The San Francisco 49ers Evolution To A Championship.
The new football TV arrived last week. Wondering what the Niners would look like on the larger screen, I've been watching last season on the new TV. A glutton for punishment, I even watched the Atlanta game.
Last night I was watching the Monday night game between the Niners and Cardinals. Many times I found myself watching the commercials too. Even football commercials are good, when there has been no real football on the telly. Repeatedly I totally spaced it while I stared googoo-eyed at the commercials, all the while forgetting that I could fast forward past them.
Does anyone else do that?
In their pregame discussion, the announcers were comparing the Cards of last year to the team who almost won the Super Bowl. Ron Jaworski was asked if he thought last year's team was better than the Super Bowl team.
Without boring you with all of his answers, he felt they were and listed his reasons. 13, 81, 11, 15, 34, 26, 24, 21 and 29. All of them were valid reasons.
So last night I'm watching the Niners take it to the Cards. The defense taking it away multiple times in the first half. The offense moving the ball adequately against the team who, the previous year nearly won the Super Bowl.
I say adequately because in mid-season the Niners restructured the offense, opting for the spread offense formation more familiar to Alex Smith. As I watched, my excitement for what is about to transpire this season began to grow.
Reflecting On Games Past
I thought back to 2004. Of watching the games with eternal optimism, hoping the team would win. Ironically that year the only team the Niners beat, was the Arizona Cardinals.
I thought of the change those two teams have undergone since that dubious season. Of how in just a few short years, it all seems to have come full circle.
Being his rookie year, punter Andy Lee was on that team. Five other players who were on the 2004 53 man roster remained. Only Lee, Arnaz Battle, Eric Heitmann, Brian Jennings, Shawntae Spencer and Isaac Sopoaga represented that team last year. With Battle going to the Steelers this year that number will be one less in 2010.
As a long time Niner fan, I have at times become frustrated with the recent lack of championship performance. In the eighties and early nineties we grew accustomed to being the team that dominated the NFL. For many of us anything less borders on intolerable.
My patience was nearing it's end. After last year, I wondered how long it would be before we see a championship team again. Putting the pieces together for this article helped me gain perspective. I can finally appreciate the rebuilding process.
Here is a history of what it has taken to bring the team back to being this year's hands down contender for the NFC West championship and beyond.
The Rebuild Process Begins
In 2005 Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary showed up in San Francisco. Amidst rumors of the team being for sale, Mike Nolan was tasked with getting the 49ers ship back on an even keel. In the beginning Mike Nolan had autonomy over the franchise. The 2005 draft marked the beginning of the evolution.
Both Mikes set out to bring the Niners back to a championship level of play. They were focused on the same spot on the horizon, that being Lombardi trophy number 6.
Being the last place team, the first overall pick of the new regime in San Francisco was an all important one. The recent performances of Rattay, Dorsey and Pickett were evidence the 49ers had not found a replacement for Pro Bowl QB Jeff Garcia. That was probably at the time the greatest need of the team. There were so many needs at the time. Where does one start?
So with the first pick of the 2005 draft and the first pick of the Nolan Singletary duet, the Forty Niners selected Alex Smith. Admittedly I'm not his biggest fan. As I watched him last night I saw the reasons he was drafted. When Alex Smith is on, he is full on. The guy can play. If he can play consistently the Forty Niners will be unstoppable in 2010.
One key thing I noticed about Alex Smith in watching the games from last year. Do you know how you see things in a movie the second time you watch it? Things that you might have missed the first time? Subtle things. As I watched Alex play the Cards I noticed he has lost that deer in the headlights look. He just may prove to all his doubters, me included that we were wrong.
Round 2 that year David Baas was added. Baas has played well for the Niners during his tenure, evidenced by his recent contract extension. He should be the starter this year but with Iupati looming in the wings that may change toward the end of the season.
Round 3 had in my opinion the best pick of that draft, Frank Gore. I've been a fan of his since I watched him at the U. I could go on and on about him. Blah, blah, blah. We all know Frank Gore is the glue that holds it all together. Without him the offense just isn't the same.
Adam Snyder was also selected in the third round. As last year's starting RT, I wasn't sure what position to list him. He plays all of the line positions including center, making him at worst a valuable backup player.
Fifth round pick Ronald Fields is now a DT with the Broncos and 7th rounder Billy Bajema is a TE now with the Rams. The remainder of the 2005 49er draft class in no longer in football.
That year the only free agent added to the 53 man roster was Joe Nedney. All in all, it was a good start.
Including the five remnants of the 2004 team, ten players, roughly 20% of this year's championship roster were in place.
The Retooling Continues
With their first season completed, it was once again time for Nolan and Singletary to shop the draft for the future of the franchise. 2010 is not the first year the Forty Niners have had two first round picks.
