Troy Smith Gets The Start In London
The San Francisco 49ers have reached the midpoint of the 2010 season with a 2-6 record. What started out as a season of optimism and playoff expectations has turned into a nightmare.
The 49ers were picked by the majority of pro football pundits to win the NFC West. The division looked weaker than in years past, and the 49ers were on the upswing. They finished the 2009 season at 8-8 and also won five of their last eight games.
Expectations among players, coaches and fans were soaring, as the Niners came out of this preseason undefeated with a 4-0 record. This should tell you why the preseason means nothing.
Once the regular season got underway, the Niners have stumbled badly. The 49ers have a lot of talent, but key breakdowns at inopportune times have doomed the team.
Although the 49ers defeated Denver in London, they have often played just well enough to lose. The Niners often have found different and more creative ways to lose.
Frankly, the absolute best thing for the 49ers this season has been the success of the San Francisco Giants. Because the Giants are in the World Series, fans in the San Francisco area have been focused on them. The Niners have flown under the radar, but the scrutiny will increase soon, as the baseball season will be over very soon.
Alex Smith Played Poorly And Now He's Injured
The quarterback play of the San Francisco 49ers has been a huge disappointment this year.
Alex Smith is in the final year of his contract. He will not likely return to the 49ers following this season. Smith was improving as the season progressed, but he was unable to deliver the wins. When I say improving, we must also consider the abysmal level that he started from.
Alex Smith took the vast majority of the repetitions in practice. There were two critical areas where Smith fell short. First and foremost, he is not an accurate passer. Although he completed 59.1 percent of his passes, Alex Smith often missed open receivers or more importantly, did not hit them in stride.
Receivers can often make a catch if the ball is thrown into their vicinity. However, if they're forced to break stride, jump up or go to the ground to make the play, there is no chance to run after the catch.
The second place where Alex Smith has not performed well is in the area of turnovers. He has thrown nine interceptions and has one lost fumble, which occurred at a key time in the loss to the Eagles.
Alex Smith has shown some good flashes, but generally has played just well enough to lose. It is time for the 49ers to move on, and I think they will. Alex Smith gets an F for not being able to win games.
Backup David Carr also gets an F. He does not have the arm strength to be an NFL quarterback. We all saw this in Carr's poor effort against Carolina last week.
Troy Smith started for the Niners against Denver and did a credible job. I give Smith a C+ for his effort in London. He did not turn the ball over and made a few plays to get the 49ers a win. Troy Smith also looked poised and showed good leadership for the 49ers.
I was impressed by Troy Smith's ability to move around in the pocket and avoid the pass rush. He also looked good throwing on the run.
Ultimately, do I think Troy Smith is the long-term answer at quarterback for the 49ers? Frankly, my answer is no, but I do believe he should get the starts for the remainder of the season so we can see for sure. Troy Smith's performance against the Broncos is the only reason the quarterback play is not graded as an F.
Frank Gore Has Been A Bright Spot For The Niner Offense
This grade is mostly about Frank Gore. He gets almost all of the plays at the running back position and has played great. Gore is the focal point of the offense and defenses know it. Somehow, through sheer will and also tremendous talent, Gore remains productive.
When opposing defenses do not respect your ability to throw the ball down the field, they stack the line against the run. The 49ers routinely see eight defenders in the box. This makes it very difficult to run the ball, because there are more defenders close to the line of scrimmage than there are blockers.
Frank Gore has also done a good job catching the ball out of the backfield with 38 receptions, leading the team. Through eight games, Gore has over 1,000 yards of total offense.
Moran Norris has done a credible job as the blocking fullback.
What I am particularly appalled at is the fact that the 49ers have mostly ignored Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon. These two can be positive factors running the ball and Westbrook is particularly good catching the ball out of the backfield. The lack of contribution coming from Westbrook and Dixon is a coaching issue and not a reflection on these two players.
Running Backs: Grade = A-
The 49ers Need To Get The Ball To Michael Crabtree More Often
The San Francisco 49ers do have weapons at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Unfortunately, they are under-utilized. The problem has more to do with poor offensive line play and inaccurate passing than the pass catchers.
