My wife’s sister’s boyfriend has a subscription to ESPN The Magazine, and when we visited the two of them in San Diego last weekend, the NFL preview issue was lying around. Okay, I read it in the bathroom. At least I wasn’t tweeting in there. Anyway, I checked the NFC West, and the Niners were predicted to finish last. Sports Illustrated’s NFL preview just showed up in my mailbox yesterday, and the Niners were picked fourth in the NFL’s most embarrassing division of 2010 in there as well.
I haven’t received ESPN The Mag since canceling my Insider subscription four or five years ago, so I don’t know/remember where the 49ers were picked to finish before the 2010 season started. But I do remember that nearly everyone was at least somewhat high on the Niners, mostly because Mike Singletary was coming back and they went 4-0 in the preseason — starting with a 37-17 win in Indy because they intercepted the Colts’ backup quarterbacks four times. After ending 2009 on a high note and pulling out all the stops in the exhibition season, the Niners were the trendy pick in many publications not just to win the NFC West, but even by some as a sleeper contender for the NFC title.
Then the 49ers went to Seattle during Week 1, where Pete Carroll spent the afternoon mugging for the camera and hugging his players. The 49ers’ season was over, and it had barely started.
Now, with a new coach, an old quarterback nobody likes and very little time to prepare, the Niners are expected to finish in the basement of a division that hasn’t gotten demonstrably better since last season. You could argue the Rams are the new 49ers, expected to make a leap while standing on shaky ground. After Sam Bradford’s shoulder issues in college, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he became Matthew Stafford, but instead he had a good rookie season and everyone figures he’s on his way to Pro Bowls and playoff games. Bradford’s talented, but hardly bulletproof.
A couple Sundays from now Seattle and their hoodie-wearing coach come to Candlestick, and instead of Matt Hasselbeck the Niners will try stop Tavaris Jackson. Will the Seahawks win 31-6? Perhaps, but I’m not betting on it. Here’s why (besides Seattle’s QB switch).
Carroll’s staff actually has a real coaching staff to compete against. The Seahawks stacked the box, stopped Frank Gore and the 49ers didn’t know what to do. Jimmy Raye’s plan was to run Gore up the middle and give Alex Smith a passing plan that still gives Steve Young nightmares where he’s wearing an sherbet-colored jersey and a helmet with some Johnny Depp-looking character holding a knife in his teeth, with an intimidating feather dangling over his hat.
I don’t need to go any further. Carroll isn’t Bill Belichick, otherwise Belichick wouldn’t be the coach of the New England Patriots today. Even though the 49ers have been attempting to make the jump from sixth grade football to at least high-level college football in about a month’s time, there’s no way they’ll be as unimaginative as Singletary’s Niners.
Harbaugh is as secretive as they come. People aren’t even injured on this team, they’re “working on some things.” If Alex Smith’s brief yet sharp performance didn’t visibly excite him as much as it did, he might have tried to pretend he wasn’t the clear-cut starter on Week 1.
Most people figure Harbaugh has a few tricks he didn’t show off during the preseason, to the point where if there isn’t at least one four-tight end set against Seattle, people will be disappointed. Just kidding … kind of.
The 49ers’ young players are good. I’ve mentioned how pleased I am that the Niners ditched name guys like Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson and Nate Clements before, but it looks even better considering that their younger replacements have looked pretty strong during the preseason. NaVorro Bowman was a rookie last year, as were Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. All three looked like rookies last year, with the exception of Iupati, and Taylor Mays is barely an NFL player at all.
I’d much rather have Bowman over Spikes, and the same is true with Aldon Smith when you compare him to the frustrating Lawson. Smith is going to make errors, but he’s also going to have games where he registers an early sack and opposing coaches are forced to double-team him the rest of the game. Nobody was ever double-teaming Lawson unless it was during a kickoff or punt return.
Anthony Dixon’s a talented goalline back, but Kendall Hunter’s a contingency plan that could actually work if Frank Gore goes down, and I’d rather have Hunter returning kicks than Ted Ginn. He’s really good. Chris Culliver had a nice interception late in the last preseason game (a 20-17 win against San Diego, if you’re keeping track). The only highly-drafted rookie who doesn’t look anywhere near ready to contribute is Colin Kaepernick, but he’s an especially raw quarterback. At least he’s shown that he isn’t afraid to run and that he can evade NFL defenders.
Cuts are coming soon, and my guy Ronald Johnson is probably practice-squad bound after tentatively going for a ball that was deflected and subsequently intercepted. Also, Kyle Williams looks like he’s ready to earn some playing time himself. Then there’s Demarcus Dobbs, an undrafted free agent who looks like an absolute steal. The defense lost some name value, but I actually think they’ll be better in 2011 (and yes, I know that if they suck I’ll be reminded of the previous sentence many times).
Preseason perfection is completely worthless, and maybe even harmful. Under Harbaugh, this team aleady looks like they can handle adversity better. The first time the 49ers got punched in the mouth under Singletary, he turned around and asked to see the replay so he could identify the fist. Under Harbaugh the Niners have already come back from embarrassment twice. Preseason games don’t matter, but there’s something about this team that makes them look resourceful and scrappy enough to improve throughout the season. They aren’t a 10-win team, but resourcefulness, scrappiness and a coaching staff who can actually make adjustments during a game is at least worth six wins if you’re playing in this division. Plus, ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated can’t predict anything worth a damn, and getting chosen to finish first is often the kiss of death (especially in SI). The Niners aren’t a playoff team at this point, but they won’t be sucking for Luck either.