After starting the season 0-5, the prospects for the San Francisco 49ers finally ending their seven-year playoff drought looked pretty dim.
Yes, they play in by far the most pedestrian division in the NFL, and yes, 11 games still remained for the very talented team to find a way to right the ship and make a run toward the postseason.
But reality cast an ugly shadow on even these rays of hope, dragging even the most optimistic of fans to at least prepare themselves to face the prospect of again missing the playoffs, which would trigger major changes.
No team in NFL history had ever started a season 0-5 and rebounded to make the playoffs. Furthermore, it seemed the 49ers were intent on torturing their fanbase with the tantalizing prospect of huge wins, only to suffer a critical blunder at a pivotal moment, costing them the game.
Despite a plethora of potentially devastating weapons, the offense was painfully anemic. Despite having a Hall of Fame linebacker at head coach, the simple fundamentals of defense—like tackling for example—seemed elusive to the 49ers.
These struggles led to the dismissal of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, who had been the first OC in the better part of a decade to last more than a season in San Francisco, and to the mutiny and eventual release of starting safety Michael Lewis.
Could things get any worse?
In Week 7, it seemed temporarily as though they had. After getting off the schneid against their cross-bay rivals the Oakland Raiders in Week 6, the 49ers had the chance to start a winning streak against the then-winless Carolina Panthers.
Despite dismal play through most of the game, the 49ers were tied early in the second half when a missed block by rookie tackle Anthony Davis led to a sack of Alex Smith that sidelined him with a separated shoulder.
The initial glee turned into despair as David Carr would quickly prove even more hapless than Smith, and the 49ers lost the game.
Head Coach Mike Singletary made a bold move heading into the following game against the Denver Broncos, naming Troy Smith the starter.
Much fanfare surrounded the decision and talk of renewed hope surfaced by the Bay. So far so good, as Troy Smith has sparked the offense and led the team to back to back wins.
Now, just two games out of the division lead, the challenge will be keeping it going. Troy Smith has been a tremendous boost to a team that was underperforming to epic proportions.
His skills and smarts make him a clear choice to retain the starting quarterback job moving forward, and unlike many before him, he has put wins on the board. So far.
Troy has played well, but only well enough to garner two fairly narrow wins over two mediocre-at-best teams.
Both he and the team will need to play better than they have in the last two weeks if they hope to pull off this improbable turnaround of a season which once looked doomed.
There are still several areas that need to improve.
Troy Smith has been an undeniable spark for the offense and OC Mike Johnson has devised some very interesting ways to utilize his skills to complement the other talent on the 49ers offense.
Still, it is quite interesting that perhaps the most talked-about potential combination in the aftermath of Troy Smith's ascension to starter has yet to materialize.
Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr. had incredible chemistry in their years together at Ohio State University, spurring the Buckeyes to a national championship and Smith to a Heisman Trophy.
However, not only has Smith yet to complete a pass to Ginn in his two starts this season, he has yet to even attempt one. In fact, since Smith was named the starter, Ginn has been used almost exclusively on special teams.
The 49ers' brass has preached the mantra of easing Smith into an unfamiliar system, yet they refuse to let him make plays with a receiver with whom he has played since the age of six.
The fact that the 49ers have not exploited nor even explored this long-standing combination is curious indeed. If the two can re-kindle their old spark, it could be huge for the team.
Speaking of Ted Ginn, Jr., why is he still monopolizing the kick return duties?
Granted, the 49ers spent a fifth-round pick this offseason to bring him west primarily for that reason, but ever since he got here, Coach Sing has been preaching his desire to integrate Ginn into the passing game. You would never know that by watching the games, however.
Ginn has struggled severely in return duties this year, but with an old friend at QB, he could become a dynamic weapon on offense. This could open up return opportunities for rookie WR Kyle Williams, who showed great promise in that role before suffering a string of injuries.
Everybody loves Frank Gore, but even a great show needs an intermission. Gore has been brutally over-used this year, and both he and the team have suffered for it.
The coaches have tried to get Anthony Dixon and Brian Westbrook more touches in recent games, but few have been in legitimate situations and they have often been merely one-play stints to spell Gore for a breather.
The 49ers would do themselves tremendous good moving toward a more balanced rushing attack and keeping opposing defenses on their toes.
Defensively, the 49ers have not played up to their potential. Losing Michael Lewis was a hit, but the 49ers have consistently failed to harass opposing QBs and even do such simple things as wrap up on tackles.
Taylor Mays and Reggie Smith must strike the right balance at safety, and some combination of Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer, and Tarell Brown must find a way to shut down the passing game.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky should take the gloves off and start applying more pressure.
None of this will help, however, if the 49ers cannot clean up their fundamentals, eliminate penalties, and finish tackles.
The injury bug has started to rear its ugly head. Kicker Joe Nedney and left tackle Joe Staley will both miss the upcoming game with injuries, and various other players are battling mid-season bumps and bruises.
On the offensive line, this is complicated by the fact that rookie tackle Anthony Davis has not played well this season and should be splitting significant time if the 49ers hope to be effective on offense.
However, just as Alex Smith's injury opened the door for Troy, these injuries must become opportunities for backups to step up and make a name for themselves.
It is doubtful Shane Andrus will supplant Joe Nedney, but if he proves serviceable, he could find a job elsewhere in the league. The offensive line has been far from stout, so jobs there could well be up for grabs. Players need to seize the opportunity that injuries present.
Finally, execution has been lacking all season on both sides of the ball. The 49ers racked up triple-digit penalty yards in two of their last four games, and had three touchdowns called back against the St. Louis Rams.
They overcame that adversity, to their credit, but against tougher competition that could be the difference between victory and defeat.
While the 49ers have not turned the ball over with Troy Smith at QB, they have not generated many turnovers either. The turnover margin must improve, but it begins with continuing to protect the football.
Smith has fumbled in both games thus far, luckily finding the ball both times. Ball security must remain a top priority, and the defense must start contributing.
Keep the Faith!