Every April we have a car show here in Redding called "Kool April Nights." Each year the company I work for hosts a "Show and Shine," and this year I received the pleasure of cooking tri-tip, judging classic cars, and listening to some pretty good old tunes by a local group known as "The Potentials."
I couldn’t quite put my finger on in it, but in the back of my brain I knew I had seen that word quite a bit recently—potential. Then it dawned on me; potential is the word that has been used in a plethora of recent articles in reference to a number of players on my favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers.
Some would say the 49ers' roster is dearth of talent. I am among those that think the 'Niners' roster is not as far off from being a respectable football as others would have you think. There are three reasons that have kept this team, and some if its players, from reaching their potential: Mike Nolan, injuries, and flat-out underperformance.
I just don’t understand why a coach would sign free agents and draft picks and then not play them. The 49ers lost to Baltimore a couple of years ago, 9-7. After the game, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan (now the New York Jets head coach) asked Nolan why he didn’t play Ashley Lelie, he then informed Nolan that if he had played Lelie, the Ravens defense would have double-teamed him.
I can’t think of anything more embarrassing for a head coach. Lelie has since been released from the team and last played for the Raiders.
But it was not just Lelie; under Nolan, rookies hardly ever saw the field. Thomas Clayton’s off-field problems have been well documented, but if you are going to pull the trigger on someone in the draft, let’s see what he can do. Clayton has been a preseason stud, yet he hasn’t seen the field in a regular season game, not even as a return man. Can anyone say Brandon Noble?
Why didn’t we see more of Tarell Brown before Shawntae Spencer was injured last year?
Mike Singletary, on the other hand, has taken a special interest in Chilo Rachal, and not only did he see the playing field in his rookie year he has become the starter at right guard!
Every team has to deal with injuries, however, it seems as if the 49ers have had more than their share of them.
Leading the list is Alex Smith. I am giving Smith a pass here, I could include him as just a flat-out underperformer, but he really has not gotten the chance to evolve into a decent pro quarterback since the hit by Seattle’s Rocky Bernard (now with the New York Giants).
Others that have not realized their potential due to injury: Jay Moore, Jason Hill, Dashon Goldson, and Manny Lawson.
Lawson is the guy I am most excited about for 2009. After a full year back from his ACL injury, and the switch to a true 3-4 defense, Manny is set to have a break out year.
Now here are the guys that frustrate 49er fans the most: the flat-out underperformers. I am not giving Vernon Davis a pass here. I realize he has had a couple of injuries, but anyone who can run his mouth like Davis should be able to back it up on the football field. Singletary seems to have Vernon’s tongue under control, but can he harness this guy’s potential? We shall see.
Ahmad Brooks and Jimmy Williams (recently acquired by the 'Niners) fall into this category. The team thought so much of Brooks that they wanted to pick him in the 2006 supplemental draft, but they were beaten out by the Bengals. When the Bengals released him, the 'Niners scooped him up. How does he repay the team’s faith in him? He shows up to mini camp overweight and out of shape—nice. Personally, I think Sing' has his hands full with these two guys.
David Baas, Isaac Sopoaga, and Michael Robinson round out my list of underperformers. Bass couldn’t crack the starting lineup for two years, Sopoaga doesn’t want to be a DT (is it really his choice?), and Robinson hasn’t been able to fill the role he was drafted for—backing up Frank Gore. But, then again, Robinson was a quarterback and wideout at Penn State, so he gets a pass, and I will blame Nolan for trying to convert him into a running back.
Although no fault of his own, David Baas was actually the 49ers contingency plan when New England snagged Logan Mankins (a 2008 Pro-Bowler) in the first round of the 2005 draft before the 'Niners could pick him early in the second. I was thinking we had found another Jeremy Newberry when I researched Baas. Now I am afraid he may be another Justin Smiley. That said, I still have faith in this guy. Time to shine, David.
Sopoaga seemed to have a breakthrough year in 2007, so much that the team re-signed him to a five-year deal before he became a free agent. I was expecting a huge year from Sopoaga this last year, but I don’t think he even made a highlight reel. A huge disappointment.
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t include Kentwan Balmer or Cody Wallace in this article somewhere, both were high-round draft picks last year.
Balmer is a bit further behind the learning curve than Rachal but a hard worker, so I will give him another year to develop his potential.
I must admit, Cody Wallace is a complete mystery to me. According to the team’s official Web site, Wallace had 252 knockdown blocks his last two years at Texas A&M, yet he wasn’t even activated for a single game last year. Is he a hangover from Nolan’s practice of not playing rookies? Was there an injury that wasn’t reported? Did he just not perform in practice? He gets another year as well, as most rookies should.
Well, it is time to go and check out some more cars at the classic "cruise." I hope I see "The Potentials" there. I also hope I see the 49ers' potential realized on the field this year.