Alex Smith

2008 San Francisco 49ers: fool me once, shame on you

(Dubya voice) Fool me twice; um … you don’t wanna get fooled again.

I know it’s an old joke, but that’s how I really feel about the San Francisco 49ers.

About a year ago to this day, I was so fired up about the upcoming Niners season that I almost bought season tickets for a grand on craigslist, but decided to not pull the trigger because the package didn’t include playoff rights.

How ridiculous does that sound now? It was the right decision in hindsight, but for a reason almost as dumb as refraining from buying the tickets because Mike Nolan wasn’t allowed to wear a suit every game.

(Nolan’s vanity aside, why can’t the 49ers go back to their old uniforms? Can we get a ruling? Do the Yorks own Mitchell and Ness? Is there a fan in existence that likes the current uniforms better than what Ronnie Lott wore?)

At the time, I wasn’t the only one who believed the third year would be the charm for Nolan and Alex Smith. The Niners won in decidedly gross fashion against the Cardinals and Rams to start the season (Hey, these guys are learning how to win when they aren’t at their best!) before traveling to Pittsburgh. Any Niners follower knew they had almost no chance to beat the Steelers, especially since they had lost Manny Lawson to an ACL injury and it had already become abundantly clear why the Seahawks were more than happy to trade Darrell Jackson to their division rivals. Still, the Niners were in the NFC, where it seemed possible to make the playoffs with a record of 8-8. As long as San Francisco didn’t injure their pride or themselves in the Steel City and came back home after a respectable loss, a winning season still seemed possible.

Then the Steelers slammed Smith against the ropes before the Seahawks knocked him out permanently a game later, and the season devolved into a mess of poor quarterbacking, nonexistent receivers and an exhausted defense that spent two-thirds of the game on the field.

So this year, my defenses are up. Last season Smith was supposed to make the progression to becoming a solid NFL starter, Frank Gore was talking about breaking Eric Dickerson’s rushing record (he only finished 1,003 yards short), and some guy named Jim Hostler was going to seamlessly replace Norv Turner as the team’s offensive coordinator.

Ugh.

Is it possible to believe the 49ers will find their way in 2008? Let’s take a look at a team that is extremely deep at a couple positions and shockingly shallow at others. Can this bunch survive the injuries each NFL team suffers over a 16 game season? Can Nolan survive the cheapest polyester suit Reebok has to offer? Will Mike Martz and J.T. O’Sullivan finally get an apartment together?

The Offense

No matter what happens, there’s no way this unit can be worse than last year. Do you remember the Chris Weinke era? I love that Weinke was 35, the same age as Trent Dilfer. That type of allegiance to old, untalented players makes Brian Sabean seem like Billy Beane.

This year it’s J.T. O’Sullivan and Mike Martz to the rescue, but they might not be as important as who they have to throw to. Gone are Jackson, Ashley Lelie, Bryan Gilmore and Taylor Jacobs, replaced by Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Jason Hill and Josh Morgan (Hill was on the team last year, but was buried on the bench for reasons never fully explained, making only 1 catch for 6 yards all year).

Have I mentioned that injuries look like they’ll be a big part of this season? The fact Bruce and Johnson missed most of the preseason doesn’t bode well for this group, no matter how good Morgan looked in preseason play. If healthy they’ll be a huge improvement on last year’s group, which might have been the worst receiving corps in 49ers history, but they still lack an elite receiver that demands double-teams at any time, unless Morgan somehow becomes the next Marques Colston. Vernon Davis has the most talent of this group.

The 49ers have three tight ends, meaning one of them is going to have to play a little fullback every now and again, since the 49ers only have one true fullback in Zak Keasey, a white dreadlocked guy from Princeton. I’m guessing Keasey has taken a philosophy class or two. Backing up Frank Gore are DeShaun Foster and Michael Robinson, two guys with injury questions (Foster over his entire career, while Robinson missed three preseason games after knee surgery during training camp).

