You have to hand it to the San Francisco 49ers. Come hell or high water, they find a way to separate themselves from the pack.
Back in the good old days, roughly between 1981 and 1998 let’s say, the team stood out the conventional way; by being better than everybody else. They won the most, scored the most, had the most talent, broke the most records, and received the most media attention.
These days the Niners still hold a unique place in the league hierarchy in that they’ve seemingly achieved the impossible—they’ve become a boring NFL team.
In a league where every seventh round draft pick, every rumored visit to an orthopedic surgeon, and every prison release is scrutinized to the point of satire, the 49ers find themselves as the insurance adjusters in a V.I.P. after party filled with rock stars, jet pilots, American Idol contestants and Hollywood producers.
The only charismatic face in the organization belongs to their new Head Coach, Mike Singletary, and he’s most famous for completely flipping out in his first postgame press conference.
Or, if you prefer, for supposedly dropping his pants in the locker room and showing his players what he thought of their first half performance roughly two hours before that infamous first postgame press conference.
The most talked about Minnesota Viking these days might not technically be, or ever have been, a Minnesota Viking, but at least Brett Favre played in the NFL last season.
Singletary’s playing career ended in 1992 just when Favre’s was beginning, yet the way he’s covered by the national media one would think he was a player-coach, like a modern day Bill Russell or Pete Rose.
To set the record straight, while San Francisco’s roster is woefully short on names and even shorter on personalities, on paper the team is not, for the first time in years, all that bad.
Now that Terry Donahue and Mike Nolan are no longer anywhere to be found in the organizational flow chart, and with young Jed York having emerged as the willing and eager face of the team’s ownership (a role that neither his father John or his mother Denise DeBartolo-York took to) the 49ers have upgraded their talent level to mediocre and are even trending upward, to the point that they’re darkhorse candidates to win the underwhelming NFC West.
Offensively they’ve upgraded themselves dramatically at wide receiver, a position that’s been sorely lacking in respectable talent since Terrell Owens’ departure in 2003.
The team was lucky enough to have Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree—the consensus pick as the top pass catcher of the draft by Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay, and Mel Kiper Jr.’s hair —fall to them at the 10th pick.
He will bolster a group that includes free agent signee Brandon Jones who spent last season with the Tennessee Titans, longtime veteran Isaac Bruce, and a pair of youngsters in Josh Morgan and Jason Hill who both came on in the second half of 2008.
Despite having a solid group to throw to, Singletary still plans on having the Niners becoming a smash-mouth running team that can mix in the pass instead of the other way around.
At running back Alabama’s Glen Coffee was drafted in the third round to provide relief for workhorse Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster is still around in case the rookie isn’t up to it.
The play of the offensive line improved dramatically once Shaun Hill took over at quarterback and J.T. O’Sullivan, he of the “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” school of pocket awareness, was benched. Hill was sacked 23 times in 8.5 games compared to O’Sullivan’s 32 sacks in 7.5 games.
Joe Staley at left tackle and center Eric Heitmann are both potential Pro Bowlers while guards David Bass and Chilo Rachal both steadily got better as last season wore on. The weak link seems to be right tackle, where a couple of declining graybeards, Barry Sims and ex-Steeler Marvel Smith, will battle for the job. At least Hill will be able to see the pass rush coming since he’s right handed.
Defense figures to be more of a struggle and this unit may force Singletary to abandon many of his conservative run-heavy game plans to play catch up this year. The team was decent versus the run last year, allowing 106.8 yards per game, good for 13th in the NFL, but only 20th against the pass, giving up 219.2.
The latter number will likely be even worse this year as the team’s inability to put heat on opposing passers (only 30 sacks in 2008) wasn’t addressed at all in the offseason and solutions will have to come from in house.
Last year’s first round pick, defensive end Kentwan Balmer hardly played in 2008 and he’ll have to contribute this year to take the double team pressure away from Justin Smith. Likewise outside linebacker Manny Lawson managed just three sacks last year and he needs to provide more help for bookend Parys Haralson.
Middle linebacker Patrick Willis is already a star and tackles everything in sight, but he’s not much of a blitzer and the pressure will have to come from the edges.
The secondary is a total mess. Free safety was their Achilles heel last year, and, amazingly, incumbent Mark Roman is still the favorite to hold on to the job for another season. Strong safety Michael Lewis plays the run well but has the range of a box turtle in coverage.
'Dre Bly was recently signed off the scrap heap to replace Walt Harris, who suffered an ACL tear in minicamp and is out for the season. The real story there isn’t the injury, but the fact that the team had no reservations about going into the season with the 34-year old Harris starting in the first place.
Bly, incidentally, is 31. Nate Clements is a bright spot, albeit an extremely overpaid one, in the secondary and he figures to draw the toughest assignment week in and week out.
The 49ers hope that they will be able to make up for their defensive shortcomings and their offensive inexperience by winning the field position battle with their special teams. Both kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee are first rate, while returner Allen Rossum is still a threat every time he touches the ball, even though he’s a twelve year veteran.
While San Francisco is still a year or two away from contention, even in a weak division, if they can find enough of a pass rush to keep their secondary from being exposed and if they can put Shaun Hill in a position to manage the game instead of having to win it, an 8-8 or even a 9-7 season isn’t completely out of the question.
Realistically speaking though, they’re going to take their lumps and wait to see how they fare in the Eric Berry sweepstakes, otherwise known as the 2010 draft.
Still, it’d be awfully beneficial for the team’s national exposure if Crabtree can adjust to the NFL right away. The team needs someone besides Singletary to attract attention and it’s highly doubtful that the coach will go for the “Come watch the 49ers: We’re so exciting that I can’t even keep my pants on” ad campaign.