In 2006 Nolan and Singletary added Vernon Davis with the 6th overall pick. Vernon's performance last year says it all. Why go on. Look for Davis to continue what he started last year.
With the 22nd overall pick Manny Lawson was selected. Manny missed a season rehabbing a knee. Making the switch from DE to OLB Manny does a great job of sealing off the end on run plays and drops back well for pass coverage. The team's sack leader in 2009 Manny should have a breakout year in 2010.
In the later rounds Michael Robinson, Parys Haralson and Delanie Walker were taken in the 4th, 5th and 6th round respectively.
Some will disagree but I think Captain Of Special Teams and jack of all trades MRob will be part of the championship team. Every team needs a utility player. One with leadership qualities is even more desirable.
Parys Haralson seems to be another of those Mike Singletary schooled linebackers. Here's the thing. With HD slomo replays you can get lots of detail. Manny and Parys both, sacking the QB while stripping the ball, what a sight to see.
In a two tight end system, what better book end to Vernon Davis than Delanie Walker? What other tight end in the league is athletic enough to be used on an end run and kick returns. Speed, good blocking skills and above average athleticism are his main assets.
Marcus Hudson was also added that year. His contract was up at the end of 2009 and he has since signed with the Panthers. Good luck Marcus.
Moran Norris and Tony Wragge were acquired through free agency. The 2006 tandem of Norris and Gore proved to be a prolific running game. Most of us thought we were on a roll. We were of sorts.
Seven more players were added. At this point the future championship team was about 32% complete.
The Future Continues To Improve In 2007
In this, the second year in a row the 49ers had two first round picks, they again made their best use of them. With the 11th pick Patrick Willis became a 3 time Pro Bowl linebacker. You can go on for days touting his virtues or just keep it short and sweet.
With the 28th pick another integral part of a championship caliber offensive line, Joe Staley was selected. Originally a right tackle now a left tackle Joe will be the starting left tackle for many years to come.
Third round pick, WR Jason Hill will be on the bubble this year but will probably make the team. Injured most of his career, his leaping ability and familiarity with the system will probably be enough when combined with his raw talent.
A second third round pick, Ray McDonald on the other hand has developed well and figures to be part of the defensive line for many years. Ray seems be somewhere in the opposition's backfield whenever he plays.
Fourth round pick Dashon Goldson came into his own last year. As I watched the games, 38 was in there somewhere, usually with his hat on the ball. As he will continue to get better with time Goldson looks to be a starting safety for many years.
Fifth round pick Tarrell Brown was originally slated to go as a first round pick. Some off-field issues dropped him four tiers in the draft. Brown was a solid backup and in 2009 replaced Nate Clements as the starting cornerback.
For a couple of years sixth round pick Thomas Clayton sat on the practice squad. In 2009 it looked like he may have earned a spot on the roster but suffered a knee injury in pre-season. Clayton signed with the Patriots for the 2010 season. Good luck Thomas.
The defense got some talent through free agency in 2007. Adding Nate Clements and Michael Lewis bolstered the secondary. Toss in one Aubrayo Franklin and you shore up your Dline in one fell swoop.
I think it was about now that many Niner fans expected a change in the team. Many of us were thinking we were on our way to the Super Bowl. I know I did. Not really, but I thought we'd do better than we did. At the end of the season we would know it would still be a while.
With 24 members assembled the team was still lacking. Now 45% complete, we the fans, were beginning to learn the definition of patience.
Offensive Line Addressed Again In 2008
Kentwan Balmer taken in the first round of the 2008 draft continues to improve each year. With 5 defensive linemen on the roster last year Kentwan has seen limited time on the field. Granted it's reciprocal. If you're good enough, you get the time in the game. Kentwan's name was called several times as I watched the games this past week. He seems to be showing signs of improvement.
To me more noteworthy than the selection of Kentwan Balmer, is the second round pick Chilo Rachal. Chilo figures to be an integral part of what is destined to be a history making offensive line. As I watched, I noticed a pattern. It was either 44 or 62 in front of 21 on his long runs.
This year, the team will probably keep 5 safeties and third round pick Reggie Smith should be one of them. Originally drafted as a cornerback, Smith was converted to safety last year. Smith's versatility and solid play should keep him on the team for years.
Trying to get playing time behind Eric Heitman, fourth round pick Cody Wallace hasn't seen much time on the field. Rumors are the team has been shopping Wallace around the league and playing Wragge at center with the second team offense. For the meantime Wallace remains on my championship roster.
After a setback from a staph infection Josh Morgan proved why he should have been picked. This guy is one of my favorite 49ers. I like his work ethic, his talent and his quiet demeanor. Averaging 15.5 yards in the first half of last year and 7.5 in the latter, Morgan looks to be a starting wideout for many years.
