49ers Can Tell Us They're Running, But They Need To Show Us Some Passes

Michael ErlerCorrespondent ISeptember 12, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 14:  Tight End Vernon Davis #85 of the San Francisco looks on against the Denver Broncos during the preseason game on August 14, 2009 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

After all the nonsense and posturing, the meaningless preseason games and even more meaningless interviews, the time has come for Team "Don't Tell Me, Show Me" to put up or shut up.

The "Nutcracker" drill has been put in storage for the winter, buried underneath the secret entrance behind Singletary Hill.

All the training camp drama—such as it was—has come and gone. Shaun Hill kept his starting quarterback job over hard tacklin' Alex Smith, Shawntae Spencer came out of nowhere to snatch the cornerback job from the clutches of Dre' Bly and Tarell Brown; and Adam Snyder won the right tackle spot, really just by being a ringside observer to a more unfortunate (and one-sided) duel between Marvel Smith and his aching back.

The 49ers have completed their training camp relatively unscathed and the 53 gentlemen left on the roster will be the same ones, more-or-less, that they'll try and make do with in 2009.

Sure, there's always the possibility that a Michael Crabtree will come to his senses and force the team into a transaction or two, but what reason is there for him to wake up smarter tomorrow than he has been for the previous 50 days, give-or-take?

These are your San Francisco 49ers. Love 'em or hey how are them Giants doin' these days?

The season opener on Sunday sees the boys squaring off against their division "rivals" the Arizona Cardinals, and despite the small matter of Arizona being the defending conference champions, it looks like a decent match up for them.

Not only do they have a history of playing the Cardinals close (you no doubt remember the Monday Night fiasco last year, where good Ol' Mike Martz called the first goal line dive in league history from the three yard line), but Arizona's been positively dreadful during the preseason, with their own players admitting to being uninspired and lackadaisical.

The 2009 Football Outsiders Almanac, who charitably described the 2008 Cardinals as "one of the worst teams to ever play in a Super Bowl," have crunched the numbers and calculated that these Cardinals project to having the third lowest mean number of wins this season, at 5.6, due mostly to quarterback Kurt Warner's arm falling off, or something equally bad that happens to people when they turn 38.

I'm only seven years away from 38 and I'm not at all looking forward to using a keyboard with one hand, no matter how much experience my friends accuse me of having with that very scenario.

To the casual fan, the Cardinals would figure to boat race San Francisco. They can pass but can't run on offense, and are okay stopping the run but flat out awful defending the pass. The 49ers, meanwhile, can run but refuse to pass unless it's the last resort, and they're very good at stopping the run but just middling against the pass.

You're thinking to yourself "Kurt Warner + Larry Fitzgerald + Anquan Boldin + No pass rush = 0-1," and no one can blame you.

However, there is hope, if you know where to look.

The Cardinals were the worst team in the league last year against the shotgun formation, and the 49ers had the second best differential between shotgun efficiency and under center efficiency.

It should stand to reason then that the 49ers should operate out of the shotgun plenty on Sunday and pass, pass, pass, right?

Sadly reason left this team somewhere around 2001 and hasn't left a forwarding address.

They're pledging to run 60 percent of the time, and seem a lot more intent on "doing what we do" than actually bothering to game plan around their opponent's weaknesses. The second part of that plan would require acknowledging the existence of other teams, and that just isn't the way things are done in 4949 Centennial Way.

Even without the shotgun, the Cardinals defense was only 26th against screen passes last year, and faced more running back screens than anybody. Hill has an arm built for throwing screens (but not through them) and since both "Coach Sing" and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye want Frank Gore to get the ball a ton anyways, I think I see a solution here.

Also, Vernon Davis, the centerpiece of Raye's "tight end friendly" offense, can be dialed up for a few screens himself, as the Niners tied the Redskins last year with the most tight end screen attempts in the league.

Subtlety has always been a weakness of mine, so just to be clear, I think San Francisco needs to throw the ball quite a bit to have a chance on Sunday. They probably won't, and we'll see where that gets them.

O' Captain, My Captain:

The interesting development on Friday was Singletary naming his six captains for the season. The first five—linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, defensive end Justin Smith, running back and special teams ace Michael Robinson, and center Eric Heitmann—were of no surprise.

But Davis as the sixth guy? That's nuttier than a Snickers bar inside the Amityville Insane Asylum's cafeteria. 

While Singletary said that he gave Davis the honor because of the work ethic and leadership he showed throughout the team's minicamps and training camp, his real reason is obvious—he's hoping the title will motivate Davis into acting more mature and accountable on the field and off.

From 2002 to 2006 the team has drafted in the first round: Cornerback Mike Rumph, tackle Kwame Harris, receiver Rashaun Woods, quarterback Alex Smith, Davis, and Manny Lawson, who has been okay, not great, so far in his career.

If you want the single biggest reason why the franchise has sunk to such depths, there you go.

In 2007 they finally got it right with Willis and tackle Joe Staley, but all they have to show for 2008 is defensive end Kentwan Balmer, who gave them the inside of a doughnut his rookie year and isn't making much of a dent in the depth chart this year either. Lest we forget, who knows what's going to happen with Crabtree?

The team badly needs Davis to not be the bust he largely has been so far in his career and giving him the captain mantle might be their last desperate attempt at turning Davis' considerable physical gifts into on field production.

Davis said that being named captain won't change how he acts or plays and if he's correct that's very bad news for the 49ers. During training camp he got into a fight with linebacker Marques Harris and didn't see the need to apologize to teammates for being the reason they all had to run gassers after practice.

Instead he offered the opinion that some guys should have thanked them, since they "needed the conditioning work," in Davis' words.

Some leader.

Then again, Davis showed composure and maturity in the locker room on Friday when he refused to get in a war of words in the media over the trash-talking Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson directed his way earlier in the week.

That's at least a good start, but of course the proof in the pudding will be how Davis behaves and plays with Wilson on him this Sunday.

Personally, I'd have gone with Gore as the sixth captain. Who on the team better personifies "Don't tell me, show me" than him?


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.