Michael Crabtree got the season off to an ominous start for the 49ers. His reluctance to take part in preseason games really hurt the chemistry between he and Alex Smith.
In the first few regular season games, Crabtree and Smith were out of sync and had trouble connecting on routes. In fact, some of the early season interceptions thrown by Smith are directly attributed to this issue.
Gradually, Crabtree and Smith started to show improvement, as Crabtree was getting open and catching more passes. Then, Alex Smith took a hard hit in the Carolina game and was injured.
The other wide receiver Josh Morgan should be a No. 3 wideout on a good team. He is big and has good hands, but does not have the speed to make big plays down the field. Morgan would be a good possession receiver as a No. 3 option.
The 49ers' deep threat, Ted Ginn Jr. has not been impressive. He has the speed to get deep, but the Niner quarterbacks have not shown the ability to get the ball to him with any consistency. Ginn does not like to go over the middle and has trouble catching the ball in traffic. I would actually like to see Dominique Zeigler get more opportunities.
Vernon Davis is a Pro Bowl caliber tight end, but he has not had the kind of season expected of him. This is, again, largely due to poor quarterback and offensive line play. Davis has only 32 receptions for 422 yards over the first eight games.
Blocking tight end Nate Byham does a good job blocking, but is not an accomplished pass catcher.
The other tight end, Delanie Walker, has missed several games due to injury. When healthy, Walker gives the 49ers speed and big play ability. This is an uncommon asset for a backup tight end. Walker is a positive weapon and could be a big factor for the 49er offense if he can stay healthy.
Left Guard Mike Iupati Has Been The Lone Bright Spot On The Line
Following the 2009 season, the San Francisco 49ers felt they needed to bolster their offensive line. They drafted Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round. Head coach Mike Singletary inserted these two into the starting lineup early in the preseason, Davis at right tackle and Iupati at left guard.
In addition to these two newcomers, the 49ers were forced to move David Baas into the center position when starting center Eric Heitmann went down with an injury in the preseason. The center makes all of the offensive line calls and blitz pickup adjustments at the line of scrimmage and the fact that Bass had never played center was also a concern.
With only two returning starters, left tackle Joe Staley and right guard Chilo Rachal, one could expect some growing pains as the offensive linemen became more familiar with each other. However, the 49ers expected the line to have jelled and be a more cohesive unit by this point in the season.
The offensive line has played far below expectations. In order for an offense to be productive on a consistent basis, good offensive line play is essential. Simply put, this has not happened.
Anthony Davis has played very inconsistently at the right tackle spot. He has been flagged for numerous penalties and also has had pass rushers fly by him en route to the quarterback. Davis was thrown into the fire too early and needs more seasoning.
I have stated numerous times that the 49ers should spell Davis every second or third series, so he can get direct input and coaching from line coaches Jim Tomsulo and Ray Brown.
The other rookie, Mike Iupati, has been a pleasant surprise. He is a powerful run blocker and has been decent in pass protection.
David Baas has filled in adequately at the center spot, but holdovers Joe Staley and Chilo Rachal have not played up to expectations. Staley probably should be playing right tackle, but is on the all-important left, or blind side.
Staley is also out on an island because he is often left alone to block the opposing teams' best pass rusher on most occasions. This is because the Niners must use the extra blocker to help Anthony Davis.
Chilo Rachal has also been inconsistent and is being pressed by Adam Snyder at the right guard position. My personal belief is that the two should be rotating every series or two, because Rachal has shown an inability to successfully compete for an extended period of time, without making mistakes.
The 49er line has been okay as far as run blocking, but their pass protection has not measured up. The weak pass blocking has added ramifications, specifically with the efficiency of the quarterback play and the low production of the pass catchers.
Justin Smith Has Been The 49ers Most Effective Defensive Lineman
The San Francisco 49er defensive line has not played particularly well. They have not made enough plays and their main task of taking up blockers, so that the linebackers can make the majority of the tackles has also been inconsistent.
