"Um, the win is nice but if you come away from this game feeling good about the team, you're insane."
The local newspaper stole this from twitter (as cheap filler content conscious modern newspapers are oft wont to do) so I'm making like Bono and stealing it back. Also, its an effective and succinct way to sum up an ugly-ass 13-8 win where the punter (with his 6 un-returnable bombs at the end of 6 consecutive impotent drives and his heads up running backwards to completely run out the clock while taking an intentional safety) was the man most deserving of the game ball/Player Of The Game honors.
It is some relief to see that the 49er Faithful do remember orthodox behavior demands not being grateful/relieved simply to win ugly road games against bad teams, to demand not merely wins but an appropriate level of style points. Likewise, it is good to see they are not so easily seduced by a couple early wins into seeing more greatness than is present and prematurely declaring the team to be "back". But on the other hand, the 49ers have been a bad team in recent years and we absolutely should be grateful/relieved simply that they actually managed to win an ugly road game against a bad team, since it's been almost 3 years since the last time they managed to do that. And next week, the road game is against a significantly much less bad team, whether their starting QB is too injured to play (leading to their own existential nightmare inherent in playing a QB named Kafka) or not.
Three Weeks into the season, and there are several patterns that have shown up in all three games for the 49ers, and not all of them are good.
Alex Smith Hasn't Sucked. By far the best and most welcome recurring theme of the year. In years past, Alex could be counted on to be good for one crippling mistake -- usually an interception but sometimes a fumble -- at a pivotal moment that would sink the team and blow the game. He's not doing that this year. Those interceptions have been throw-away incomplete passes. The fumbles have merely been sacks (too many of those, but we'll get to that later). He's making quick adjustments at the line; not well enough to make anyone forget the late great Peyton Manning (wait, he's not dead? Could've fooled me what with the coverage of his injury) but he's giving himself time to evade blitzes with his feet and complete third down passes and turn them into first downs. It may not sound like much, and it's a far cry from the feats of the ghosts he will forever be compared to, but given where we've been with Alex, this is a quantum leap in the right direction. 20/30 for 201 (0 and 0) yesterday is solid if not amazing, and perhaps they would be closer to amazing if not for the other, less happy trends I'm about to mention.
The Offensive Line Kinda Sucks. This is readily apparent three weeks in. Alex Smith may be throwing the ball a lot better and making way fewer mistakes, but he's also getting beat up more than ever before. The Cowboys sacked Alex a bunch of times last week, which was a huge factor in the 49ers being unable to keep the ball and run out the clock at the end of the game, which thus in turn can be blamed as costing them the game as Dallas used that time to tie it, forcing the OT in which they won. The Bengals sacked Alex consistently throughout yesterday's game and almost cost them a win again. Your Offensive Line Sucking is what football experts like to refer to as a "Big Fucking Problem." You pretty much need your offensive line to Not Suck as a prerequisite for anything you want to do with your offense. Running the ball? Need a good offensive line. Keeping your QB healthy? That's on your offensive line. Giving him time to throw? Offensive line again. Opening up the advanced chapters of your playbook and doing the more elaborate shit? Have to get all of the above working, too, all of which again necessitates an Offensive Line That Does Not Suck. Unfortunately the 49er O-Line does suck, at least so far. Last year's 1st round pick, Anthony Davis, is growing as a player, but at a glacial pace. Joe Staley, the rock by default of the offensive line because he's been around the longest and is closest to actually being really good (thus conscripting him as Guardian