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Coming into 2014, many thought the 49ers would struggle during the early part of the season while integrating new starters and waiting for the wounded/suspended to return. It's easy to pick against the consensus. Some folks make a living at it. Only, this time, the consensus seems right. The 49ers have struggled, and yet they remain within striking distance of a playoff berth, as fans have hoped. In other words, to quote Dennis Green, the 49ers pretty much are who we thought they were, or would be, come this point in the season.
However, for such a predictable season, the current one has certainly not bored. Nor has it lacked hopeful signs for the faithful. While Jim Harbaugh has recently dominated most of the press coverage, I want to give a shout-out here to the position coaches. This season reminds me of 2011, when little-known players previously buried on the depth chart morphed into solid contributors. After a shaky start, Ed Donatell has worked with the secondary through roster turnover and injuries to field a competitive unit. How about Perrish Cox and Antoine Bethea? Even rookie Dontae Johnson has stepped up when needed. Yes, Peyton Manning will more thoroughly test this bunch. Nevertheless, the defensive backfield shows promise.
Likewise, linebackers coach Jim Leavitt has maneuvered around injuries and new faces to mostly put his charges in position to make plays, with noteworthy contributions here from Skuta, Lynch, and Wilhoite, none of them household names or high draft picks. When and if the former starters return, expect these guys to remain in the rotation.
Geep Chryst, meanwhile, continues to coach away at the finer points of quarterback play with Colin Kaepernick. While Kaep may never be John Brodie, let alone George Mira, the young signal caller does have his own well-known strengths. No, Colin has not made the great leap forward that many fans had sought, but he continues to work at his craft and has made incremental adjustments to his game. He has improved his touch on short and on loft passes. He doesn't lock in so much on one receiver. And, against the Rams, he didn't bolt as often or as early from the pocket. We'll see how these incremental improvements hold up under greater duress.
Trent Baalke certainly deserves credit for assembling a deep roster. And Harbaugh deserves some kudos for assembling this staff and then letting his coaches coach. But one should also never forget that the assistant coaches themselves remain a bulwark of this team. They must mold the talent and then implement the on-field results, while usually toiling in anonymity. Bravo for them.
A Gift from the Rams
I don't mean the victory. The 49ers deserved to win Monday's game. I mean the stone-cold stonewalling of several 49er running plays late in the fourth quarter. Nor do I disagree, given the game situation, with the fourth-down tries. Heck, the 49er coaches know their team better than I do, so I won't even grouse much about the individual play calls. I merely point out the Rams gifted the 49ers, for all the world to see, the realization that the Prospectors can no longer impose their smash-mouth will as once they could. Against some teams, maybe. But not on all teams at all times in all situations.
This 49er team, deprived of their once-great offensive line, must use the running game judiciously and creatively, while continuously adjusting for game situations and opponents. Also, teams in the NFC West have built defenses, in part specifically, to stop past iterations of the Niner run game. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has long been a leader in thwarting the power-run offense of the 49ers. His defenses combine stout personnel, strong gap discipline, and a willingness to commit extra bodies to curtail the ground attack. Let Kaepernick beat them if he can. Monday night, Colin, and the passing offense, did.
Should the 49ers abandon the running game? Of course not. But they will need a more balanced approach. And they must be wary of abandoning the balanced offense too early when they lead by only ten points. Coaches, like the rest of us, want it both ways. They want to run the clock out in the fourth quarter while simultaneously gaining low-risk first downs. But, if you can't run the ball at will, then trying to do so may contribute to your demise. Against mistake-prone teams with inexperienced quarterbacks, you may get away with this. Against teams like, say, the Denver Broncos, beware of playing too safe too early. And as the season wears on, don't forget the gift the ever-magnanimous Rams gave you: exposing the myth of Niner ground-game invincibility.
Someday when all the injuries have healed and the offensive line re-meshes, circumstances may warrant a return to consistent smash-mouth running. Until then, the faithful may take some solace in the revamped receiver corps and the welcome emergence of a more varied passing attack.
On the Verge
Are the 49ers on the verge of becoming a genuine Super Bowl contender again? Well, the Prospectors certainly have a severe challenge in their next game: a banged-up Niner squad coming off a road game, going on the road again on short rest to play against a splendid team with a great quarterback. Daunting. Some will regard the upcoming Bronco contest as a marker game for the 49ers. Let's review some possible outcomes and what they might tell us:
1)The 49ers handily beat the Broncos by a wide margin. If the 49ers defeat the Broncos by a wide margin this probably means that Jim Harbaugh has gone bonkers. Harbaugh simply does not like to win games by wide margins, even when his own team dominates. Then, again, maybe he'll show up on the sidelines Sunday night sporting a tuxedo, a prospect just as likely as a multiple-touchdown victory.
2)The 49ers beat the Broncos by a narrow margin. Unless extraordinary luck plays a role, we'd have to say the 49ers are back as championship contenders.
3)The Broncos beat the 49ers by a narrow margin. Given the circumstances, ditto, despite the Niners' record.
4)The Broncos beat the 49ers handily, and Mr. Manning demolishes Mr. Farve's record for career touchdown passes. Uh oh. Back to work, 49ers, and back to wild-card aspirations.
So, after all the drama, we're just about where the consensus expected the 49ers to be: hanging on to a good-enough early-season record while the youngsters take hold and the missing creep ever closer to their returns. Of course, other injuries will ensue (injuries to the d-line or Colin would devastate) and the returning players will require time to get up to game speed. But the victories already secured against the Cowboys and Eagles, with regard to possible future tie-breakers, look better, as one of those two teams may well contend for a wild-card slot. And if the 49ers heal and improve, they can still capture their own division. But there aint much room for backsliding, and any major regression will surely spell their doom.