The only defensive lineman having a good season is Justin Smith. His motor is always running and he has made plays against the run and has also applied pressure as a pass rusher. Justin Smith also leads the team in sacks with four.
Opposite Justin Smith is Isaac Sopoaga, who is having a down year. In eight games, Sopoaga has only ten tackles and zero sacks. Ray McDonald, more of a pass rusher at defensive end, is gradually getting more playing time, as Sopoaga has underachieved.
Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin held out for the entire preseason. He returned in time for the regular season opener, but has not had the same dominating year, as he did in 2009. Franklin's main job is to clog the middle and occupy multiple blockers, enabling Patrick Willis and the rest of the 49er linebackers to make tackles.
Franklin has not been the same force in the middle and that means more blockers coming at Willis and Takeo Spikes.
The defensive line has only five sacks in eight games, with reserve Ricky Jean-Francois getting one to go along with Smith's four. The lack of pressure from the pass rush leaves a questionable 49er secondary very vulnerable.
This unit is not expected to be outstanding, but they are expected to be stout against the run. In some games, this has happened, but there have been others where they have let the team down.
Over the first half of the season, the Niner defense has given up an average of 100 yards per game, net rushing. This is a decent number, but not the type dominance that was expected.
Patrick Willis Is An All-Pro Linebacker
The San Francisco 49er linebacking corps has been solid, but not spectacular. This unit is supposed to lead the Niner defense and also create turnovers.
Patrick Willis leads the team in tackles and is among the league leaders. He cannot do it all alone, however.
Fellow inside linebacker Takeo Spikes is good against the run, but can be beaten in pass coverage. Rookie Navorro Bowman has been getting more playing time alongside Willis, especially on passing downs.
Outside backer Manny Lawson has upgraded his play in the last few games. He has great athletic ability and can be good against the run or pass and also in blitzing situations.
The other starting outside linebacker is Parys Haralson. He has been inconsistent and is losing playing time. Ahmad Brooks and Travis LaBoy both are making more plays than Haralson.
This spot is often the blitz linebacker on most of the pass defenses employed by the 49ers. Thus far is 2010, Haralson has only three sacks, despite playing the majority of time. Ahmad Brooks and Travis LaBoy have combined for five sacks, in limited action.
The 49er linebackers are also expected to create turnovers. This is a crucial area where this unit has lacked. Thus far in 2010, the linebackers have combined for only four turnovers, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Nate Clements Against The Seahawks
The San Francisco 49ers have not received solid play from their defensive backfield. Looking to shore up this group, the 49ers made Taylor Mays a round two draft pick.
Michael Lewis began the season as a starting safety, but was replaced by the younger and more athletic Mays in the Atlanta game in Week 4. Lewis, unhappy with the turn of events, quit the team. Mays was the heir apparent to the position and could have benefited from Lewis' experience and wisdom. Unfortunately Lewis was not a team player and left the 49ers.
Mays has made some spectacular plays and also has made some mistakes. However, he is not the main problem in the secondary.
Lack of discipline has plagued the 49er secondary all season. The biggest culprit is veteran Nate Clements. He has two interceptions, but has been routinely victimized for several touchdowns.
Clements often gambles and tries to jump routes to make the interception. He is susceptible to a pump fake or double move and will give up the big play.
Shawntae Spencer the opposite corner is playing better than Clements, but he too has been beaten for scores. Spencer leads the team with three interceptions, including one to seal the win against the Broncos.
The other safety, Dashon Goldson, is playing more of the free safety position, but does not have any picks. Goldson is a solid tackler on running plays, but has not played well in pass coverage. He is often late to get over to help in coverage.
Another alarming issue is how Goldson bites on play action fakes or trick plays, such as the flea flicker. Goldson has been beaten far too often and has not had the kind of impact season the 49ers expected of him.
Nickel and dimebacks Reggie Smith and Will James are nickel and dimebacks because they're simply not that good. Both tend to give too much space and allow the receiver to catch the ball in front of them for key first downs.
