Halloween is right around the corner, and the San Francisco 49ers have been getting into the spirit for more than a month. No, that is not some joking reference to the horror that has beset 49er fans week in and week out so far in the 2010 season.
The 49ers are playing scared.
They are scared to lose, scared to fail, scared to disappoint, and scared to extend their current seven-year stretch of playoff absence.
Ironically, this fear has made them so tight, so pensive, and so cautious that it has brought about an 0-5 start and virtually guaranteed the 49ers will not participate in the playoffs this year. With every mounting mistake, the 49ers tighten their play and dilute their gameplan, which in turn makes the opposition’s job easier and leads to tough spots and more mistakes.
The cold reality is that no 0-5 NFL team has ever made the playoffs, and with the way the 49ers have played so far this season, they do not appear poised to change that trend. Given all this, the 49ers find themselves with a unique opportunity to salvage something from the 2010 season, if only they are willing to face facts.
It is very possible if not highly likely that the 49ers will miss the 2010 playoffs, so the 49ers should use the rest of the season to develop young players, see what they can do as a team, and figure out who they are. It may sound like giving up, but they cannot do any worse than they already have.
Virtually nobody outside of Jed York expects them to make the playoffs now, so they really have nothing to lose. The 49ers should get the most they can out of the next 11 games and hope for the best.
How do they do that?
Some pieces are already in place. Rookie offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis have started all year. Iupati has shown signs of becoming a reliable cog for years to come, but so far Davis has looked like little more than the second coming of Kwame Harris.
One might think if the 49ers wanted to salvage anything from this season, they would sit Davis for a more experienced option, but he should continue to play. Whether he fizzles or figures it out, the offensive line will be better off in the long run with both him and Iupati taking their licks and learning on the job.
Since replacing Jimmy Raye at offensive coordinator, Mike Johnson has subjected 49er fans to a special brand of torture. He has diversified the offensive gameplan early in games, resulting in a touchdown on the opening possession of each of the two games he has served as offensive coordinator. Though it seems this is only a token gesture, done to prove the 49ers are capable of producing offensive touchdowns, as in each case they have reverted back to the same monotonous and predictable patterns we saw under Jimmy Raye.
Anthony Dixon and Brian Westbrook are still virtual non-factors, and 49ers rarely try to stretch the field to anyone except Ted Ginn Jr., who lacks the physicality to compete for jump balls. The seam route to Vernon Davis that proved so deadly last year has been virtually non-existent in 2010, and promising slot receiver prospect Kyle Williams has yet to take an offensive snap.
The defense seems to start games in a virtual prevent mentality, employing tons of deep shell coverages which allow opposing offenses to gain consistent yardage against them. The pass rush has left heavily to be desired, and perhaps most importantly, the defense continues to miss tackles. One would think if nothing else that a Mike Singletary-coached team would be able to tackle, but that has not been the case.
The 49ers should get Dixon and Williams more involved on offense, start taking more chances offensively and stop playing like every mistake will be the one that keeps them out of the playoffs, before they get to the one that actually does.
The defense needs to start attacking opposing offenses more consistently and spend much more time working on simple fundamentals. Taylor Mays should continue to start and gain experience.
The 49ers are already at a point where they have nothing left to lose, and if they cannot straighten things out soon, so far as 2010 is concerned, they may wind up having nothing left to play for. Their best shot at getting things turned around may well be to open things up and go for broke.
If nothing else, they will be better off for the experience their younger players will gain. With a looser style of play, they might even wind up proving Jed York right.
Keep the faith!