The 49ers had to deal with a very tough loss last Sunday versus the Titans. This was a tough loss for many reasons, but I think what is most important, is what was lurking just beneath the surface of this last tidal wave.
Mike Singletary deserves a lot of credit. He has taken a lot of criticism for trying to run a conservative, ball-control offensive scheme, but he did more than deal with that criticism; he demonstrated that he is willing to change.
As the weeks have progressed through the 2009 season and the wins started to turn into losses, it was clear that the strategy the 49ers were using was no longer tenable. Something had to change, and change fast.
The first major change came at the start of the second half of the road game versus the Houston Texans. Alex Smith came in to replace the struggling and physically limited Shaun Hill. It was the right move, and it remains the right move.
Alex Smith has certain advantages over Hill that are obvious. Smith can make certain NFL throws that Hill can't make. Deep outs, ins and hitch routes opened up a whole new dimension for an offense that needed to expand its horizons.
It worked to a degree. Smith was able to move the offense along, at times. The offense certainly looked better against the Colts, although the three n' outs and losses continued to pile up.
In the last few games, Smith has had several opportunities to lead comebacks, only to stall and falter at the end. But this was understandable right? It was Jimmy Raye's offense that leads the league in three n' outs, and this is the weight holding Smith back, right?
Move the chains
Something moved against the Tennessee Titans. The weight was lifted.
For the first time all-season, the 49ers offense could actually move the chains.
Against the Titans, the 49ers certainly did not go 3 n' out on 40+ percent of their possessions. In fact, they started off throwing the ball like there was no tomorrow, and it worked.
Frank Gore actually picked up some consistent yardage on his runs. The 49ers were controlling more of the clock. The offensive line was providing time to throw. The WR's were getting open.
Jimmy Raye was calling a game that attacked with the opposite of what the defense was prepared to stop. Raye was doing his job.
This was the coming out party for the 49ers offense.
I like that kind of party
Coach Singletary agrees.
At the Monday press conference, Singletary said he liked what the offense was able to do last Sunday. He said he is excited to see more of what this offense can do in the weeks ahead.
But it's not just the first downs that make Singletary excited. He is also exited about the moment him, and his team, are in. They are three days away from either the beginning, or the end, of their 2009 season.
Singletary believes that these are the moments when you have to put your best foot forward.
There is no turning back now. The offense is making first downs. Frank Gore is productive. Barry Sims has done a good job replacing Joe Staley. Vernon Davis is in the midst of a Pro-Bowl season.
The excuses are few and far between for this team.
The weight has been lifted, the passes are flying and the running game has found its space.
Alex Smith is free.
Time to step up
But just because Smith has the freedom to throw, the weapons to throw to and the ability to make the throws, does not mean the path is clear.
He still has to make the right decisions. He still has to step up.
In the NFL, clarity is rarely at a quarterback's disposal. Much of the time, an NFL quarterback has to deal with confusion and fog.
The pathway is rarely clear.
A quarterback throws from the pocket. But pockets are not comfortable places to be. They are constantly moving, morphing and changing. They are in a constant state of flux. Every pocket is different on seemingly every play.
Some pockets have more space on the left, some on the right. Sometimes a quarterback will face pressure up the middle and sometimes from either edge. Some pockets collapse completely, forcing the quarterback to scramble out and make a play.
The trick is to stay somewhere in the “middle” of this amorphous blob and keep a cool head.
Obviously, one of the primary jobs of an offensive line is to make a pocket last as long as possible. But how long does the pocket have to last? How much time does a quarterback need? Can a quarterback's movement help keep the “blob” alive?
This is where it gets difficult. You see, sometimes quarterbacks have a lot of time, and sometimes a little.
What separates the best quarterbacks from the rest, is that the best quarterbacks know what kind of pocket they are "riding," and how much time they have to get rid of the ball.
Sometimes the rush comes around the edge, sometimes up the middle, sometimes the whole pocket collapses. But great quarterbacks always seem to find a way to step up.
They step up to the challenge, they duck and dodge and brush off defenders, all the while keeping their eyes down field, and their heads in the game.
It's hard enough to read defenses and find the open receiver, it becomes much harder when simultaneously running away from giant human beings. Few can overcome these obstacles.
If Alex Smith is to lead this team to where Singletary wants to go, he's going to have to make more plays with his feet and step up. He's going to have to turn lemons into lemonade. He's going to have to turn water into wine. Well OK, not quite that, but close. He's going to have to keep plays alive.
No matter what happens in the weeks ahead, Smith's play will forge a new destiny for the 49ers, one way or another.
Within one year's time, the 49ers have an opportunity to become a great team.
There is already a good defense in place. There are more than enough play-makers on offense. Vernon Davis, Crabtree, Gore and others make for a dangerous group.
But who will pull this team out of the depths, and lead this team as its signal caller, as its “King”?
The 49ers have two first round draft picks next year. One of these picks is theirs through the Carolina Panthers, a pick which will most likely fall somewhere between 10 and 20.
The next pick is where things get interesting. If Smith can pull the 49ers season out of “the stone,” and get the team into the playoffs or better, he will be proudly known as the 49er quarterback of the present and future. In this scenario, the 49ers own first round draft pick would likely fall between 15 and 25.
However, if the season remains lodged firmly into the stone of defeat, interceptions and failed fourth quarters, then their draft pick will reward them much more generously; somewhere between 5 and 15.
Simultaneously, they will also have the opportunity to utilize their two high first round draft picks, and forge them into gold.
A top quarterback can be had in the 2010 draft. The 49ers might have to give up their two first round picks, plus a little extra to make it happen, but they certainly can make it happen.
However, they might not even HAVE to go with a draft pick next year, for they already plucked a promising signal caller in 2009.
If Smith fails to pull the season out of the rock, perhaps it wouldn't hurt to see if the new kid can provide a spark of some kind. Can Nate Davis play? That is the question.
The only way to answer that question, is to give him a chance when real “bullets” are flying. If the season is lost, why not find out? It might just save the 49ers a few precious draft picks.
Alex Smith has always had potential, Nate Davis has potential, and the 49ers' draft picks have the potential to deliver a leader for the 49ers. Strong enough, gutsy enough, and good enough to pull this team out of the dark obsidian, into a bright and golden future.
The 49ers have some powerful knights already.
But none of them can heave their team out of the granite by themselves. That would take a King; a great signal caller.
Anyone can try; the handle is there for the plucking. Some of royalty, have been trying in vain for some time.
But wait, that kid, “Who is he”? No one knows, but maybe it's destiny, maybe “that kid,” one of the new kids emerging out of the shadows, can pull it off; pull the kingdom of 9er-land out of the dark.
If Alex Smith does not succeed in this task, fear not, because it is likely that a new kid will emerge, out from either college or clipboard, to pull the great 49er team, that is stuck just beneath the surface, from out the rock of mediocrity, and into the land of great visions and dreams.