When the season began, the San Francisco 49ers started off hot, compiling an early 3-1 record and starting some early talk not just about the playoffs, but of an NFC West division title.
One four-loss streak later, and many of the 49ers faithful have been pulling their hair out over what might have been.
The season is far from over, however, and the team is not out of it yet. Even failing to win the division title might not end their hopes. Yes, Atlanta is playing well and has a 5-3 record, but Chicago and Green Bay are both struggling at 4-4, and those are teams the 49ers play in the next half of the season.
At 3-5 nothing is certain, but hope has not yet been lost. With that in mind, here are three things the 49ers can build on and five things they either must change or have fall their way over the course of the rest of the season.
1) The Weapons
One thing above all else that the team has going for it is a solid group of players at the key "skill" positions. Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, and now Michael Crabtree are a good core to build around, even for just one season.
It's hard to argue with Gore's ability, even if he's had injury issues this year. He's had a pair of bad games, but for the most part, when healthy, he has produced in grand fashion.
Gore has had three monster games (246 total yards against Seattle, 134 against Indianapolis, and 158 last week against Tennessee). It's worth noting that he's done this with an offensive line that lets him down more often than not (we'll touch on that in a minute).
Gore is on course for another season of over 1,000 yards. If he can stay healthy and if the 49ers can keep him fresh enough to keep it up late into the season, he will continue to move the ball well and open things up for the rest of the offense.
If at the end of 2008, someone had walked up to you and said, "You know what I think? Vernon Davis is going to have a career year in 2009. Book it," you'd have likely pried the Budweiser out of their hands, checked them into a clinic for the Delusional and Hopeful, and walked away chuckling.
Yet here we are. I was very optimistic that Davis would have a big year, so I'm not totally surprised. What I didn't expect was Davis being ranked 14th in targets league-wide with 66. That's not just among tight ends but wide receivers and running backs as well. Only the Colts' Dallas Clark has more.
Of those, he has caught 42 for 477 yards and seven touchdowns (more than any other tight end in the league and tied with Miles Austin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Vincent Jackson overall).
Despite the emergence of rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree, Davis has continued to see a tremendous number of targets (11, 5, 11 in the last three games). Davis has given the team a tremendous weapon both in and outside of the red zone
I'll admit it—I was dubious of the idea that Crabtree would contribute in 2009. Despite coach Mike Singletary's insistence that the rookie would be used early and often in his first game, I chalked it up to gamesmanship.
I'm pretty sure I was wrong though.
Not to say Crabtree has been perfection; far from it. He makes good plays, but he also makes rookie mistakes. He's fumbled, he's tipped passes into the opposing secondary's hands, he's bobbled, and he's run bad routes.
All that said, he's doing much better than anticipated. While he will have bad games (Tennessee did a great job of smothering and frustrating the rookie out of Texas Tech), he's already gained the attention of defenses, and that will open things up for the other offensive players.
Now if Alex Smith can just stay consistent.
I wouldn't call it cake, but I WOULD call it winnable.
Three of their remaining eight games are against division opponents. What that means is they hold some of their fate in their own hands.
A second win against the also 3-5 Seahawks isn't out of the question. As far as Arizona goes, yes, they are playing at a high offensive level right now, but the 49ers get them at home and if they can get the defense to step up, the game is very winnable.
Also, they get to face the perpetually struggling St. Louis Rams, and while I don't like guaranteeing a win, it's hard to fathom losing that one.
Speaking of gimmes, Detroit comes to Candlestick on Dec. 27, and that's perfect timing if the division is on the line.
Green Bay and Chicago are also struggling. On top of that, they are both teams who are in the 49ers' way for a wild card spot. If the team can take those games, they will possess the necessary tiebreakers to get into the playoffs.
Then it's anybody's game, as the 2008 Cardinals can attest to.
He's not Vince Lombardi by any means, and he definitely has some rough edges as a coach, but this is the guy who turned Vernon Davis around from screw-up to stud.
Singletary is still very much finding his way, but he is the type of personality that does not quit and will not let his players quit.
While the team has struggled of late, if there was a coach who could stop the skid and fire the team back up, it's Mike Singletary. With him on the sideline, it's never over.
Now, all three of those things are positives which the team can build on. They are good things.
Let's face it though—you don't get to five losses unless there are problems you need to fix as well. So while I like to keep it on the positive tip, here are five things the team either has to overcome or have fall their way in the next two months.
For a team coached by a Hall of Fame defensive player, who wanted to dominate games and the clock with murderous defense, they rank just 19th in total defense. The pass defense has been less than stiff and stands ranked 24th with just 17 sacks (18th in the league) and only six interceptions (23rd). They are allowing an average of 241 yards a game, the ninth worst in the league.
In the last four games, the team has allowed a total of 1,096 yards. That's a grand total of 274 yards a game.
The upside is that the run defense is very good, ranking fourth so far in the league. Some of that is the bad play of the pass defense—why run when you can pass at will?
Last week in the loss to the struggling Tennessee Titans, they actually played well against the pass, allowing no touchdowns and only 172 yards. It was against Vince Young, who has yet to show he is a passing threat, and the team failed to generate more than one sack, though we're talking about an offensive line which has allowed just seven, tied with the Colts for best in the league.
So while it's imperfect, it is a sign things may turn around. There have been injuries, there have been under-performers, there have been massive lapses in judgment (Dre' Bly against the Falcons anyone?).
These things need to be overcome. With games against gunslingers like Jay Cutler and Kurt Warner and facing wide receivers like Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson, and Larry Fitzgerald, the secondary has to step up.
Otherwise you risk having to throw the ball 45 times from behind, and we saw what that led to against Tennessee.
Speaking of which—
It has to stop. Sure, before Sunday's meltdown Alex Smith was playing well. Still, he threw an interception a game in the two prior to Sunday.
