Alex Smith will be crucial to 49er success in 2011.
You don’t get the reputation as an underachieving team unless there are expectations.
But the truth hurts. Opposing coaches look at the 49ers and see perhaps the game’s best middle linebacker (Willis), the best tightend (Davis), and a dangerous all-around running back (Gore) who might be one of the best blockers against the blitz to go along with a young but improving offensive line, one of the game’s best defensive linemen (Justin Smith) and solid special teams.
The 8-8 season in 2009 set high expectations for 2010, and nothing short of a division crown would have been good enough. Though the team finished 6-10 last year, they still were in the hunt for a title in Week 17, showing how weak indeed the NFC West turned out to be.
Changes came early in 2011. A new general manager, new coach and staff. In this milieu, there’s been a lockout. So new coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff have had very limited contact with the team.
But on the horizon there’s hope that the players’ representatives and the owners will reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement within a couple weeks, maybe sooner.
Do 49ers fans raise their hopes? It appears the same quarterback will return, a player who, some argue, might be one of the biggest busts in franchise history. And there’s the same wide receiver who has yet to live up to his billing as the tenth player taken in the 2009 draft. And what about that spotty offensive line play, not to mention a secondary that was one of the weakest in the NFL?
During a morning phone radio interview on Wednesday, June 15, Harbaugh gave the impression that he and his staff have enough jet fuel stored up to ignite the team and launch it into the playoffs. But there’s more work to be done, according to some people such as Mike Florio at Profootballtalk.com (http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2011/06/15/49ers-have-a-lot-of-work-to-do-to-complete-talented-roster/).
Looking over the roster, then lifting the perspective to the NFC West, the clouds seem to be parting for the 49ers. In that aspect, here are five reasons why San Francisco will be NFC West favorites.
It’s where the cards fall. And I don’t mean the Arizona Cardinals, but that’s a good place to start. The Niners in 2010 were particularly vulnerable to high-performing QB-WR combinations, and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best receivers in the game.
The 49ers are fortunate that Arizona has no accomplished, veteran QB. But it seems Arizona will be in the running for either Kevin Kolb of Philadelphia or former Ram starter Marc Bulger post-lockout. However, very few teams have had a starter join the team in July and having it hit on all cylinders come October or November. It takes time.
Up in Seattle, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has been rumored to be on the trading block, and the wear and tear he’s suffered over the last two years has diminished his productivity. Moreover, Seattle’s defensive line is shaky at best.
Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams is the best quarterback in the division and one of the NFL’s rising stars. And he has an outstanding running back in Stephen Jackson for support. But the Rams have no standout receivers to complement Bradford.
In short, with an offense that can get some points on the board quickly, letting its defense focus on rushing the opposing quarterback, and toss in some decent special teams play, there’s no reason why San Francisco can’t write down 10 wins for the season. But I feel coach Harbaugh thinks that’s on the low side of what’s possible.
As I said in the introduction, the Niners have as many big-time stars as any team. They don’t have enough good players to round it out. And it starts at quarterback. For that, we turn to Harbaugh, who said during the radio interview that Alex Smith intrigues him. He said he likes Smith, feels he can play and is ready for the challenge to get Smith to play to his potential.
The avid 49er fan will say, “OK, but before I plop down any season ticket money, perhaps I’ll wait and see.” Indeed. The 49ers have been synonymous with successful quarterbacks. Smith was the first player taken in 2005. Fans here are expecting the list to go from Albert, Tittle, Brodie, Montana, Young, Garcia and now Smith.
It’s a gut feeling, but I think Harbaugh’s enthusiasm stems from that fact that he has an offensive system that will uncover Smith’s best assets—short, quick throws on the run, calls at the line of scrimmage to take what the defense gives and veteran presence.
In talking to many coaches, the first stat that they look at is yards-per-rushing-attempt. Defensively, giving up less than 4 yards per rush is paramount mostly because it’s the simplest play in football.
The better a team's running game, the better the team can control the game and the longer the opposing defense stays on the field. There’s little turnover risk, and it sets up big plays in play-action passing.
The Niners do well against the run. Granted, last September in Kansas City, Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones combined for 192 yards on 31 carries (6.7 per rush), neither reached 100 yards. It also ranks as one of the worst run defense performances in years.
That said, the 49er defense was rated fourth-best overall in 2009, largely from giving up just 3.6 yard per rush attempt. Last year, the team fell to 16th overall, but the rush defense was stout again (3.5 yards/carry).
Furthermore, the team has given up less than one rushing touchdown per game over the past two seasons. Of course, opposing teams followed the path of least resistance: the pass.
Granted, it appears that nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is out the door in free agency. At the same time, the linebacker corps remains strong. Rookie Chris Culliver will get plenty of reps in practice to shore up the cornerback position. In that vein, Rashon Goldson and Taylor Mays have to develop into a hard-hitting, ball-hawking tandem a la Jake Scott and Dick Anderson of the 1970s Dolphins.
In all, it’s not too much to ask for the defense to go from good to excellent.
Coaches call it playing chess. Rush four and drop seven? Man-under? Two-deep with weakside blitz? Bring eight and hope that quarterback doesn’t have time to find the open receiver?
Such is the nature of the zone blitz schemes so popular in the NFL. The diversity of defensive schemes aimed at attacking the pocket makes a quarteback’s transition from college to NFL the most difficult in any professional sport.
Coordinators in pro ball spend hours and hours honing their defenses to limit options for an offense, and at that great efficiency has to be achieved just to make any play successful.
More to the point, the quarterback has to recognize what’s coming before the snap; otherwise, there is little chance for success on the play and often times the play results in a loss or a loss of possession.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio specializes in these sorts of games. Put another way, new schemes alone will create confusion long enough for the 49er offense to take control.
Consider Jim Harbaugh:
Phase I: Son of a long-time football coach. Former Michigan star quarterback. Former NFL standout (guided Indianapolis deep into the playoffs in the mid-1980s.)
Phase II: Assistant NFL football coach. Division 1-AA college football coach who turned around a University of San Diego program in short order. Then FBS football coach who, at an academic-oriented private school, resurrected a Stanford team that many felt could have been national champions.
Phase III could have come at any time. After Stanford dismantled Virginia Tech in last year’s Orange Bowl, Harbaugh could have had one of six NFL jobs, and he also knew that if he waited another year and coached his Stanford star Andrew Luck in 2011, more NFL jobs (and NFL money) would be available in 2012.
But he took the Niners job anyway, despite the fact that anyone with a clear perspective knew that it would be a difficult transition to the NFL due to the labor issues between players and owners.
Maybe it’s that Harbaugh gets to stay in Northern California with his newborn child. Maybe it’s the fact that his wife loves Palo Alto.
Maybe Jim Harbaugh knows something: Could it be that he feels the 49ers are a few clicks away from greatness?