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San Francisco 49ers: 6 Obstacles in Way of Winning NFC West

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IJuly 20, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: 6 Obstacles in Way of Winning NFC West

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    With progress seemingly made every day on the lockout, there is optimism about the NFL. The signals are that football will be played, and there’s every indication that the season will start as scheduled.

    Having had to wade through all the labor relations talk, and after having seen way too many pictures of lawyers walking on streets and players in suits rather than uniforms, it might be time for the avid fan to wonder how a favorite team will fare in 2011.

    From the San Francisco 49ers' perspective, they remain a solid contender for the NFC West title. That's a statement backed not by the 49ers' record over the last eight years (46-82), but by the fact that the team remains relatively talented and relatively lucky.

    In this case, “relative” relates to the NFC West. Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis each have as many, if not more, major issues to deal with come the regular season. Like the 49ers, even an optimistic assessment of any NFC West team’s chances has to include, for the 49ers, improvements on the field and, for the other teams, either major changes in roster or drastic on-field performance.

    That’s why a fan can root for a favorite, but it still comes down to the players playing the games. Here’s a pre-end-of-the-lockout assessment of San Francisco’s six biggest obstacles in the way of winning the NFC West.

Time

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    The four-month lockout of very limited contact between players and staff might have hurt San Francisco more than other teams. In a normal offseason players would have been in team headquarters in Santa Clara for scheduled organized team activities, as well as the team’s conditioning and rehabilitation facilities.

    Those would have been good opportunities for new coach Jim Harbaugh and staff to build bonds with players, as well as assess skills, speed, size, health and attitude. In the offseason every team is undefeated; optimism is the key.

    Players try to improve, coaches try to instill positive thinking and general managers try to find ways to upgrade the roster.

    No team has had that. But the Niners and the new coaching staff could have used that time to get to know players, and vice versa. In the NFC West, only San Francisco has undergone a wholesale change in coaching staff.

    It’s going to take time for secondary coach Ed Donatell to find the best schemes for safety Taylor Mays. Is this past dead time a lost opportunity for quarterback coach Geep Chryst to give quarterback Alex Smith tips on his three-step drop?

    All of that has to be incorporated into the condensed signing session for new and current players, as well as free agents. Maybe the first time behind center during a live scrimmage it hits Jim Harbaugh that no matter what he does, Alex Smith isn’t going to get this team into the playoffs.

    It might not be ultimately clear in September or December, but offseason workouts would have built a base of analysis from training camp scrimmages and preseason games that could be built into a decision-making foundation.

    In other words, maybe the lockout prevented Harbaugh from finally turning to GM Trent Baalke after a May workout and saying, “Get me Carson Palmer.”

Injuries

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    Peyton Manning had a good point. As he needed offseason medical attention for football-related injuries, Manning decried the lockout because it prevented him from seeing the Colts training staff, who know his body best.

    It is something to consider. The NFL season is so long that every player, by season’s end, is in need of training staff care. As the cliché goes, in December the injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent.

    The offseason is when players heal. It’s also when they rehabilitate their injuries under the eyes of team medical personnel, who have professional insight. That’s not to say that players dealing with rehabbing injuries can’t find their own medical assistance, but it probably wouldn’t have the expertise and firsthand knowledge that an NFL trainer has for players.

    All of that is a long way of saying that many wonder if this year will bring more serious injuries to more players. Would the lockout cut down on physical preparation, and thus the bodies of NFL players not able to withstand the rigors of intense contact?

    All teams have to deal with injuries. The 49ers have a striving, young core of good players, but losing the likes of Ray McDonald, Vernon Davis or Patrick Willis for the season could have an extra debilitating effect.

Crabtree Meltdown

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    Jim Harbaugh strikes many as confident, smart, confident and, well, confident. How that plays with veteran NFL players, however, remains to be seen. Having coached in the NFL before, he knows the demands and pressures on players and coaches alike. But this is different.

