There is no way to evaluate potential success in life without first looking at potential obstacles. The less foreseeable obstacles you have, the more you can focus on the task at hand and create momentum.
For the San Francisco Forty Niners, understanding their obstacles might be the most difficult part in evaluating them, making their potential success as likely as their potential failure. Standing in their way are questions about effort, coaching, defensive pass rush, and offensive line play, but their is one obstacle that is at the forefront of any conversation involving the 2009 San Francisco 49ers.
That is, of course, at the quarterback position. That's as obvious as saying Michael Vick has an image problem. The problem is the 49ers currently employ two second-string quarterbacks who are competing for a starting role.
On the one hand you have Shaun Hill, who has done a markedly better job than Alex Smith when given the opportunity to play. He's a gamer, but sadly can only throw the ball about 40 yards.
This is somewhat limiting when trying to scare a defense. He has the ability make plays, gets the ball out quickly and seems to inspire teammates.
Alex Smith, on the other hand, is coming off physical issues that have somewhat derailed his career. He broke off a bone in his shoulder last year climbing out of bed.
My guess is that is not a good sign. Also, many fans refer to him as "Cabbage Patch Hands," due to his incessant habit of putting the ball on the turf. Not only that, but as the number one pick in 2005, he has shown little progress mentally and physically on the football field.
With that said, Smith was thrown to the wolves by Mike Nolan in his rookie year, on what was possibly the worst team in NFL history, the 2008 Lions notwithstanding. Also, Smith has had a different offensive coordinator in each of his first four years in the league.
Physically, Hill is no match for Smith. Smith appears to not have the leadership ability or gamesmanship of Hill.
So, in the end the 49ers are going to battle with two guys who both have glaring weaknesses and some strengths.
Obviously, the quarterback position is extremely important, but as recent history points out, you can be successful with a limited signal caller. The caveat is, you must play great defense, run the ball well, and be efficient on special teams.
When asked to, your quarterback must make plays for you, but more times than not, you are asking him to not turn the ball over. San Francisco has begun to establish this as their identity, but there are still some hurdles to jump.
The team will finally be rid of Mike Nolan, who for all intents and purposes, seemed like a nice man. He had an impeccable tan and was very Obama-like in terms of his media savvy. He always said the right things and kept everyone believing that next year would be better.
In his defense, Nolan did an excellent job of bringing stability to a franchise that had spun-out and was on its way to becoming Detroit West. But, as a coach, Nolan was always over-matched, always.
His mid-season swoon was as predictable as spring to summer. He would get this team ready for game's one and two and then promptly lose six of seven. He has been replaced by a man with a burning inferno in his stomach, named Mike Singletary.
The question is, however, will this team respond for an entire season to such an intense guy? I believe the answer is yes, but there has not been this big of a demand on the current roster over the last few years. Nolan talked about working hard, Singletary just flat out works them hard.
Things had gotten so bad under Nolan that all Niner fans wanted was a consistent effort and good work ethic. That is not something that has been seen since 2002.
Under coach Singletary's direction at the end of last season, the team began to play crisper. The defense, which had surrendered 29 points or more in five straight weeks (weeks four through eight), gave up only 20 points or more twice in the last seven weeks. The defense was allowed to be aggressive and hit people in the mouth, something that was severely lacking with Nolan.
Defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky and coach Singletary seem to be on the same page, deciding on a 3-4 defense that will focus on physicality and speed, rather than deception.
What isn't known is if the 49ers will be able to apply enough pressure on the quarterback to be an effective defense. Over the last four years, San Francisco has been unable to stop teams on third down and has consistently been blistered in the passing game.
This year, they plan to allow Manny Lawson the freedom to get after the quarterback. They are trusting that Ray McDonald, Parys Harralson, Justin Smith, Kentwan Balmer, and Manny Lawson will put enough heat on the opposing team's quarterback that they won't have to make a move to secure a pass-rusher.
Their confidence in the current roster is the main reason they felt so comfortable in drafting Michael Crabtree, but it is a risky proposition if you go by track record.
The defense has been playing together for three seasons now and they have a lot of talented parts. The secondary is Jonas Brother's young, with Dashon Goldson, Reggie Smith, Tarell Brown and Marcus Hudson all hoping to get burn. Goldson appears to be the front runner at the free safety position, hoping to beat out the human touchdown conceder, named Mark Roman.
I'm pretty sure that when your free safety has had one interception in three years with your team that it is time to make a change. Roman went to the Derek Smith school of defense, where you play eight yards behind your guy at all times.