Another area where the peculiar makeup of this year’s roster shows itself is on the offensive line. The 49ers bring only three tackles into Sunday’s game against Arizona: Joe Staley, Jonas Jennings (who gets injured putting his pads on) and Barry Sims, who committed too many penalties as a Raider to engender much confidence. At least the Niners have three right guards, though. Fantastic. Last year’s starter David Baas lost the job to Tony Wragge after tearing a pectoral muscle. Baas has been a bit of a bust since the Niners drafted him in the second round four years ago, save for a few decent performances at the end of last season, and rookie Chilo Rachal might not even see the field this season after getting drafted in the second round out of USC.

Analysis

Even though this team will be up and down offensively, they’re sure to improve on the 13.7 points per game they scored last year (worst in the NFL), simply due to Martz calling much better plays than Hostler ever could. He has the quarterback he wanted in O’Sullivan, their receivers will be better than last year’s crew by default, and Gore is going to benefit from the field opening up a little, something that never happened last year. But the offensive line is a deck of cards (one that’s a Joe Staley injury away from completely collapsing), and the receiving corps is still suspect. This offense won’t be consistent, but they’ll break through for 30 points a couple times in 2008, which is a huge improvement from last year.

The Defense

One of the most common things I’ve heard about the Niners over the offseason was that they were going to have a top five defense. Why, because Greg Manusky and Mike Singletary say so?

True, this team brings back Patrick Willis, who arguably had a better season last year than the NFL’s Defensive MVP Bob Sanders. Willis was absolutely nuclear last year, but he rarely gets to the quarterback. That isn’t his job, but it isn’t clear they have enough of a pass rush to move into the top ten of all NFL defenses, let alone the top five.

Free agent signee Justin Smith is a solid defensive end who suffered in Cincinnati’s wasteland of a defense under a mass of double-teams last year, but it’s doubtful Smith is the type of player who will end up with ten sacks. Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin, Ray McDonald, Ronald Fields and first-rounder Kentwan Balmer make up the rest of the defensive line, and none of them except for McDonald, Franklin and occasionally Fields will create much pressure up front. Balmer has that similar bust-like vibe that Rachal has too, especially if he can’t get past Sopoaga.

Of course the Niners are planning for the fourth consecutive year to use a 3-4 defense as their base set, even though the same plan has gotten scrapped each of the past three years. Willis is re-joined by Lawson, Parys Haralson (he of the ridiculous Lasik surgery commercials on KNBR — remember “a goat in a pepper patch is way worse than some dumb old bees”?) and the once-again-starting Jeff Ulbrich. Ulbrich was supposed to be a fill-in linebacker and see more work on special teams like in 2007, but Takeo Spikes hasn’t grabbed the starting job from the longest-tenured player on the Niners. Wait, you mean there was a reason the Eagles released him? Ladies in gentlemen, we have officially found this year’s Darrell Jackson!

It’s always been hoped that Lawson would develop into the next Jevon Kearse, but he’s never shown the ability to get into the backfield as well as he covers receivers, hence the Niners making a huge reach and signing Ahmad Brooks this week after his release from the Bengals for off-field issues (Hmmm … the Niners are picking up a player who was too ghetto for the Bengals? The same Bengals who just re-signed Chris Henry after Marvin Lewis declared he’d never play for the team again? Why am I getting a Lawrence Phillips feeling about this signing?). Tully Banta-Cain will again try to show he can get to the quarterback after failing to in New England* or last year in San Francisco, and Roderick Green will probably not see enough playing time. I like Green, I think he’s the third best pass-rusher on the team behind Smith and McDonald.

*(If I was the General Manager, I would stop taking cast-offs from organizations that are better than the 49ers. If it’s a salary issue or there’s a stud in front of a certain player like Michael Turner with LaDanian Tomlinson, go ahead and snag someone. But if teams like Seahawks, Eagles or Patriots feel like their teams would be better without a guy they could probably afford to keep, it’s probably safe to assume they aren’t, you know, good players. I can almost predict the 49ers signing Marvin Harrison to a three year contract in 2010.)

