while he didn’t come out of that game with a win, he showed he could pass as well as he can run. Clay Matthews said it best after the Packers lost in January stating, “We adjusted the game plan by forcing him to beat us by being a pocket passer, but unfortunately he did that as well.” Kaepernick has turned himself into a lethal weapon as a good to great passing quarterback who can run to open passing lanes or to devastate a defense that is on the brink of exhaustion.
No matter the outcome, football is back and Niners fans everywhere are thrilled to be able to utter that phrase. The water cooler talk Monday morning will be exciting because Niners fans get a chance to put their Super Bowl loss to rest, and finally look forward to a new season with new hopes, new dreams, and new aspirations. Welcome back, NFL. You’ve been missed.