There is no doubt about it, the San Francisco 49ers have been painful to watch on offense this year.
The offense has only scored 56 points in three games for a measly 18.6 points per game. They are only averaging 213 yards per contest (144 passing and 69.7 rushing), which is dead last in the league.
It doesn’t look like it is going to get much better, either. Alex Smith is wildly inconsistent on any pass over 15 yards and Michael Crabtree appears to be a bust who whines, won’t work hard and can’t catch the ball when it is near him.
The running game might have dark days ahead because although Kendall Hunter appears to be emerging, the team will be handcuffed by Frank Gore's contract no matter how he and Hunter perform.
Then how can this team possibly win the West with such an offense? It is because after what I have seen this year from both the 49ers and the rest of the NFC West, I am convinced that they can win the division without being a very good team.
They are going to have some ugly losses this year because the defense is prone to giving up big plays, as evidenced by the Dallas Cowboys game. Big plays are devastating to teams with mediocre offenses, but the 49ers are going to face a lot of teams that don’t have enough play makers to kill them with big plays.
I have looked through some recent teams that have won their division with bad or mediocre offensive production. In addition, I think that there are some other factors that will allow the 49ers to win the West without running up and down the field.
Last year’s Seahawks went 7-9 and won the division. Their offense was 28th in the league, averaging only 297.8 yards per game. Like the 2011 49ers, they did not have an elite defense. In fact, the 2010 Seahawks were 27th in the league in overall defense.
The 49ers are currently the only team in the division with a winning record and their defense is ranked seventh in the NFL. The number seven ranking comes mostly from playing the Seahawks and the Bengals, but it is pretty good nonetheless.
If we assume that the offense will improve a little as it becomes accustomed to the new system and the defense stays in the middle of the pack, it should certainly be enough to win seven or eight games, which could win the weak NFC West.
The 2009 Cincinnati Bengals were 24th in the league in total offense with an average of 309 yards a game. The defense was ranked third in the league overall, but that was a bit misleading because they played in a division without elite offenses. This 10-6 squad had several come-from-behind wins in games that should have been losses.
In past years, the 49ers would have found a way to lose a game like the Cincinnati game on September 25th, but they did just enough to win. This team looks like it is going to eke out just enough games to have a chance.
This team was better on offense than the 49ers will be this year (ranked 11th overall), but the Chargers had a lot of help from their division. Also, they climbed up the rankings in those last four games when the offense got hot at the end of the year.
Although I am still concerned that Kevin Kolb is going to find a groove in Arizona, this year’s 49ers might get the same help from the other teams in the division that the Chargers got in ’08.
The St. Louis Rams are a mess right now, adjusting to both injury and Josh McDaniels’ new system. The Seattle Seahawks are relying on Tavaris Jackson who had one of his best games as a pro with 18/31 completions for 171 yards and an interception (Jackson has a meager 73.7 passer rating). In Arizona, Kevin Kolb is not looking good early and the team has neither improved a bad offensive line nor a weak defense.
The 49ers can scratch to 7-9 or 8-8 if they go 4-1 against the division the rest of the way and win one or two other games.
Besides having five more games against the NFC West, the 49ers have some winnable home games on the schedule.
The New York Giants have been inconsistent this year and will have to travel cross-country after playing the Patriots in New York. The Cleveland Browns are a young team that could have a bad game on a long road trip. And, as crazy as it sounds, the Pittsburgh Steelers have looked awful in their two road games this year against the Ravens and the Colts.
If the 49ers can find two wins out of these three games it will help their cause immensely.
With no offseason to install a new system, the 49ers have had to learn Coach Harbaugh’s offense on the fly. It is reasonable to assume that they will improve a little over the course of the season.
Alex Smith is what he is going to be: a serviceable backup at most. To me, there is little room to debate because most great quarterbacks are great right away (Matt Ryan, Cam Newton) or are great within a few short years (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady), but Smith should get a little better as the season progresses. And Frank Gore may get hurt or the coaching staff will focus more on performance than contracts. Finally, Michael Crabtree cannot continue to be this bad. Can he?
I picked the 49ers to go 4-12 at the beginning of the year mostly because of the new system and the assumed strength of the Cardinals and the Rams.
However, this team has not gotten into a hole early and the rest of the division looks putrid. Although I am a pessimist at heart, there are some things that I have seen after 18.7 percent of the season (equivalent to 30 games in baseball or 15 games in hockey) that gives reason to hope.
After all, it seems like every year there is a surprise division winner, so why not San Francisco? To be clear, if they did win the West I would bet right now they would open as a 14 point underdog and I don’t think they have a creamsicle’s chance in Hades of making a big playoff run.
However, we might see playoff football return to Candlestick Park in 2011 and that is something we could all smile about.