The San Francisco 49ers went into the 2010 season as the predominant NFC West favorite, and beyond that they were a “team to watch.” They had a young hard-hitting defense, one of the best backs in Frank Gore and the fiery inspiration from head coach Mike Singletary.
The opener in Seattle appeared promising. The 49ers dominated the first 20 minutes, gaining an interception that led to a score, putting together a 15-play drive and, on their third try, getting another score. In their first three possessions San Francisco totaled 31 plays from scrimmage. In Seattle’s first three possessions, the total was seven.
It seemed like a blowout but except it wasn’t 21-0 but 6-0. Then something happened: Seattle figured out the 49ers offense and defense.
Seattle scored 31 straight points to inaugurate the Pete Carroll Era. Qwest Stadium, widely regarded as one of the loudest in the NFL, was rocking. And like a porcelain doll that falls to the floor, it seemed the 49ers suddenly and surprisingly had too many broken pieces to fix, such as:
- An unimaginative offense that went 1-for-15 on third-down conversions
- Holding Seattle to 243 yards but losing by 25
- Alex Smith’s penchant for throwing key interceptions, in this case a second-quarter pick that led to a TD return that turned the game to Seattle’s side.
It was the first of five straight losses. By mid-October, the Singletary era was on life-support and ultimately died in Week 16. For a team that had not reached the playoffs since 2002, the first 20 minutes of play in Seattle seemed so promising. The season ended with disappointment that requires quantum mechanics to measure.
A year later, Seattle comes to San Francisco to open the 2011 season. There’s a new coach in town, Jim Harbaugh. There’s an emphasis on execution. The team seems spirited, though inconsistent play during the preseason has kept the expectations of Niner fans somewhere between wary and hopeful.
Some teams don’t put as much pressure on early season games; it’s a long season in which all teams must evolve and adapt. But the 49ers’ 2011 season-opener is more than the first game. Here are the six reasons why it is 2011’s most important game.
Few fan bases have been more loyal than San Francisco’s. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1940s. The 49ers were the first professional sports team on the West Coast. Their roots are the deepest.
In the 1980s they became the league’s dominant organization. That loyalty and support bordered on the fanatical, which helped the team become one of the league’s elite. Then in the late 1990s came the change in ownership, front-office discord and dysfunction.
It all leaked onto the field, and since 2002 the 49ers have not made the playoffs, have had only two non-losing seasons, no winning seasons and have won only 41 percent of their games.
Now comes the Harbaugh Era, and based on his startling success at Stanford, expectations are high. He said early on that he is a big fan of the West Coast offense and its best practitioner, Bill Walsh. He openly advocated for the retention of Alex Smith when a majority of fans wanted him tied to the front end of a Union Pacific locomotive.
On a larger scale, the organization has plans for a new stadium in Santa Clara. Getting that deal completed is far from a guaranteed issue. No doubt, though, it helps if the team has a large, devoted fan base that will continue to support the team in such issues as seat licenses which will most likely be needed to offset the cost of the stadium’s construction.
Struggling teams don’t get new $800 million stadiums built these days. That’s a lot to ask for a first-year coach in his first game, but a win over an NFC West rival at home will go a long way to keeping hope lit in the Bay Area.
The talent is there. Or so it appears.
Patrick Willis: The league’s best inside linebacker.
Vernon Davis (pictured): The league’s best receiving tight end.
Frank Gore: Perhaps the best overall back in the NFL.
The offensive line has two first-round and one second-round draft picks. The receivers include three more first-round draft picks (Braylon Edwards, Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn Jr.). Defensive end Justin Smith might be the NFL’s most underrated player.
And lest we forget that the quarterback was the first player taken in the 2005 draft.
What seems to be the more pertinent question is whether this “talent” fits the needs of the schemes employed by Harbaugh and staff. The limited preseason might hurt the Niners more than other teams, but at least the organization tried to fix obvious problems.
Carlos Rogers, Madieu Williams and Donte Whitner were brought in to shore up a porous secondary. Edwards was signed to help stretch opposing defenses and take the pressure off Smith and Gore.
Getting these players into situations that increase their chances for success is Harbaugh's job. Moreover, doing so would add a little more fuel into the flickering belief that the Niners can begin to climb up the rankings of the NFL’s elite.
The team in 2010 had one of the best sets of linebackers and a very good defensive end. And the team finished 24th against the pass.
Changes came in the secondary. Aldon Smith (pictured) was picked No. 7 in the draft to provide pressure on the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have to devise blitz-coverage schemes that confuse opposing offenses.
In other words, the 49ers will do well to shut down a Seattle offense who does have a top back in Marshawn Lynch, but newly acquired quarterback Tavarius Jackson is not known as one of the league’s most accurate passers.
Seattle’s receivers aren't game-breakers, though new tight end Zach Miller is one of the best. On defense, the Seahawks are middling all across the board.
In other words, this is a game the Niners' defense should control. That can be a great stabilizing force.
Whenever the 49ers tried a first-down pass that resulted in a completion, they almost invariably followed with a run. And defenses knew this. That’s why many times the Niners were in third-and-long and why — and this just boggles the mind in light of Alex Smith’s skill set – they used “three-step-drop” passes (short-to-medium range) less than 38 percent of the time.
In other words, the Niners did very little to maximize their talent. When the first offensive unit was on the field during the preseason, there were signs of change. Smith used three and five-step drops for quick throws. The change-ups were the power running game that was spiced up by a short passing game. In two preseason games, at least, it worked.
Keeping the defense guessing is essential to success. Of course, the defense try to do the same thing to the offense, constantly shifting its personnel to disguise coverages and blitzes.
It all comes down to how well the offensive line holds up.
The worst-case scenario for all in the 49er organization is to have Alex Smith have a bad day in the way Alex Smith can have – trying to do too much either by jamming a throw into coverage or carelessly scrambling and losing the ball by fumble.
If Smith throws two interceptions and the team breaks down in some blitz blocking schemes, the boos will drench Candlestick Park. It’s unfair to a new head coach and his staff, but that’s the way the Alex Smith fulcrum teeters.
He has very little room in which to operate. A high completion percentage, one or two TD throws and even a key scramble to keep a drive alive are all within his repertoire. And such a game might do well to quiet the anti-Smith crowd and give the team as well as the fans greater reason to believe.
Until the next game. The pressure will be on Smith all season, and a bad start against Seattle might put him in a hole from which he’ll never recover.
The team invested $25 million in Jim Harbaugh. Their front office underwent a change with the promotion of Trent Baalke to GM. The franchise is doing everything it can —or so it wants us to think —to keep that ol’ Niner Faithful Feeling alive.
To a certain degree, there will always be die-hard loyal 49er fans. But another losing season will continue the erosion of the interested fans who are the secondary ticket buyers. These are the people who don’t automatically buy season tickets. And it’s that group of fans in which all NFL franchises have to develop and serve.
Losing seasons do not help grow this part of the fan base. And with a stadium project looming on the horizon, as well as the fact that there has been very little success since John and Denise York (pictured) took control of the team, 2011 becomes vital for the future interests of the 49ers.
The Niners have slid to the bottom third in terms of wins. They’re also well down there in terms of the organization’s worth. A win on Sunday can give the impression that both of those trends might be in reverse.