San Francisco 49ers: Why There Is a Foundation Worth Building On For Next Year

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IDecember 16, 2010

The 49ers didn't live up to expectations this year, even if they do manage this miraculous, late-season playoff berth after starting their schedule 0-5.

No, 2010 has not been kind to the Red and Gold. It was expected they would coast to a weak NFC West title, and at least challenge whichever team they met in the playoffs, and possibly advance a round or two.

Yet the year has not been all bad. In spite of the misery endured through September and October, there have been bright spots in the season that must be considered before the hasty decision to clean house is made.

Fans especially must take the season's woes in stride, and they must realize several premises before making liberally dismissive conclusions regarding what 'solutions' the 49ers should turn to for 2011.

The 49ers had one of the toughest schedules of 2010

They opened week one in Seattle at Qwest Field, one of the noisiest venues in the NFL. On top of this, Seattle's coach Pete Carrol and new GM Scott Mcloughlin pillaged the 49ers leavings after the final cut to a 53 man roster. They hawked both Kentwan Balmer and Michael Robinson, who were both capable of sharing intricacies of the 49ers playbook and game plans with the opposing team.

They then played the champion New Orleans Saints at home on a Monday Night, the reinvigorated Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead (also leading their division), the Atlanta Falcons on the road, and the resurgent Philadelphia Eagles at home on a Sunday night. Given the perfect hindsight fans are blessed with, they should be able to see that these are not bad teams.

Their schedule softened at this point, but not too much. They played the lowly (but desperate) Panthers in Carolina, (where Alex Smith busted his shoulder) and then traveled immediately to London to play the Broncos in a "home game" at Wembly Stadium.

After their bye week, the new-look Rams came to town and went toe-to-toe with the 49ers, fighting tough all the way up until Joe Nedney's field goal in overtime.

They got trounced at home the following week, getting shutout by a Tampa Bay team that was more than prepared to handle the 49ers Troy Smith, who had been starting since Alex Smith's injury (the David Carr experiment luckily only lasted about a quarter and a half after Alex went down in Charlotte.)

San Francisco then mustered their 'first road win' on a Monday Night must-win game against the Cardinals in Glendale. It was also their first lopsided victory on the year.

The schedule then took them to freezing cold Lambeau, however, where they were frozen by harsh conditions and a very talented Green Bay offense after one half of hard-fought football.

And, of course, the 49ers bounced back in their rematch against Seattle, where they injected Alex Smith back into the starting lineup. Smith was better, the play calling was better, and the result was a 40-21 thrashing that was not as close as the scoreboard indicated.

Of course, the 49ers must follow that win with a trip to San Diego where an equally desperate Charger's team is waiting to bust the 49ers up on short rest.

Looking back at the season (from 15 weeks in) we must not ignore that the 49ers 2010 schedule has been anything but typical, and it has not been a cakewalk by any scale.

Their record could easily be much better, had it not been for several bone-head plays

They lost close games to New Orleans and Atlanta. Both of these games could have been won had it not been for heads-down carelessness by Delanie Walker and Nate Clements. Alex Smith himself can be noted as guilty for fumbling away a touchdown to the Eagles. If he had played consistently well that night, he would have lead them to victory.

The Carolina debacle should not fall at Smith's feet, as the score was in fact tied when he left the game.

Alex Smith can be blamed for Troy Smith's losses as much as he can be credited for the backup's victories.

At 5-8, the 49ers could (dare I say should) be 8-5 (possibly even 9-4) had several key plays been detailed and/or executed better.

They do have a foundation worth keeping intact.

The running of Frank Gore was below his standard for much of the year, but that's probably because he was running behind an ailing line that featured two rookies. He was also being tracked by practically every defensive player on the field when he got the ball. Then he got hurt (cracked his hip) but he will be back for 2011.

The banged up offensive line featured two first-round rookies who stand to be twice as good next year. Iupati has shown rapid improvement, and Anthony Davis is finally coming around as well.

Eric Heitmann, a solid center who missed the 2010 season with injuries, should return as well. Davis Baas, who has filled in during Heitmann's absence, can return to his role at center then, but he will carry the experience of centering the line through the 2010 season for the rest of his career. If a backup is needed at any point, he will be a much more comfortable option. Baas should certainly get resigned.

The team has even won two of four since Barry Simms took over at left tackle for an injured Joe Staley.

Rookie running back Anthony Davis has made strides this year and has the potential to be real good in a couple years under the continued occasional tutelage of Tom Rathman.