Isaac Bruce, Justin Smith, Takeo Spikes, and Barry Sims were added through free agency. With Isaac Bruce traded to the Rams for his retirement, 8 more players are now added to the team.
Now totaling 32 players, the championship team was only 58% complete at the end of 2008.
Holdout And All He Was Worth It
As a fan of him in his college days I am still a little miffed at him for his holdout. I'll have to get over it. For all of the diva hype, the guy was worth it. He proved that when he walked on the field and played like he'd been there all year. Sure he made some rookie mistakes. Who doesn't?
Glen Coffee, what are you doing? You're an SEC running back. I expected more out of Glen last year. I think he drops to a number 3 back this year and may have to fight for a spot on the roster. Being a physical runner in college he could come around. If he lives up to his potential he should be around for many years to give Frank Gore a rest.
Nate Davis. I sure hope this guy can learn the play book. There is some discussion about him and his inability to learn the plays in an adequeate time frame. The guy just has natural ability. When I watch him he reminds me of Fran Tarkenton or might I go as far as to say Steve Young. One article I read eluded to him being released at the end of training camp if he hasn't improved. As far as I'm concerned, Nate's a keeper. He's still on my roster.
Sixth round selection Scot McKillop showed constant signs of improvement. As a backup LB he had 19 solo tackles and made several good plays on special teams. Some say McKillop will get released this year. I disagree.
Seventh round pick Ricky Jean-Francois continues to improve. A work in progress, he is probably on the bubble this year but with Aubrayo Franklin getting long in the tooth, I think Ricky will make the roster.
Brit Miller should make the team based on his determination and true grit. A physical linebacker turned fullback, Miller has demonstrated that he can catch the ball too. Jimmy Raye likes fullbacks that can catch.
UDFA Alex Boone makes the roster this year too. I hope Beanie Wells gave him a cut of his big pay check last year. Alex blocked for Beanie in college. Off-field issues dropped Alex from a low first round or high second round choice to not being drafted. Mike Singletary told Alex he was going to break him like a wild horse. In camp now, with a different work ethic, Alex Boone makes this year's team.
Moran Norris, Demetric Evans, Ahmad Brooks and Brandon Jones were added via free agency. Based on Jones' high salary and low career production I think he gets released. Norris is still in the count from his previous time with the team.
Totaling nine players from the 2009 draft and free agency the championship team now consisted of 42 players and was about 79% complete.
Off The Field Moves
Who decided to do that? Why did they do that? Who is making the decisions in San Francisco? Over the past years I've asked myself those questions many times.
Scot McCloughan joined the 49ers in 2002, coincidentally the last year they were in the playoffs. Originally the VP of player personnel, he was promoted to GM in 2008 deposing Mike Nolan as the autonomic leader of the team.
Some credit McCloughan with the team's successful draft this year and for a successful rebuilding of the team. By inferring the draft picks were in place prior to his departure, even the credit for this year's draft success has been given to him by some members of the media.
I would disagree. In the years prior to Nolan and Singletary we have names like Rumph, ... well there were only five of them left in 2010. While some previous team members went by way of retirement and injuries, the others are not here because they lacked the talent necessary to play in the NFL. Those would be the players drafted when McCloughan was VP of player personnel and prior to Nolan and Singletary.
It was McCloughan as GM who would fire Nolan mid-season in 2008. While I'm not arguing the point of firing Nolan, I don't feel the methodology behind his demise was in the best interest of the team.
I feel that McCloughan kept a clod in the churn at all times. I don't think that Singletary and McCloughan saw things in the same light. This had to have created friction.
A classic example, McCloughan wanted Crabtree in 2009 and Singletary wanted Michael Oher. While our receiving corps is better off for selecting Crabtree, we, in my opinion would have been better off tending to the needs of the team. Those needs being a stellar OT that could start right out of college. We had to wait an additional year to get that tackle.
While many good decisions resulted, I wonder if some of the less than good ones are the real reasons behind his leaving. At any rate he took the high road out of town and the team is better off for it.
The Icing On The Cake
The 2010 draft class added much needed depth at key positions. The depth it added will only get deeper as they gain NFL experience. Unlike recent years, I see all of our draft selections making the team.
First round picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati make the football world take our Oline seriously without playing their first NFL down. Big, aggressive and physical linemen, the two were hand selected by Trent Baalke and Mike Singletary. Probably neither of them will start at the beginning of the season. Certainly by the end of it they will.
Second round pick Taylor Mays brings that same physical play to the secondary. While he may not start this year, he will soon. The internet is full of his physically dominating hits. Schooled by Ronnie Lott since entering the draft Mays looks to be the starting safety alongside Goldson for many years.
Third round pick Navorro Bowman has been described as a "boom or bust pick". Mike Singletary, if anything, knows what it takes to be a linebacker. Bowman had some off-field issues that made his draft stock plummet to the third round. Singletary can motivate players. I say he'll be a boom.