As much as Shaun Hill wasn't the answer, at least he didn't throw five interceptions in three games. Of course, you throw 45 times at guys like Cortland Finnegan, and bad things tend to happen to you.
Overall San Francisco is at a negative-three turnover ratio. That is to say they have given the ball away three more times than they have taken the ball from an opposing offense. For perspective, the Vikings and Broncos are at plus-five, the Saints are at plus-eight, and the Eagles are at plus-11.
A good turnover ratio isn't a lock to success, as the Packers (plus-10), Ravens, and Giants (plus-two) can tell you, but the majority of teams whose numbers are in the positive column are winning and often.
Those that cough the ball up more than they snatch it are more often than not losing.
The 49ers are on the wrong side of this equation. Whether it be bad decisions by Smith or boneheaded decisions by Bly, the team needs to get that ratio in the black.
That means better defensive plays, more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with less on their own, and just flat-out taking care of the ball.
If you need an illustration of that, look no further than last weekend. The Niners turned it over four times. The Titans didn't turn it over at all.
3) Offensive Line
One of the issues with both Smith and the run game has been inconsistent (and at times flat-out bad) play along the offensive line.
Matt Maiocco of the Press Democrat pointed to one example of how the line play leads to turnovers in his discussion here about the four turnovers that killed the 49ers on Sunday.
Here is the salient point (though the whole of it is a good read):
Turnover No. 2: Third quarter fumble. Defensive end Jacob Ford lines up one-on-one against right tackle Adam Snyder. Smith's in the shotgun. Snyder does not stay square to Ford, who beats him with an inside move. Smith tries to slide to his left to create enough too to make the pass. But as Smith takes the ball back to throw, it hits Ford's helmet and pops loose. It's recovered by Keith Bullock at the 49ers' 36. Seven plays later, the Titans score a touchdown to tie the game 17-17 in the third quarter.
Bottom line: Mostly Snyder's fault for using poor technique to allow the pressure, but Smith could've had a better feel on whether he had the room to deliver the pass.
Now, the article points out many times that Smith turned it over when there was good protection as well, so it's not his only issue. However, this illustrates a consistent problem along the line every week.
Offensive guards David Baas and Chilo Rachal have struggled at times this season, though both had good games this week. Joe Staley is out for the next month and a half with a knee injury. Tackle Adam Snyder has had issues in pass defense. Center Eric Heitmann has been good all season long, key to the quality of any offensive line. Tackle Barry Sims has looked good.
Overall, the talent is there I believe. Are they the best in the league? No. Can they be? Debatable. They have the ability to give Smith time to throw and open holes for Gore.
They just don't do it on a consistent basis. The line, on the whole, has lapses, be it in the passing game or the run game.
All too often Gore is met in the backfield by a defensive lineman or a linebacker. Against both Houston in Week Seven and Arizona in Week One, he was shut down in the backfield because the line couldn't give him room to move.
They need to play better if this team is going to make it into the playoffs, much less put together a run once they get in.
4) Offensive Play
Maybe more to the point is to point to the run game first.
Jimmy Raye, offensive coordinator for the 49ers, hemmed and hawed all preseason long that this would not be a team which ran the majority of the time. Then the tune changed, and the team said they would run the ball often.
Yet here we are, nine weeks in, and not only are they not running the ball terribly effectively (ranked 21st in the NFL), but they aren't running it often at all.
The 49ers have run the ball just 183 times, barely 22 times a game. Sure, part of this is because the team has fallen behind big a few times and needed to throw the ball a bunch. However, it's also because they just aren't running the ball much.
Or one might say they aren't running it enough. Look, if your team lacks a solid quarterback, doesn't have a great group of wide receivers, and has the services of a stud running back, then you should be running the ball.
When your defense is supposed to be a strength and you're looking to milk the clock to keep some very explosive offenses (Arizona, Minnesota, Green Bay) off the field, you don't put yourself in a position of rolling three and out by throwing a ton of passes.
This is not to say they team cannot or should not throw the ball. As mentioned in the first section, Davis and now Crabtree give the 49ers some nice weapons for Smith (or if things go south again, Shaun Hill) in the pass attack.
Gore is a guy who can give you every chance to keep the opposing offense on the sidelines. If you are struggling to stop the other team on defense and are turning the ball over fairly regularly with interceptions, you might want to run him a little more often.
Early this season I was concerned he was getting too many carries (and not being spelled by rookie Glen Coffee enough). Now I'm here saying he needs to be run more if the 49ers are to really contend with the tougher teams left on their schedule.
5) Arizona Cardinals
Here is the one thing on this list which is largely out of their control. Sure, they could beat them when the teams meet again at Candlestick Park on Dec. 14. Having two wins over their biggest road bump in the division would be a big deal.
For it to really matter, though, they need to make up two games. In order to do that, they need the Cardinals to lose.
The Cardinals face the Seahawks, the Rams twice, the Lions, and the Titans. Yes, they also have to overcome a very good Vikings squad and face the Packers on the last week of the season, but does the rest of that schedule scare you?
It scares me, though only because there is a very high likelihood that if this team does NOT lose to either the Vikings or Packers, the 49ers may be up against the wall—especially since in terms of common opponents, the 49ers have already lost to the Vikings.
The Cards will also prove tough in their head-to-head rematch. Right now, Kurt Warner has the Arizona pass attack humming, ranked eighth in the league with 262 yards a game. The run game is a lot more lackluster, and the 49er defense matches up well with it.
But as the pass defense is a problem for the 49ers, facing an offense which has 16 touchdowns, 119 first downs, and is completing 65.6 percent of its passes is a dangerous test.
They had better deal with Nos. 1 and 2 on this list if they hope to overcome No. 5.