The defense seems to be the strong point of this team, mainly because of the continuity, the interchangeable parts and the crazy head coach who is going to send these guys out for blood.The hope is that this aggressive style will create more opportunities for the offense.
The 49ers open up their seventh straight season with a new offensive coordinator. For their lack of success and effort over the last six seasons, nothing has been more painful as the de-evolution of the offense.
They are like a business that was cutting edge in the early 90's, being the first to have internet in the office and networked computers. Then, with the technology boom over the next decade, saying, "You know what, forget it, this is too complicated. Everyone, we're going back to typewriters."
In two of the last six seasons, San Francisco was historically bad. In 2007 they were last in: points per game, plays from scrimmage, yards per game, third down conversion, time of possession and turnover differential. The fact that they were 5-11 was a Festivus miracle.
The real issue was having Norv Turner leave right before the start of the 2007 season, leaving the offensively limited Nolan only one choice, Jim Hostler. In 2008, the Niners completely rolled the dice, hiring Mike Martz, to a semi-successful stint. Unfortunately, Singletary did not feel that their conflicting football ideologies could co-exist.
Thus, Niner fans welcome in Jimmy Raye, the latest in a revolving door of offensive coordinators. It is a sad state of affairs, that speaks to maybe the greatest hurdle of all, the ownership. But, that is another blog for another time.
In the past, Frank Gore has had to carry the offensive burden behind an average line, quarterbacks who can't throw, receivers who can't stretch the field, and a tight end, who looks like he is karate chopping the ball every time it's thrown to him. Last year was different, though, as Mike Martz found ways to spread the field. Isaac Bruce was an excellent possession receiver and Josh Morgan and Jason Hill began to show flashes.
What has people buzzing this year, is that Morgan, the talented receiver from Virginia Tech looks even better than last year. Hill is really quick in the slot and the Niners grabbed the can't-miss-kid in Michael Crabtree. His big physical presence will be a matchup nightmare for teams and hopefully will give Gore more room to run.
Not only that but San Francisco also drafted Glenn Coffee, a real big time SEC running back, that will take some of the load off Gore. Gore has rarely had anyone with true talent backing him up, making the second string running back no more than a decoy.
Even more enticing is the potential from Vernon Davis to go from average tight end to top of the heap. He has all the physical tools in terms of speed, size, quickness and agility. He does not have great football awareness, it seems, when running pass patterns and has hands that make Jerry Rice weep openly.
Davis also has the annoying habit of getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after making even the most minor of plays. But, Jimmy Raye was a big part of Tony Gonzalez's success in Kansas City a few years back, so there is hope on the horizon.
The question is with all these terrific weapons at the 49ers disposable, will they have a capable signal caller, will their offensive line hold up, and will they be able to learn a new offense to the point that they can execute it without hesitation?
As is the case with most teams, the success of your offense starts in the trenches. Even with exceptional talent at the skill positions it won't matter if your line can't block.
The 49ers addressed a glaring weakness at right tackle by adding Marvel Smith, via free agency. Smith only made it through five games last year. His health may be the biggest factor as to whether or not San Francisco will be a respectable offensive team or not.
If the Niners are forced to play Adam Snyder, or God help us, Barry Sims, at right tackle, then their season could be over. It was the biggest weakness last year, to the point that they were forced to leave Vernon Davis in to block on the majority of pass plays, taking away a huge weapon on offense.
The 49ers were in terrible shape four years ago. Now, their roster resembles that of a lot of other teams around the league; incomplete.
They are working to fill some holes and finally seem to have the right attitude from the top down. You hate to head into a season with, "If" as your hope.
It is always better to go into a season with proven guys and a proven head coach. With that said, the 49ers are moving in the right direction and are playing in a division that is ripe for the taking.
Not to take anything away from the Cardinals, but they had a very fortuitous season last year, including two very close games with the Niners that could have gone either way. The fact that they easily could have missed the playoffs should not be overlooked.
The Seahawks were riddled with so many injuries offensively, that they were trying to re-sign Steve Largent at one point. The Rams are the Rams, and while I think they may rebound in two years, are not currently a threat.
So here it is: If the 49ers can get consistent play from the quarterback position with limited turnovers, Marvel Smith stays healthy, and the defense plays to their ability, the 49ers will win the West.
I see the Cardinals taking a step back and the Seahawks taking a step up. Without the Nolan swoon in games two through 10, the Forty Niners should be in a position to win this division at 9-7 or 10-6.