And we haven't heard the names too often this year but, the brutish Nate Byham and pocket-sized Kyle Williams should be around as well.

Did I mention the team another tight end who's pretty good? Some guy by the name of Vernon Davis?

And then there's that defense

The 49ers defense has the potential to be about three times better next season than it's been in 2010. Simply stated, they have underachieved this season.

Justin Smith is a beast on the line, with the heart of a champion. It seems at times like it's just a matter of games played before he'll get a Super Bowl ring. And he's signed though 2014.

Patrick Willis sticks to ball carriers like glue when they come near him, and there's probably not a better inside linebacker in the game against the run.

Rookie safety Taylor Mays should also continue to develop rapidly, and could have the makings of the games next great defensive back—with a little more seasoning.

Nate Clements needs something. Nobody really knows exactly what, but his high-risk style of coverage tends to hurt the team. His contract is bloated, and his rout-jumping is more of a liability than a thing to behold. Nevertheless, he's a physical corner and one of the best against the run at the position.

Ray McDonald has been solid on the line, as well as has Isaac Sopoaga. Both will be around at least through 2011.

Second year man Ricky Jean-Francois has also shown a great deal of ability, and advancement in his sophomore season with the 49ers. If Aubrayo Franklin is not resigned, he will be the 49ers' immediate future at nose tackle, should they continue to go with a 3-4 defense.

Expected departures?

Many of the 49ers other defenders, especially their pass rushers and linebackers, will be free agents for the  2011 off-season. the 49ers desperately need to resign some of them.

Takeo Spikes, for instance, has made huge plays this year, and he's definitely a veteran the 49ers should hang on to.

Manny Lawson could still be used, but he showed through the 2010 season that the same issue he had in 2009 are still around. Lawson has the physical potential to be a real good pass rusher, perhaps one of the games elite, but he's always a split second late to the quarterback, and we've seen some of his would-be sacks turn into roughing the passer calls.

Pass rusher Travis LaBoy has not been his old self but, in a year where he's coming off an injury, he's progressed through this season to a point where he'll probably be much better in 2011.

And of course...Alex

Alex Smith is going to be a free agent at season's end. Smith somehow plays his best after being booed by his home crowd. If Smith departs for another team, he won't have to worry about that, as any team looking at him as a potential roster spot contender will inevitably see him as a good backup for whoever their franchise is currently built (or building) around.

Except there is one team where Alex has at least a 75 percent shot at starting for on opening day. They might even be the team likely to offer him the most money.

Yes, after all we've been though, Alex, I just can't stay mad at you. Especially when you toss three touchdowns and no interceptions—specifically when you lead the 49ers to a win over a division rival.

If San Francisco doesn't keep Alex Smith around a little while longer, It's entirely possible a division rival will target him, and his knowledge of the 49ers offense.

Not Seattle, or St. Louis, but Arizona.

Indeed, Arizona needs a quarterback to ignite their passing offense in the wake of Kurt Warner's departure. They can produce decent pass protection, have running backs capable of catching the ball well, and one of the league's best receivers in Larry Fitzgerald. If Alex Smith leaves town and comes back as a Cardinal, he might just take it as a personal challenge to routinely carve up the 49ers, and in front of the fans who never appreciated the adversity the franchise buried him with.

And I wouldn't blame him.

The natural response will be "why wasn't Smith this good when he was with us?" And our boos will make him even stronger.

Everyone grows, everyone learns

If Mike Singletary takes the 49ers to the playoffs this year, the act will without a doubt go unappreciated by the media. Many fans will appreciate the stubborn genius necessary to achieve this after such a dire beginning, but a select few will not respect the accomplishment, regardless.

People sometimes play Madden so often they believe they understand every aspect of the NFL, and they might even tell you that they understand the game more than certain coaches. They think they know, but they don't know. And they never will.

Such fans will call for Singletary's release, and they shouldn't get it. After Singletary has moved the 49ers from 0-5 to a playoff team, which would be a historical accomplishment, a certain breed of fan will have hindsight from a vantage point only the most common man can appreciate. This fan will be able to tell us exactly how Sing could have done his job better, every game, all season.

Singletary was given a four-year contract after taking over for Mike Nolan in 2008. Two years later, rabid fans who haven't played a down of football at the NFL level ever, believe they can tell you exactly the source of all his follies.

"Singletary must be fired immediately" they say, as if that will change the results of 2010 season.

Fans need to recognize that there may be merit to caveman football just yet. As the season has gone on the 49ers have been able to adjust to some injuries to key players and they have actually been playing better from week to week.

