All season long the 49ers relied on a simple formula: takeaways + excellent defense + cautious offense = wins. The equation proved sound throughout 2011 and got them within a step of the Super Bowl.
But in the NFC Championship game, the formula failed. The 49ers nailed the defensive part of it - Justin Smith and company were again relentless in the second half. And the offense committed no turnovers, took the lead in the third quarter and tied it in the fourth. It was the takeaway portion that didn't come through. Going in to the game, the 49ers had forced a league-high 43 turnovers. Against the Giants, they had zero, only the second time in 18 games that had occurred.
But that's the very nature of takeaways. They are fluky - pouring in like a monsoon at one moment and then drying up like the Gobi Desert the next. The 49ers led the league with a +28 turnover differential this year. The next highest differential in franchise history -- +22 in 1981 - was followed by a -8 differential in 1982. Which is to say that while the 49ers, and every other team for that matter, will shoot for another banner year in takeaways in 2012, it can't be counted on and shouldn't be such a crucial component of the team's winning formula
History shows (see below) that teams rarely duplicate their takeaway success from one year to the next. It also should be noted that the two 49ers players directly responsible for the most takeaways - cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson - are both free agents and may not be back.
Instead the 49ers need to spend the offseason repairing the weakest part of their formula, the offense. The passing game finished 29th in the league in the regular season and was particularly conspicuous in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Giants. Observers can debate for the next decade who was responsible for the 49ers' deficiencies, but it's clear that the 49ers simply need more and better pass catchers. Only two wideouts, Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams, are signed for next season.
That has to be priority No. 1 going into the offseason.
NFL's best turnover differentials
1. 1983 Redskins, +43. Following year: +15
2. 2011 49ers, +28. Following year: ?
3. 2010 Patriots, +28. Following year: +17
4. 1990 Chiefs, +26. Following year: +1
5. 1997 Giants, +25. Following year: +2
-- Matt Barrows