The only reason this unit is not getting an F is because of the lack of pass rushing pressure put on the opposing quarterback. No defensive secondary can be asked to cover NFL receivers for five or six seconds.
Kicker Joe Nedney Is Very Reliable
The San Francisco 49ers boast two of the best kicking specialists in the game. Joe Nedney is rock solid as the field goal kicker. He is 8-for-10 and perfect on extra points.
Andy Lee is an excellent punter. He averages 46.5 yards per punt, including 18 punts downed inside the 20 yard line.
The return game has been better than last year, but still not a strong asset for this team. Ted Ginn Jr. has been handling the majority of the kick and punt return duties. He has been more successful on kickoff returns, averaging 26.2 yards per return. Ginn's punt returns have been fairly pedestrian,
Rookie Kyle Williams would be an upgrade over Ginn on punt returns, but he cannot seem to stay healthy.
The coverage units had major problems early in the season. Special teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer has gradually improved the coverage teams and they are now doing a much better job minimizing the big return.
Head Coach Mike Singletary Is On The Hot Seat
I have always liked head coach Mike Singletary. I enjoy his intensity and motivation to be the best he can be. I also appreciate how he tries to lead his team and is willing to face adversity face on. Unfortunately, I must give he and his staff an F.
For all the positive intangibles Mike Singletary brings to the table, he has not done a good job preparing his team and adjusting to the opposition. Singletary has also been overly stubborn on his game preparation and his conservative offensive approach is hurting the team.
Mike Singletary has also looked over matched on the field during game day. His excessive focus on the officiating and ranting at his players does not allow him to concentrate on and manage the game.
I have always said that Singletary is a master motivator and needs good coordinators beside him. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is a veteran coach and has had success in the past. This season, the defense has underachieved and given up too many big plays.
In addition, on the rare occasions when the 49ers have held a late lead, they have often played soft and allowed the opposition to drive for the winning score.
Manusky is facing a tough choice. He needs to blitz to get consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback, but if they don't get there, the already weak secondary is further exposed. If Manusky only rushes three or four players, the opposing quarterbacks can pick apart the Niner defensive backs.
The 49ers need to acquire a dominant pass rushing defensive end, or this issue will continue long into the future.
The offensive coordinator at the beginning of the season was Jimmy Raye. He also led the Niner offense in 2009 and the continuity was supposed to help Alex Smith. This did not happen. Raye was so predictable and conservative that the 49er offense floundered.
Jimmy Raye was fired less than 24 hours after head coach Mike Singletary told the media that Raye would remain the coordinator for the remainder of the season. I guess continuity is overrated.
Raye was replaced by quarterback coach Mike Johnson, who has opened the offense up a little bit and gotten Michael Crabtree more involved. Nevertheless, Johnson has not generated any semblance of consistency with the 49er offense.
The fact that running backs Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon are not seeing the football is a major flaw with this coaching staff. As good as Frank Gore is, he needs a blow from time to time. Westbrook and Dixon would give the 49ers a varied offensive look and something for the opposing defenses to prepare for.
Vernon Davis Makes A Play Against The Raiders.
Heading into the 2010 season, expectations for this 49er team were soaring. Bluntly put, the San Francisco 49ers have badly underachieved.
The two biggest issues with the 49ers are the suspect coaching and the lack of a franchise caliber quarterback. Troy Smith needs to play so we can see if he can develop into the kind of quarterback this team needs.
When expectations are sky high and you do not have anywhere near the level of success you anticipate, heads will roll. I do not believe Alex Smith or Mike Singletary will be with the 49ers in the 2011 season.
The 49ers will likely try to find a head coach with an offensive mindset. The current approach is just not working.
The 49ers currently stand 2-6. When you are woefully failing like the 49ers are, your grade must reflect that lack of success.
As I mentioned earlier, the best thing that has happened to the 49ers is that the San Francisco Giants have excited the Bay Area, as they go for their first World Series title since 1954.