The San Francisco 49ers find themselves in all-too-familiar territory. Half way through the 2010 season, which was touted as make or break for the team as we know it, the 49ers are 2-6 and last in the fledgling NFC West.
The good news: Despite their 2-6 record, they sit just two games out of first place in their division.
The bad news: they still need to mount a streak of play better than any they have seen in nearly a decade to wrest any hope of legitimacy from the jaws of utter catastrophe.
While some people claiming to be fans have already begun the preposterous cries for the 49ers to fold the rest of their season in hopes of landing a top draft pick and THE answer to their quarterback woes, most fans realize two critical facts.
No. 1: In the modern NFL no season is over eight games in.
No. 2: Even if the 49ers cannot recover to make the playoffs, they have little to nothing to gain by playing for a draft pick.
How can the 49ers hope realize the dream of pulling their season back from the brink?
Continuing the changes they have already begun would be a great place to start.
Troy Smith played well when he had to against an admittedly weak opponent in London and has survived a two week spell of speculation over whether Alex Smith would regain his starting role. Alex Smith has yet to be medically cleared to play, so for the time being, the decision is still more one of necessity than will.
Nonetheless, if Troy Smith can continue to improve, he may wind up supplanting Alex Smith even when the vaunted former No. 1 overall pick returns to full health.
In order to do that, of course, the 49ers must continue to progress with other changes they showed flourishes of against the Denver Broncos. Mike Johnson needs to open the offensive game plan up even more, to play to the strengths of his new QB.
The offense floundered in London until Johnson gave Smith the chance to move around and make plays with his arm and his feet. The more Johnson opened up the offense, the better Smith seemed to look.
Anthony Dixon saw more touches in London, but most of them came late in the fourth quarter with the 49ers trying to salt away a lead. Seeing Dixon and Westbrook get more meaningful touches in the second half of the year will go far toward determining what the backfield might look like in years to come.
Taylor Mays and Anthony Davis will need to be treated carefully, allowing them to get the reps they need to mature without overloading them at the expense of the team. The 49ers should play to win now, but that does not mean they cannot learn about their future.
On the surface, it might seem like extended roles for Troy Smith, Anthony Dixon and other youngsters and backups would be mutually exclusive to revival of the season. Why would Mike Singletary, grasping to save his job, make such moves?
Hopefully Coach Sing realizes that the team must come first. Whether these changes spark the fire of revival or smother the last embers of hope, they will help the 49ers gain much understanding about what they have beyond 2010 (whenever the next time we see NFL football happens to be).
Putting the so-called "best team" on the field yielded less than optimal results in the first seven weeks, and the Troy Smith move showed that these lineup changes may not be tantamount to throwing in the towel. The 49ers can play for this year while still learning about next year.
Whatever they do, they should continue to play the hot hand and try to make the most of the season. They still might fail, but they might just succeed. One thing is certain, though, playing for a draft pick benefits nobody.
Keep the faith!
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