As a self-proclaimed 49ers fan, I’ve got to be honest: I’m worried.
Many NFL pundits zeroed in on the Niners as a perennial league sleeper, capable of upsetting the balance of power in the NFC West, and making some noise in the playoffs for the first time in five years. I have chronicled their progress – on paper, technically, but nonetheless significant – ever since their final upset win against the Denver Broncos. Spending money unseen in the organization since the late ‘90s, San Francisco netted coveted free agent CB Nate Clements with an unprecedented 8-year, $80 million deal – highest for a cornerback in league history. Later signing contracts with names like Michael Lewis and Tully Banta-Cain, they further strengthened their defensive unit by drafting elite Mississippi LB Patrick Willis. With a draft-day deal with NFC West rival Seattle, the 49ers also netted Darrell Jackson, a potential big weapon for QB Alex Smith. On paper, the 49ers were in prime position to battle the Seahawks for the NFC West title.
However, it is like I said – it looks good … on paper. Translating to the field is a completely different story – so far, at least.
After a disappointing 1-3 preseason, the 49ers are forced to look at the many glaring weaknesses of their team, for further examination. While looking good against a stingy first-team Raiders defense in Game 2 of the Niners’ preseason, their last two games were anything but impressive. Smith went 4 for 8 for 47 yards after a half of play against the reigning NFC champion Chicago Bears, mostly going three-and-out during each offensive possession. The Niners’ revamped first-team defense gave up 31 points – in one half – to a spotty Chicago offense, led by bumbling QB Rex Grossman. It was a defensive performance 49ers fans have grown accustomed to seeing in the past few years – just not this defense.
After a 16-13 loss at the hands of the San Diego Chargers, led by former 49ers offensive coordinator Norv Turner, many of the pundits that picked them to make playoff noise began to hop off the bandwagon. Smith looked lost, throwing a terrible interception in a game many felt the first-team offense shouldn’t have even been playing.
So, what’s going on? Why is this team, with a brand-new, seemingly more effective 3-4 defense, and an offense filled with dynamic weapons, looking like the dead-last-in-every-statistical-category team of 2005? I will try to shine some light, glimmers of hope, onto a seemingly bleak situation.
First of all, the 49ers were missing one key, consistent part of their offense – Frank Gore. I don’t care what anyone says – if you don’t have a guy that made up 43.5% of your offensive production the year before, it is going to affect the offense, in a significant way. Without an offensive threat like Gore in the backfield, defenses can easily key in on a relatively inexperienced Alex Smith, and make him look like a scrub.
Second, let’s not forget – the 49ers are still getting used to a new offensive coordinator. Jim Hostler is the Niners’ third OC in three years (Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner), and, although they basically kept the same formations and terms from Turner’s shotgun system, it is still Hostler’s offense. A different guy will bring in different things, and it will take some getting used to from everyone on offense.
Then, there are the teams they played in the preseason – Denver, Oakland, San Diego and Chicago. Aside from the Raiders, the Niners were subjected to playing perennial playoff teams. It’s hard to forget that San Diego has the best offense in the league, with MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. Though, he didn’t play that night – the first-string offense had the night off, it being the final preseason game and all – Turner knew a thing or two about the Niners. That, and the fact that the Chargers’ defense is one of the best in the league, is what really made the Niners look bad. The 49ers defense was missing some key components, as well – defensive starters Bryant Young and Aubrayo Franklin were not in the lineup the entire preseason, which will, in the long run, hurt the defense’s continuity.
We still haven’t seen the 49ers at 100% – we shouldn’t forget that. Once Gore returns to form, and the offense starts clicking again, they should (hopefully) be fine. After all, there’s one more thing that benefits San Francisco – playing in the NFC West, the Eastern Conference of the NFL.