Poking holes in 49ers' success; too soon?

Less than a week has passed since the San Francisco 49ers' season ended in the NFC Championship Game.

It's not too soon to question whether the 49ers can expect another season as successful as the one they just finished.

A couple recent analyses got me thinking.

ESPN's Chris Sprow compares Alex Smith's current value to one for a houseInsider perched atop a real estate bubble. The piece makes compelling points.

I would question two parts of it. One, I suspect the 49ers know what they have in Smith, and they will not overestimate his value unless Jim Harbaugh's comments about "equity" override reason. Two, the safe decisions Smith made to avoid turnovers could be repeatable -- if not to the same degree, then to a significant extent. K.C. Joyner explored this subjectInsider in greater detail before the 49ers' game against the Giants.

49ers Turnover Differential

Smith's interception total (five) seemed to be an accurate reflection of how he played.

At least one of his interceptions -- the one bouncing off Ted Ginn Jr.'s hands against the Giants in Week 10 -- inflated his total unnecessarily. I do not recall thinking any of his incomplete passes should have been intercepted. There were not many.

And when the 49ers did become more aggressive in the passing game, notably against New Orleans in the divisional playoffs, Smith delivered surprisingly strong results without risking interceptions. But most games did not follow that course.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee approaches the turnover angle from another side, suggesting the 49ers' reliance on forcing them will likely betray the team in 2012 unless San Francisco improves on offense. Offensive improvement would likely require Smith to become more aggressive in distributing the ball. This would lead to additional turnovers, most likely. Would the payoff be worth it?

Defense and special teams were generally reliable equalizers for the 49ers. Even with two botched punt returns and just one third-down conversion against the Giants, San Francisco's Super Bowl dreams did not die until overtime. The 49ers won at Detroit without forcing a turnover back when the Lions were 5-0. That game was an exception to how the 49ers generally won.

Forcing 38 turnovers during the regular season, including 23 by interceptions, was unusual. The 1996-98 and 2001-03 San Francisco teams averaged 22 interceptions per season. Those were also unusual runs.

The 49ers collected between 12 and 18 interceptions over the six seasons preceding this one. Forcing 31 fumbles this season exceeded by about 10 the 49ers' average over the previous five seasons, but the recovery rate -- truly a random stat -- was 48.4 percent, not unusually high.

The bottom line: Finishing 13-3 again will be tough, but that is true for any team winning that many games in a season. A likely evening out in the turnover department will likely hurt. The 49ers do need to improve on offense. The next step for Smith will be to cut down on sacks without suffering too many additional turnovers.