San Francisco 49ers: Back to the Future? 3 Things to Watch (Plus a 4th)
For San Francisco 49er fans with especially long memories the last three weeks have shaken loose some thick cobwebs.
Successive fourth-quarter comebacks on the road.
An all-phases blowout of a decent opponent at home.
Creativity—honest to goodness, obviously well-conceived creativity—on both sides of the ball.
Sheesh. Are we in the early 2010's? Or the early 1980's?
That, for me, is The Question as we approach Week 6 and a showdown game—yes, you read that right—showdown, this Sunday at Detroit.
Are the 4-1 49ers going to sustain their remarkable start? Or will they return to earth as the schedule stiffens and opponents begin to figure out their tendencies?
Here are four trends to watch.
Bill Walsh in 1979 inherited a dreadfully sloppy, turnover-prone club. As the turnover ratio—and coaching—improved, so did the club's fortunes.
Year/Turnover ratio/final record:
1978 (pre-Walsh): minus-18 2-14
1979: minus-5 2-14
1980: minus-5 6-10
1981: plus-23 13-3
Last season, the Niners ended up minus-one in turnovers while going 6-10.
That, however, is misleading: during an 0-5 start, the turnover ratio was minus-10; for the rest of the season (during which the club went 6 - 5) the ratio was plus-nine.
Through five games under Harbaugh, the ratio is plus-ten; the record is 4-1.
Numerous players attribute the club's stickier fingers to a constant (daily, according to Alex Smith) emphasis on ball security from the coaching staff.
In Smith's case, you can see evidence of this in little details—several of which were noted by Fox color analyst Darryl Johnston on Sunday.
So, next time you're questioning Harbaugh's play-calling or Alex Smith's check downs, remember:
Limiting mistakes equals higher odds of winning. And you can't argue with 4-1.
Seeing nose-tackle Isaac Sopoaga on the field with the offense against the Eagles had me giggling a little, as have tackle-eligible and extra-linemen/tight end formations. And the creative (finally!) use of zone blitzes.
Oh, and the extended Team Sleepover in Youngstown, Ohio. Very cool.
For the first time in a long time, imagination is brewing at 4949 Centennial Way.
Against Tampa Bay the Niners sometimes employed eight-man offensive line formations, from which they ran edge running plays (mostly) to generally successful effect.
Of greater significance, the club forged ahead with its offensive plans without Sopoaga, utilizing Adam Snyder as a motion back.
Coaches often say they expect the next guy to step up and do the job an injured comrade cannot. With Harbaugh's 49ers, it's not just talk.
Without Joshua Morgan this Sunday, multiple tight end sets and greater emphasis on the run seem inevitable.
But look for more wrinkles. And more giggles.
The age-old debate about "luck"—whether good things result from chance or are the residue of design—is too complicated for this space.
Suffice it to say that the 2011 San Francisco 49ers seem to have been blessed by the Football Gods.
Twice already, Alex Smith has avoided disaster after mishandled shotgun snaps. Either could have bounced away from Smith and led to turnovers. Neither did.
Jeremy Maclin's fumble on Sunday in Philly bounced directly toward 49er safety Dashon Goldson. It could just as easily have gone out of bounds or to another Eagle. Goldson could have failed to secure it or been out of bounds as he touched it.
In those scenarios, the Eagles would have kept the ball and been nearly in range to attempt a game-winning field goal. But they didn't, and weren't.
As much as the ball has bounced in S.F.'s favor, so has the NFL schedule.
The 49ers' next two Sunday opponents will have played the previous Monday night. The Buccaneers had less prep and rest time before meeting San Francisco last Sunday; so will the Lions.
And San Francisco's Thanksgiving night game at Baltimore is sandwiched around three home contests—two prior to Turkey Day and one following.
Will any of this affect the outcomes of any games? We'll see.
San Francisco's four wins in 2011 have been fueled by defense (13-8 over Cincinnati), special teams (33-17 over Seattle), a late comeback (24-23 over Philly) and complete dominance (48-3 over Tampa Bay).
This, too, is reminiscent of the early Walsh era. The 1981 Super Bowl team (which, incidentally, also followed a 6-10 campaign), won five of its first seven games, including:
A stunning week-five victory on the road (30-17) at Washington, an NFC East bully.
A home blowout over Dallas (45-14) a year after suffering a humiliating loss to the same opponent.
A defensive road slugfest (13-3 at Green Bay).
That team would win eight of its remaining nine regular season games—six by a touchdown or less, four by three points or less.
How this club performs in tight contests might determine its destiny.