What have you done for me lately? Oooooo, yeah!
I guess lately doesn’t go as far back as winning the NFC Championship and being one non-call away from winning the Super Bowl. Nope, it doesn’t. It doesn’t for a fanbase who enjoys being part of the NFL’s elite again after years and years and years of being called the “class” organization in the league.
After one seven day stretch, a lot of that fanbase is confused, hurt, and downright delirious. But you can’t blame them. It’s football. And football makes you crazy.
(I run a 49ers Facebook Fan Page and see the up and down fan approval daily. It wasn’t like this when the 49ers were just expected to compete rather that win it all.)
After winning semi-impressively at home to start the season against Green Bay, the 49ers faced their rivals, the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle and on Sunday Night Football. Throughout the lead up to the game, there were murmurs that the Seahawks’ were going to try and break the record for loudest crowd noise, which they did. During the same game, a lightning storm delayed the contest for over an hour. So the 49ers not only had to deal with the loudest fans ever, but for the second time in three games (remember the Super Bowl blackout?) they had to deal with a long delay during the game.
I don’t bring that up to make an excuse for them because the Hawks had to deal with the delay too. But what are the odds of two of your last three games being delayed because of something absolutely not in your control? And what a freakish way to start the season for a team who was picked by many to go to the Super Bowl again. The Seahawks beat the 49ers up and in one game, surpassed them as the NFC’s best team. It was like a younger brother who has played against his older brother and his older brother’s friends his entire childhood. Just by trying to keep up and not get left behind, little brother gets better quickly.
After last season’s playoff loss, the Seahawks made every move with not only the Super Bowl in mind, but in becoming a better, tougher team than the 49ers. The teams are built similarly with athletic quarterbacks who can pick up first downs with their legs as well as their arm, massive offensive lines that open massive holes, Ford-tough running backs, and defenses with a mindset of hitting with a purpose. They signed Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to make life unpleasant for Colin Kaepernick and traded for slot maven Percy Harvin to blow by Carlos Rogers when the opportunity arose. Harvin hasn’t even played a down yet for the Seahawks and it feels like he’s already burned Rogers for a touchdown.
In that game, the Seahawks did everything better than the 49ers. They hit harder, covered better, ran faster, and their coach Pete Carroll smiled widest in their 29-3 pwnage (my 12-year old’s words) of the 49ers. To be fair to the 49ers, they are without star receiver Michael Crabtree and it showed. Richard Sherman bumped, poked, pulled, and held Anquan Boldin to the tune of only allowing Boldin one catch (Sherman said he wasn’t on Boldin on the play). He even slapped 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh on his boom boom after the game ended. I’m sure that made Carroll guffaw some more.
On this past Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts came to San Francisco and NFL prognosticators were predicting that the 49ers would take out their frustrations on the Colts. Jim Harbaugh had been 7-0 after losses. Well, make that 7-1. The Colts out-49er’d the 49ers. They played a ball control game, giving a safe game plan to their second year blue chip quarterback. In fact, Luck resembled former 49ers’ QB Alex Smith. He didn’t take any risks, converted many third and shorts thanks to an excellent ball-control running game, and he out-shined Colin Kaepernick on his own field. I’m not sure if the idea was for Andrew Luck to become the next Alex Smith, but at least during this game, that’s who he played like.
The Smith comparison is apropos since some 49ers fans are still upset with how the 49ers went with Kaepernick last year over Smith when Smith was hurt. Yes, even though the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl. Yes, those same fans who called for David Carr to start over Smith just three years ago. With Smith’s Chief’s sitting pretty at 3-0, those fans are using that information as proof that Smith is the better player even though the Chiefs beat the league-worst Jacksonville Jaguars, the Dallas Cowboys at home, and the Philadelphia Eagles in Philly. The Eagles’ win is impressive, but we really don’t know if the Chip Kelly led Eagles are any good. On the other hand, the 49ers have opened up against three playoff teams in a row. But that’s what happens when one team is playing a last place schedule and the other is playing a first place schedule.
What’s wrong with the 49ers?
Personnel-wise, there isn’t really anything wrong with the 49ers. Fundamentally, there might be something wrong. And that something could be a multitude of things.