Of Alex Smith's Blind Side), is not playing really good. Jonathan Goodwin's an okay center, but he's beat a well-worn path to the sideline with all the minor injuries he's taking, meaning he's at way less than 100% of whatever his 100% is, which isn't as big a 100% as you'd want it to be. Then there's Shiloh Rachal, #62. I know he's #62 because the referee says a lot of sentences that end with "Number 62, Offense, X yard penalty, still 2nd down." Rachal is a bad offensive lineman. I looked over my stream-of-consciousness noted typed while watching the game yesterday, and there's a whole paragraph (paragraphs = a segment between commercial breaks on the ad-break happy FOX) where I lose track of the play-by-play because I'm sputtering over Rachal, wondering if the 49ers can either petition the league to be allowed to play with just 4 guys on the offensive line, and flashing back to the Dark Ages of when this team was running Kwame Harris out there a few years ago (Kwame I believe holds the unofficial record for most penalized offensive lineman in league history. By which I mean dumb penalties like holds and false starts, not manly offensive line penalties from the old days like when guys like Conrad Dobler used to break dude's legs for looking at his QB funny). To cut a long and painful to recollect story short, Kwame Harris absolutely sucked and was a historically bad offensive lineman with the 49ers. But Shiloh Rachal isn't much better, and the officials missed Alex Smith getting illegally spear-headbutted by Nate Clements because they were too busy watching Shiloh Rachal hold a guy who penetrated the backfield anyway because Rachal can't even fucking HOLD someone properly. So yeah, the offensive line has stunk 3 weeks in a row, and unless Anthony Davis or Mike Iupati donates their body to Black Magic research and we can voodoo Bob St. Clair's or Randy Cross' spirit into them, they're probably not going to get any better. Which is the font of these other problems:
The Offensive Play Calling Has Been Conservative, Bordering On Predictable. "Bordering On" is pretty generous, really. You remember how defense worked in Tecmo Bowl? Both players saw the same screen with the same playbook for the offensive team and you, as the defense, tried to guess (or slyly look at their hands out of the corner of your eye and see) and select the same play that the offense picked? And if you guessed right your team stormed in with an unstoppable bull rush and swarmed the play for a big loss? I've described several 49er plays in each 49er game this season this way in my notes. Other teams rush in like they know what's coming. They probably do. The play selection is disappointingly similar to last year's disappointing season and prehistoric offense under Mike Singletary. Part of this is due, as mentioned above, to the offensive line sucking, requiring Frank Gore and Vernon Davis to stay back and help block and thus keeping them from being able to go out and catch the ball. Maybe part of this is they don't fully trust that Alex Smith really is the Not-Suck QB he now appears to be. Maybe it's because Michael Crabtree has been hurt most weeks thus far (coincidentally again including every week of preseason and training camp) and is out-of-practice or not up to speed. Braylon Edwards being out yesterday with a much more concrete injury definitely hurt matters. But the bottom line is in a modern NFL where the rules favor being a pass-heavy offense (because high scoring games placate the Fantasy Player Crowd AND The Habitual Gambler Crowd, the two massive slices of the NFL's Demographic Pie) and the officials are there to reward your attempts to stretch the field with friendly pass interference and personal foul calls, the 49ers are still trying to slowly grind their way down the field in three yard increments accompanied by clouds of dust and occasional hitch passes to the scrub TEs who aren't Vernon Davis. Modern Defenses will pinch up and blitz the shit out of you and take this away, too, if you don't back them off with deep shit now and then. Not surprising, then, that the 49ers are scoring way fewer points than other teams, and Frank Gore's rushing stats are way below his career average.