Round six of the draft yielded three players. Anthony Dixon is a bruising running back who was described in college as a "one man offense". While he won't be that in the NFL he should bring Frank Gore some much needed rest without sacrificing performance.
WR Kyle Williams brings speed, speed and a little more speed to the receiving corps. With kick return skills he will serve as either our kick return specialist or a backup. His speed will force a safety to cover him deep and should open the middle up more for Davis and passes to the running backs and fullbacks ala the Jimmy Raye style.
TE Nate Byham makes the team because he is already on the same page as his OC. Last year in an interview, Jimmy Raye said he is looking for some guys to go in and bloody some noses. Nate Byham describes himself as a guy who likes to bloody noses. I rest my case. I wondered why we drafted Bear Pascoe last year and cut him. Bear is a receiving tight end and Raye is looking for more of a run blocking tight end. I think they found him.
Last but certainly not least is CB Phillip Adams. I think Phillip makes the team. He is from a small school but comes with high praises of being a physically dominating player with good skills. After he entered the draft he went to Texas to workout and improve his draft stock. I don't know where but I have my suspicions. When football practice starts at SC State I'm on that like a duck on a june bug. Possessing kick return skills himself, Phillip adds depth there too.
Two free agent acquisitions in the off-season will make immediate impact on the team's ability to win the division.
Ted Ginn was the first major free agent move giving us a kick return game and a speedy deep threat at the same time. I've read the comments as all of us have. Some say the Dolphins put him on the trading block because he's a first round bust. As a diehard Buckeye fan, all I know is when Ohio State needed a big play, it was usually Ginn that gave it to them.
Travis LaBoy gives the defense some depth as well. Coming off a season on IR it's hard to say what LaBoy will do. Being as he was released by the Cards I believe he will bring something extra to those two games. Since he is motivated to play for the Niners by being from Northern California he should be able to bring that to the rest of the games too.
Signing former first overall pick David Carr gives the 49ers some good depth at QB. Carr will be a good backup for Smith since he seems to flourish in the spread offense too. Carr took a good beating in Houston when they were a young expansion team. Like Smith extenuating circumstances may have tarnished the public's view of his talent level.
With ten more players added to the championship roster the team is now 98% complete. Who the 53rd player will be remains to be seen.
Perhaps many of us expected a Bill Walsh miracle recovery from the depths of 2-14 to the Super Bowl in just two years. With eight losing seasons under our belts since the team's last Super Bowl appearance, we the fans are longing for the return of those so called "glory days" of Forty Niner supremacy.
At the beginning of last season Mike Singletary was asked if the Forty Niners had the players in place to win a championship. His reply was "Without a doubt." Boldly predicting the team would win the NFC West last year, he also stated the team still had a lot to learn. I wondered what he meant at first. In retrospect it is now obvious.
Being a young team they are prone to making mistakes. A couple of times rookie receiver Crabtree stopped a yard short of the first down, made the reception and was tackled immediately. That ended a drive prematurely. A drive where we were driving for a potential score. This year he'll probably get past the sticks and then turn around for the catch.
Alex Smith tossed up a couple of key interceptions that to me looked like they were all on Alex. In the Houston game late in the fourth quarter we were on a sustained drive and close to field goal range. A field goal that would have tied the game. Alex forced a pass and gave up and INT. We lost the game by 3 points.
In the Packers game, deep in his own territory, he tossed one between 3 green jerseys. One of those green jerseys made the catch. A few plays later the Packers scored a touchdown. We lost that game by 6 points. Alex is an intelligent guy. I'm sure he learned from those two mistakes.
In the second Seattle game I have to believe that it was Coach Mike himself who opted for a pass play on fourth and goal from the one yard line. I believe this year the team will take the sure 3 points. We lost that game as you will recall by 3 points.
The crowning jewel to the lessons a young team must learn came from Brett Favre. As much as it pained us all to watch that, the team needed to learn that lesson too. To be a successfull championship team you have to put the game away in the final two minutes. Failing to get a first down and sustain the drive to run out the clock, they gave Favre a chance. As we know, all he needs is a chance.
The team has been assembled. Last year they learned valuable lessons and gained much needed experience in given situations. Those situations being the ones that separate the championship teams from the also ran teams. The situations that take a 12-4 team and make them an 8-8 team. A slight mistake here, a poor choice there and you're sitting in the middle of the pack.
This year Mike Singletary has not made any predictions about winning the NFC West Championship. He doesn't have to. The experts and pundits are doing that for him.
Lindy's preseason magazine has the Niners winning the NFC West, making it to the NFC Championship game and losing to the Cowboys. If they lose, does it have to be to the Cowboys?
Are you ready for some football?