Singletary is evolving as a head coach, but it does seem to be taking longer than expected for him to wrap his mind around the contemporary league.

The last two years have indeed been learning years for Singletary. Next year, the lessons will be applied.

Whining Vs Winning

Getting spoiled as fans in the 80's and 90's (when it was essentially San Francisco Vs the NFC East every year) has ruined the innocence of the 49ers culture.

The winning tradition from those times has created an unrealistic expectation from the fan base. They want to be in the playoffs every year forever. This desire is understandable. After all, you don't win the Super Bowl without making playoffs first.

Of course, some fans even go so far as to say Jed York should sell the team. To them: sell your own team. This is the Debartolo-York franchise, and they're gonna keep it that way. Italian-American business man and construction industry icon Edward Debartolo Sr bought the 49ers for his son Eddie D, who gave it to his sister in a bout of federal-indictment paranoia, who shared it with her aloof husband; and the two have essentially vested the team in the hands of their son, John Edward (Jed) York.

It has been and will continue to be a family business. Larry Ellison isn't likely to buy the 49ers from them any time soon, and they aren't going to make it a public company like the Packers either.

Many insist that cleaning house is the only way back to the top. The last few time the 49ers really cleaned house, however,  the result has been six steps backward for every step forward.

"Desperation - it's the world's worst cologne."

- Sheila Kelly as Debbie Hunt in the 1992 romantic comedy, Singles.

While this tale of relations in the world of grunge has absolutely nothing to do with American football at all whatsoever, there is a wisdom to the line that can be applied to the current state of the 49ers.

Treating players and coaches as totally expendable in the name of cleaning house is not very becoming for a franchise trying to rise. It sends a message to your current players that they are not safe. It sends a message to the league's free agents that your team doesn't respect it's players, and is willing to do just about anything in an attempt to improve, with no regard to the consequences. It paints the franchise as reckless, and is not attractive.

Player morale will stay higher, and they will produce better when they know the front office won't dump them at the first sign of slumping.

"I find your lack of faith disturbing."

-Darth Vader

Darth Vader has become a big time symbol for the Raider Nation over the years, and this quote from Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope encapsulates the loyalty they give their team.

Put it this way: the Raider Nation didn't really turn on JaMarcus Russell until he refused to take a pay cut. Alex Smith took a pay cut a couple years ago, and has since been less popular by the day.

For a fan base that calls itself the 49er Faithful to boo Alex Smith before a game, then have him throw three touchdowns and no interceptions in route to a 40-21 blowout in a must-win game, is poetic irony.

And exactly who was saying Smith would have a good day and the 49ers would win? Raiders fans of course.

The 49ers fan base may have won the Battle of the Bay this season, but they must painfully admit at least a degree of their faithlessness this year if they are going to be self aware realists.

Summation, synopsis, and more:

The off season may be rapidly approaching the San Francisco 49ers, and it should be well agreed on that no franchise goes through an off season without change. The severity of the change, however, can fluctuate greatly.

Frustration can cloud judgment, and resulting knee-jerk reactions can lead to even greater woes.

Teams with nothing to lose often clean house with little hesitation, or consideration for potential fairly immediate gain. A team that has a foundation, however, should be very careful in how and what they rebuild.

Fans calling for the release of Singletary, and the forsaking of Alex Smith during his free agency, should be careful what they wish for. Singletary/Smith in Arizona, for instance, could come back to bite them twice a year.

Regarding head coach and quarterback, there is one job where a man is more criticized by people who have never held the position. That would be the President of the United States of America. It's a God given right to criticize, but critics must remind themselves of the vantage point they possess.

Monday morning quarterbacks are blessed with perfect 20/20 hindsight, and the gift is also a curse. It's very easy to judge what's transpiring by your 50-inch plasma when you're not intensely interacting with top athletes and numerous coaches during a game.

Realism is important with a losing record, but such realism also involves looking beyond the numbers and assessing how the team arrived at that record. Attention should be paid to which factors, such as tricky schedules, contributed to the creation of those numbers.

Fans should ask themselves (and answer honestly) what the 49ers record would be this year if they were steering the ship.

When revolutions hit, sometimes great good comes of it. The immediate result, however, also has the potential to be disastrous. It is always a game of give and take. Change can also be sought at a manageable tempo.

People are not perfect (no far from it) and a certain amount of leeway is needed for developing culture, and chemistry.

There are many projects worth completing in life that take more time than expected—and those who invest faith in such projects must struggle to remain patient.


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