Speaking Of Which, And Speaking of Fantasy Football Players and what they care about, Frank Gore has stunk this year, too, and is probably getting cut from Fantasy teams Across The Country As I Type (and if he isn't, he should be). Frank Gore has been the 49ers offense for the last several seasons. Since he emerged in 2005, really. Again, the Tecmo Bowl version of the 49er playbook would look be UP + A = Gore Left, LEFT + A = Gore Right, RIGHT + A = Gore Up The Middle, DOWN + A = Play Action to Gore, checkdown pass to Frank Gore. Every other team in the league knows Frank Gore is going to get the ball early and often. The problem is the 49ers still don't do a good job of giving the ball to other people enough to make other teams think "hey, they might give the ball to someone other than Frank Gore, we better adjust our positioning accordingly". The result is Frank Gore repeatedly charges into the middle of the line like General Custer With A Gold Helmet until Andy Lee is done warming up. He hasn't gotten remotely close to a 100 yard game this year. He has 0 big runs (20+ yards). He has only a handful of receptions. And if the 49ers don't start using Ted Ginn, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, or Braylon Edwards, this won't get better. It should also be mentioned that this will be Frank Gore's 7th Full Season as an NFL Running Back, and NFL Running Back Years are even more accelerated than Dog Years. It is possible that we are seeing more than 11 men in the box keying on Gore because everyone knows the 49ers won't give anyone else the ball. We could be seeing the beginning of the Slowing Down Of Frank Gore. It would be amusingly fitting that that be the case if it is so, because the Yorks caved in and gave an almost 30 year old running back a big ol' contract extention a few weeks before the start of the season. It is not necessarily so, and I am loathe to agree with or encourage the hysterical sort of fan currently tweeting to the newspaper sites about how Frank Gore is getting soft now that he's got his new contract (or as we call it out here, turning into Kevan Barlow, the guy Gore supplanted by outhustling). But it is known that RBs age fast in the NFL, and many other teams are evolving away from the One Tailback Approach that's dominated since the mid 90s and going back to multi-back sets and even Running Back By Committee. Perhaps it is time the 49ers start giving Gore some help back there. A positive sign from yesterday's win was the sign that perhaps they are doing that now; the one touchdown in the game was scored by Gore's backup, rookie Kendall Hunter, who played in spots early in the game but took over for Gore exclusively in the 4th Quarter. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was after Frank Gore gave up a bad fumble deep in their own territory that could've cost them the game (and last year probably would have). The defense held the Bengals to a field goal, and once the 49ers got the ball back, it was interesting to note -- even the FOX talking heads picked up on it -- that Kendall Hunter was the main back from there on out, and Frank Gore only sparingly seeing 1 play at a time to give him a rest.
The Other Bit of The Good News Is The Defense is Kinda Good. Given what we've seen of the offense, they better be, but they've shown a knack so far for forcing field goals when it looks like they're going to give up touchdowns. Sure, the DBs are tiny and all too exploitable, especially by big wide receivers (modern NFL note: almost all 1st string WRs are the genetic descendants of Terrell Owens and thus are Big Wide Receivers), which leads to teams getting down the field with discomfiting ease, but once in the red zone this defense stiffens. They did it to Dallas (at least they did until the offense 3 and outted so much it gassed these guys). They did it again against the Bengals, twice, and 2 times the difference between 3 and 7 is literally the difference between winning and losing yesterday's game. It is very hard to run on the 49ers (less valuable in the modern pass happy NFL, but at least it's something). The linebackers are fantastic; Bowman's looking almost as good as his ILB mate, the beloved MISTER PATRICK WILLIS and has actually supplanted MISTER PATRICK WILLIS as the team tackles leader thus far this season. The D-Line is okay. Ray McDonald gets pressure regularly, Justin Smith constantly forces the other team to hold him (too bad it's not called more), and this year's top draft pick, Aldon Smith, has looked solid and has a knack for at least getting a hand on passes as they come out. The DBs do seem to benefit from the cramped territory of the red zone, and they did get 2 very timely interceptions yesterday, including one by Carlos Rogers, which I mention because there's no way Raven Mack will believe Carlos actually made a positive contribution to a football team until I find a picture of it, but on the first defensive play following the kickoff after Hunter's TD, Carlos Rogers actually jumped a sideline route with perfect timing and put the offense back on the field. As a whole these guys are too small (as Dallas showed) and I am dreading the near future, wherein DeSean Jackson will be running past them a lot and their attempts to cover Calvin Johnson in three weeks will probably look like Andre The Giant running a go route to the turnbuckle with Sky Lo Lo and Haiti Kid clutching uselessly to his arms and dangling off like human fruit. It is unlikely to be pretty (well, for me anyway. Neil will love it), but that's for the weeks to come. If nothing else, the 49ers DBs have shown that if a QB is fool enough to throw the ball to them, they can and will catch it. Maybe the front 7 will gel as the season goes on and get better at protecting them via pressure.
So Three Weeks In, things could be much better but we've seen them be a whole lot worse. Last year they'd already started firing assistant coaches by week 3. For the moment, hope still lives, and the 49ers are in sole possession of First Place in their shitty and thus very winnable division. Especially if they actually can start winning a road game or two against non-division opponents. They'll get another chance to prove it against Philadelphia this Sunday. May the Eagles be as clueless without their starting QB as the Colts are without theirs.