How did it all go so awry?
It’s all quite maddening, really. When the 2009 NFL season ended, 49ers fans rested assured that the team was on the right track for winning again. They had gotten their first .500 season since 2002, winning their last two games. They had a head coach in Mike Singletary that players and fans alike could believe in. They had a good defense, led by All-Pro LB Patrick Willis. It looked like Alex Smith, having had career highs in passing yards and touchdowns, was finally coming into his own with the offense. And, most importantly, the 49ers had an offensive coordinator – Jimmy Raye – that was going to stay with the team for more than one season.
With Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner retiring at the end of last season, and no other discernible heirs to the NFC West throne, the 49ers were the sexy pick, not only to seize control of the division, but possibly even make a deep playoff run. Their offseason even looked impressive, many seeing their moves as Singletary and Raye putting a stamp on the 49ers offense: tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar football. With two new offensive linemen taken in the first round, and a seemingly resurgent Alex Smith to guide the offense, the 49ers were poised to prove the pundits right. A 4-0 preseason had us headed in the right direction.
It was supposed to be their year.
Unfortunately, three weeks into the 2010 season, it looks like 49ers fans will be treated with more of the same from the past seven years: a huge letdown. Compiling an 0-3 record, and in danger of going 0-5 with games against the highly talented Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles coming up, the 49ers have fell flat on their faces out of the gate.
They began at Seattle to face the Seahawks. Considered a rebuilding team with new head coach Pete Carroll, the 49ers were expected to make short work of them. Instead, it was the Seahawks who proved too much for the confused San Francisco squad, handing them a 31-6 drubbing. San Francisco managed to reach the red zone in their first two possessions, only to come away with two field goals. From there, the Seahawks scored 31 straight points, including a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown.
It didn’t look good for the 49ers heading into their home opener against the defending champion New Orleans Saints. However, they showed they were capable at offense, and had tied the game with less than two minutes to go. Ultimately, though, it was their turnovers that killed them, coughing up the ball three times in the red zone. Garrett Hartley would go on to kick the winning field goal, 25-22.
It was an “encouraging loss” for the 49ers, if there ever was one. Going into their game yesterday against Kansas City, 49ers fans could at least feel a little confident. That is, until the Chiefs offense embarrassed the 49ers in a game that was never close, 31-10. And, now, here we are. It just came out today that Jimmy Raye – the same offensive coordinator that was supposed to instill confidence in the offense – was fired. Quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson is set to take his place. But, for most 49ers fans, this doesn’t look like it instills much confidence moving forward.
Honestly, this reminds me a lot like 2007. In 2006, San Francisco had an impressive finish to go 7-9. Many experts had the 49ers in their radar as a potential impact team in ’07 – especially with acquisitions like Nate Clements and Darrell Jackson, who were potentially great players at the time. They were so confident that they would finish with a playoff berth in 2007, they traded their first round pick to New England for the rights to draft OT Joe Staley. Unfortunately, they ended up going 5-11, gave the Patriots the 8th pick in the draft, and were forced to rebuild again. The main differences, though, between then and now, were obviously the circumstances. After all, their offensive line was awful, Frank Gore wasn’t on the field half the time, and Jim Hostler – arguably one of the worst OCs the 49ers have had in this 8-year carousel – was calling the offense.
So, what happened? How is it that the 49ers, favorites to win the division, went so disgustingly off-course? Well, let’s try to take a closer look:
QB Alex Smith. Honestly – is it time to just label him a bust, cut our losses, and call it a day? I mean, yes, he does show signs of brilliance, i.e. his game against the Saints. The Alex Smith the 49ers had on their last offensive drive of that game (4-for-5 for 51 yards; rushed for another 24 yards) is the Alex Smith 49ers fans have been pining for. The last time I saw Alex Smith play that well was back in 2006, in a game against the Seahawks. The problem is, that was the last time I saw Alex Smith play that well. The Alex Smith most fans are used to is the one who is always a threat to turn the ball over, get sacked, make poor decisions, and ultimately lose games. Sure, he’s about to have eight offensive coordinators in eight years, but Smith can only take that excuse so far before he has to start pointing at himself, and realize … maybe he’s just not that good.
The defense gives up too many demoralizing big plays. Let’s see … So, yeah. I counted 17 plays of 10 yards or more that the 49ers defense gave up in their game against the Chiefs on Sunday. SEVENTEEN!!! That includes 3 touchdown strikes from Matt Cassel of 31, 45 and 18 yards. For a defense that was supposed to have pretty good cornerbacks and a fearsome pass rush, that’s pretty discouraging. Pour a 7-for-14 on 3rd down conversions on top of that, and that’s a recipe for a long day on defense.
The 49ers have two rookie offensive linemen. The fact is, the 49ers have lousy rushing numbers (27th overall with 78.0 yds/gm), and the protection to Alex Smith isn’t that great. There’s probably good reason for that: their names are Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. Now, I’m not saying they won’t be great offensive linemen in the future. But, the fact is, they’re still rookies. It’s asking a lot for them to magically rebuild an ailing O-Line by themselves.
The offense can’t hold on to the ball. Alright, let’s take another look … ah. So, we have seven turnovers in 3 games. That’s more than two turnovers per game. Most of them coming from Alex Smith interceptions. Yeah – how can they ever expect to score if they keep giving it to the defense? Hell, in the New Orleans game alone, they coughed up the ball twice with a chance to put at least six points on the board. It’s hard to watch an offense that is liable to lose the football on any given offensive drive.
Maybe we have to start looking at Samurai Mike. Look, I’ve praised him and his ways before. But now, I have to start questioning whether his act is starting to get stale in San Fran. I’m not saying he’s a bad coach. In fact, I’m actually kind of scared that he’ll read this, come to my house and bite my nose off or something. But, honestly, when you say the same things every week to your players and it comes off as stale, something obviously isn’t working. Throw in the fact that much of the local sports media is starting to think that Coach Sing has no idea what he’s doing, and it’s not looking like he’s getting the job done anymore.
Is it possible the 49ers don’t know how to handle being the favorite? I really think this is a fair question: it seems like the 49ers are most successful in seasons when no one believes they will do anything, or will have a minimal impact on the rest of the league. When the focus starts to surround them, however, things begin to come off the rails. I saw this same script in 2007: a team and quarterback seemingly on the rise, making all the right offseason moves and faced with rising expectations, crumble under the pressure. The constant “they have all the talent, but they can’t put it together” talk doesn’t seem to help, either.
Maybe they just overachieved last season. There are two reasons the 49ers were considered favorites: 1) They were the default to win the division, based on the fact that the other three teams looked like they were rebuilding … which isn’t saying much; 2) they showed promise at stretches during the regular season, and probably didn’t make the playoffs simply because of a couple last-second losses at the hands of the Cardinals and the Vikings. But, based on their current play, it’s possible that the 49ers many saw last season were a team that played better than they actually were. Perhaps this season’s version is the 49ers team we really have – a team that will most likely go 0-5 in two weeks.
In any case, the 49ers look to be in disarray – again – with a seemingly perfect storm of problems for a franchise constantly looking for stability, let alone the success they had in decades past. Whatever the problems are for the 49ers, it doesn’t look like they will be able to fix them anytime soon. Unfortunately, Niners fans will most likely be forced to endure another season in rebuilding mode. So, the only question is …