One place the 49ers will be fairly deep is the secondary, where they boast twelve players (although to be fair Allen Rossum was signed to be a kick returner, not a cornerback). Nate Clements is one of the best cornerbacks in the game, while Walt Harris has had a career resurgence with the Niners in the late stages of his career. Michael Lewis is a hard hitter at strong safety and Mark Roman is still the starter at free safety, although the dynamic Dashon Goldson will probably take his spot by midseason. Shawntae Spencer could probably start at corner for a few teams, and Donald Strickland always seems to make key plays. Tarell Brown, Marcus Hudson and Reggie Smith are all young corners the Niners have drafted in the past three years in hopes one of them can someday replace Harris, who’s in his thirteenth season.

Analysis

The coaches are talking tough about this year’s defensive unit, but their roster moves have shown otherwise. Hastily replacing Brandon Moore and Dontarrious Thomas (another questionable signing) with Brooks and Spikes shows that Nolan and defensive coordinator Mike Manusky weren’t happy with their pass rush, and making defensive backs almost a quarter of the roster is another clue that quarterbacks will often have more than three seconds to throw against San Francisco. This group won’t be on the field as long as last season’s defense was, but O’Sullivan seems prone to interceptions and Gore is known to be prone to fumbling, so they will give up points based on poor field position.

Special Teams

The good news: Andy Lee is the NFL’s best punter. Joe Nedney is a capable and consistent kicker. If you look at his career stats, Rossum is the best punt returner they’ve had since John Taylor — maybe their best kickoff return man ever.

The bad news: the Niners’ three best special teamers from last year can’t be counted on. Keith Lewis is looking slower by the minute, it’s tough to imagine Ulbrich being able to be the special teams demon he was last year if he’s needed as a linebacker and Robinson is coming off injury. Not surprisingly, their coverage teams during the preseason were awful. And Rossum is 33 and coming off a year in Pittsburgh where his only highlight was a touchdown return for 98 yards against … the Niners.

Final Prediction

Even considering how hard the fates of NFL teams are to predict, it’s difficult to imagine Mike Nolan enjoying his first winning season in 2008 when you check out their schedule, especially the first half:

Week 1: Arizona
Week 2: @ Seattle
Week 3: Detroit
Week 4: @ New Orleans
Week 5: New England
Week 6: Philadelphia
Week 7: @ NY Giants
Week 8: Seattle
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: @ Arizona
Week 11: St. Louis
Week 12: @ Dallas
Week 13: @ Buffalo
Week 14: NY Jets
Week 15: @ Miami
Week 16: @ St. Louis
Week 17: Washington

The 49ers offense was so inept, terrible and slow last year, opposing offenses weren’t exactly emptying the playbook against Nolan and Manusky’s defense. While I wouldn’t be surprised if the Niners scored ten more points a game under Martz, I’m worried the defense is going to be exposed when opposing offensive players and coaches actually try. Add in O’Sullivan slinging the ball all over the place and the Niners’ vulnerable coverage teams, the defense will probably have to rise above poor field position fairly often this season.

And oh man, the schedule. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Niners won sloppily against Arizona on Sunday for the second straight year (more on that in a later post), but I also wouldn’t be shocked if San Francisco went into their Week 10 rematch against the Cardinals riding a seven-game losing streak. In all, I see a terrible first eleven games for the Niners, followed by winning three or four of their last five games.

Almost as interesting as how the Niners will play is how Mike Nolan and Alex Smith will fare. Scot McCloughan already came out today and said Smith wouldn’t be on the team next year if he ended the year as a backup (which it looks like a distinct probability, barring an injury to J.T.O.), but Nolan’s future is fairly cloudy. If the Niners do lose seven games in a row after the season opener, or even if they go into the bye week at 2-6, Nolan will be fired and replaced by Martz, who will ride a late season schedule full of meaningless games against mediocre to terrible opponents to an offseason full of promise and goodwill.

Final Record: 7-9 (SEVEN AND NINE!) 
(Along with two suits worn by Nolan before he gets fired, a luxuious two-bedroom flat in San Jose for Martz and O’Sullivan to share, and no season tickets purchased by the BASG)

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