The bullseye theory
Teams have circled the 49ers on their schedule and for many teams, it’s one of the most important games of the season. I’m sure the St. Louis Rams see it like that (who the 49ers play on a short week this Thursday). In all three games so far, the 49ers have been dared to pass the football. They’ve seen 8-man fronts and decided to attack those fronts with the pass. It worked against Green Bay, but not-so-much against Seattle and Indianapolis.
The hangover theory
Did the 49ers get a little too happy with their success? Star pass rushing linebacker Aldon Smith is headed for rehab after crashing his car and getting a DUI at 6AM Thursday morning. But I didn’t mean for the theory to be a pun on Aldon’s lifestyle as I wish him all the success to overcome his sickness. But the team and their star quarterback were written about a lot in the offseason and they were one of the sexy teams coming into the season.
The tool bag theory
I made this one up. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has a new tool in his tool bag that he can use for the entire season. With Alex Smith, the 49ers were a bit more one-dimensional. They would play smash-mouth football and use the run to set up the pass. It was because of the style of football that they wanted to play but also because it played to Smith’s strengths. But Kaepernick can do so much more than Smith that it’s almost like Roman has to use all of his skills or waste his talent.
Is it one of those three? All of those three? Pieces of those three? I’m sure those who know a lot more about the Xs and Os than I do can see things in more detailed high definition. But to me, a diehard 49ers fan, I think it’s a bit of all three of those.
The 49ers’ aren’t going to be able to win by playing their B- game this year like they may have in the two years prior. With teams shadowing Kaepernick better, collapsing the pocket around him and not allowing him to get any room on the outside, he’s become less of that swiss army knife QB that he was last year. Teams have successfully defensed the read-option thus far and even when he’s decided to run, it’s more out of desperation than anything else. He’s locked in the pocket trying to locate wide receivers who can’t separate and find the space to get open. Kaepernick has good accuracy, but he doesn’t have the familiarity with the receivers yet like he was able to achieve with Michael Crabtree last year. They had great chemistry and the loss of #yungcrab is understated. Without him, Kyle Williams and no-names like Marlon Moore and Quincy Patton have to make plays and they scare absolutely no one. Defenses are looking to bottle up the running game and control Anquan Boldin to behead the 49ers’ offense.
I’ll steal this one from Larry Krueger, a radio show host who I used to work with at KNBR and who does pre and postgame for the 49ers – maybe the 49ers need to be less dimensional and go back to what brought them to the dance? The Colts can’t stop the run and were missing one of their starting linebackers. It looked like that’s exactly what the 49ers were going to do until they just stopped running in the second half. And Frank Gore may have finally showed some frustration.
While Kaepernick’s laser for an arm can get the ball downfield with the best of them, if it’s not working, go back to the basics. In 2011, they 49ers ran for the 8th most yards in the league and last year, they ran for the 4th most. Even if the teams are trying to stop the run, the 49ers are usually so creative with multiple shifts and motion, and that alone should help the offensive line create some space. It’s something they’ve gone away from recently; probably because of the noise issue in Seattle and I’m not exactly sure why against Indianapolis. (Actually, now that I think of it, it could be because of Vern Davis’ absence.) Being a running team also gives their defense a rest. The Colts won the time of possession battle 36 minutes to 24 minutes. No wonder the Colts wore them down in the 4th quarter.
Who are the 49ers right now? Based on their identity offensively, they seem to want to be a passing team even if their personnel says they should be a running team. Defensively, their secondary is flawed as Chris Culliver is out for the season and Tarell Brown has become a pass interference machine. The once great Nnamdi Asomugha has looked like a shadow of himself at times. And Donte Whitner can shine on a good secondary, but when the team needs him to make plays, he seems to come up just a yard short on every time. The one bright spot is rookie Eric Reid who seems to have adjusted to the speed and size of the NFL nicely.
If the 49ers can get back to running the football as the focal point, they should be able to get close to what the NFL experts thought they were; a team built to play in January. But if they continue to go through this bizarre Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde identity offensively, a few more losses could throw them off the scent of the Super Bowl.
However, it’s very early. The sky is not falling chicken little. Richard Sherman just wants you feel like it is.
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