    As head coach of an NFL franchise, it will fall to him to keep everyone in line. That may mean he’ll have to install a large compressor that will help him blow up Alex Smith’s confidence on a weekly basis. It might also mean an assortment of pitchforks needed to deflate the exalted feelings a player like Michael Crabtree—to name one—has for his own abilities.

    In short, the team has to develop trust in the coach. Having a prima donna complain about a lack of balls thrown his way—which I believe Crabtree did not do in public—won’t help Harbaugh’s cause.

NFC West QB Acquisitions

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    Up in Seattle, Matt Hasselbeck is considered on his way out of town. In Phoenix, the talk is that Arizona will trade for Kevin Kolb. In St. Louis, Sam Bradford has proven himself to be a rising quarterback, a sure star in the NFL; it just remains to be seen if the Rams have anyone on the roster that can turn Bradford’s passes into bigger gains.

    Transitions at quarterback are tricky. Very few players come to a team in the first year and get it into the playoffs. One exception: Michael Vick for the Eagles in 2010. It was his second year but first in terms of playing big roles in big games. But if you look at quarterbacks on playoff rosters the last couple of years, you’ll see that most of the starters have been with their teams for multiple seasons.

    That’s one reason the 49ers have an advantage; changes at quarterback in Seattle and Arizona will require time for the team to get in sync. The same goes for Bradford in St. Louis—how long before the receiving corps develop into a real threat? How about the offensive line? Can it hold out defenders while Bradford waits for someone to come open?

    In contrast, the Niners are more settled at quarterback and have more playmakers in key positions. All that could change if Carson Palmer ends up with Pete Carroll in Seattle and Kolb discovers he has a preternatural talent for getting the ball to Cardinal receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Then the Niners have to worry.

Unsettled Secondary

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    The Niners offense had its fits last season, but nothing was more detrimental to the team than the secondary.

    It goes without saying that if you play in an NFL secondary, you are a physically gifted athlete. No position asks more in terms of speed, quickness, strength, balance and competitiveness.

    But nothing hurts more than this sort of key moment in a tight game, perhaps late in the third quarter. The offense just got some points, and the momentum seems to be swinging. The defense stops the first two plays, and on 3rd-and-long it knows pass is coming.

    The rush comes, perhaps a blitzer too. The rush gets nearer and nearer the quarterback, but he gets the ball off just before the hits. Fans watch as the ball sails downfield into the arms of a streaking receiver, who broke free from coverage—or the coverage was broken due to miscommunication. Either way, it’s a big play.

    First down, momentum gone, energy deflated. Too many times that happened to the 49ers in 2010.

OL Confusion

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    This goes back with the Time slide, but confusion along the offensive line does more to wreck an offensive scheme.

    The Niners gave up 44 sacks last year, which put them in the bottom third of the league. But how many running plays didn’t get going because the wrong call was made at the line of scrimmage? Or how many audibles went unheard, bringing more confusion?

    Rookies in 2010, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati have to improve. Everything says they will. Right guard Chilo Rachal is the key along with David Baas—that is, if the 49ers sign him. This is one area that has to be stabilized and given plenty of playing time in camp and preseason games.

Lack of Progress

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    Nothing ate at the heart of the avid 49er fan the last few years more than the week-after-week struggles of the offense. Last year in particular, the first-half Niners did OK, but in the second half it seemed that opposing coaches made adjustments that baffled the 49er coaches. And Mike Singletary would shrug and say it was a matter of trying harder.

    With Jim Harbaugh, it is hoped that he brings schemes that create more chances for success. Moreover, let’s hope his analytical skills, as well as those of his staff, can help the Niners make the right adjustments during the game.

    It is one thing to be close at halftime—quite another to be down 21 with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.

    If this year’s team falls into the same patterns as Singletary’s team of 2010, then you could see a real backlash against the team. Fans are tired of a myriad of mistakes and breakdowns that limit chances of winning.

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