What must the 49ers accomplish during the next quadrant of the season? Probably, the team would please 49er fans if they won some games, preferably all four of them. But, beyond that, the team will look to set up the second half of the season, and, during this mini-bye week, have already begun to tweak their roster with that end in sight. They have not yet, nor should they, give up on winning the NFC West. After all, a loss or two by the Seahawks, vulnerable, if barely, on the road, would put the Niners within striking distance. Yes, the Seahawks currently look like a juggernaut, a team of destiny, fortune's feathered favorites. But that status can change fast. Regardless of what those birds do, though, the 49ers must handle their own business.
Former NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer (Browns, Chiefs, Redskins, Chargers) once opined that a team could win a lot of games in the NFL simply by running the ball, playing tough defense, and limiting turnovers. Regular readers already anticipate the next sentence: Marty's 101-58-1 record proves him right; however, with a 5-13 post-season record, Coach Schottenheimer until recently boasted the distinction of having the most NFL regular-season wins during the Super-Bowl era without his teams actually winning one. No doubt much of the fault lies not in Marty's self, but in his stars. Still, his career illustrates the perils of consistently fielding superb teams not quite capable of the ultimate victory. (One-time 49er nemesis Chuck Knox faced the same fate.)
Aware of these perils, Jim Harbaugh switched from a so-called "game-manager" quarterback (Go Alex! Go Chiefs! Get us that upgraded draft choice!) to the more dynamic Colin Kaepernick. Now, amid calls to return to the pre-Kaep formula, the coach confronts a dilemma: does the team, as many have suggested, "go back to basics," or continue to risk losses with the chancier approach of more downfield passing and a hell-bent running quarterback? Coach Harbs, of course, will want to do both.
A return to solid fundamentals and more rigid on-field discipline is essential for sustained success, irrespective of which strategies the coaches might deploy. Missed assignments, foolish penalties, wasted time-outs, and generally sloppy play will lose games in any system. Likewise, simply throwing your jockstraps onto the field or emailing copies of off-season prognostications to opponents will not win games. The 49ers must return to tough, inspired football. And if it takes a reboot of the running game and smash-mouth football to restore this attitude, so be it.
But, in returning to this more conservative style, the 49ers must not devolve into a "running-to-keep-from losing" mentality. They must hone their running game into an aggressive attack that does not merely grind out short yardage, but that includes also big-yardage gash plays that can compete with the elite passing offenses that playoff teams eventually encounter. Everyone must block and tackle, and not just against hapless teams. The running game needs to succeed against good teams, too, and the defense stay strong against stellar offenses.
Have NFL defenses found a way to permanently disarm the pistol? Depends which pistol you mean. The 49ers may unveil yet another variation on it, but probably in an important game, and perhaps with a special package, for instance one that utilizes more appropriately the skills of LaMichael James. The team will continue to tread gingerly the fine line between keeping their young quarterback healthy and letting Kaep loose. In big games, they may well allow the gifted one to return to his rock-and-roll ways. Maybe the team brought in Skelton not just because of doubts about McCoy, or as a possible mentor, but as a potential injury replacement for both Kaep and Colt, who, himself, can scamper. Yes, it's a coldhearted game.
And an unforgiving one. Opponents won't care that Colin Kaepernick once wore the original of the NFL's top-selling merchandise jersey or that he looked fetching in nude photos. In fact, those tidbits may motivate defenders to play more ferociously against him. Kaepernick must continue to master his craft. But, in so doing, and in the team's returning, if even temporarily, to a more traditional offense, the 49ers can't become so scared of Colin making a mistake that that fear begins to hamper his development and sap his confidence. They must still allow him to sling the ball down the field, learn from his mistakes, and persevere through them. They must, at some point, let Kaep be Kaep. That's why the team traded Alex and kept Colin, because they wanted a big-game quarterback who could successfully compete against the league's passing marvels. Understandably, the Niners, knocked a bit off-balance by two early-season losses, reattached the training wheels. But, by the second half of the season, they may need to take them off again.
Harbaugh, as others have noted, sometimes seems loathe to allow young players much playing time. He abhors potentially game-losing mistakes. But this season's growing list of the missing, whether from on-field injuries or off-field problems, has forced more inexperienced players into the lineup. Let's hope, even as the walking wounded return, that coach Harbaugh continues to let those young players gain experience in actual game situations. Future salary cap problems notwithstanding, the team will need youngsters such as Brock, Lemonier, Kilgore, and James in the future, maybe as soon as this season. Let them assume larger roles now. And, what the hell, Coach may as well try every wide receiver he can find. Maybe, with time, one of them will stick as a standout. Can't be much worse than the non-Boldin crew so far anyway.
The 49ers' next four contests include some imminently winnable games. But the team must not just win the majority of these games. They must use them in a manner that readies the roster for the long hard slog of the season's second half. True, many of the missing/injured players may return. Some may acclimate themselves to game-speed soon. Others will take longer. But, when they do return, we should perhaps regard them as supplements rather than saviors, as needed additions to a team already back on the road to playoff relevance.
Remember, the goal remains not merely a playoff appearance, but a hot-streak run through them. The 49ers must position themselves to make just such a run, to get close enough to that goal so that Coach Harbaugh can employ his us-against-the-world approach to motivate his players. He's good at that.