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I've always hated the bye week.
I know it sounds selfish, but I don't care. Greed is good.
I suppose it stems from childhood, long before fantasy leagues invaded my life, but one week without watching the 49ers has always made for a lackluster Sunday.
The players can have their rest and recuperation. I guess I'll just sit here and reflect. At a bar. Alone.
As I look ahead to the 49ers final nine games of the 2014 season I've zeroed in on eight men that will have a fair to fairly enormous impact on where the team finishes. Those names in particular order:
8. Vernon Davis
There's an old Proverb that says, "When Davis doesn't play, the 49ers lose." That adage is clearly an ancient text. While that's not to say the team is fine without him, the reality is that Vernon Davis has been banged up for much of this season and the team has been able to win football games. Clearly he hasn't looked good the previous two weeks with multiple dropped passes (bad ones at that). The ball is certainly getting spread around a lot more, which is good, but Vernon Davis is still the team's biggest mismatch for opposing defenses. A healthy and focused Davis should produce an additional element in this ever improving passing game.
7. Phil Dawson
Dawson has had some terrific games throughout the first half of this season, notably at home against the Eagles and the Chiefs. I sense he's earned a strong amount of trust even amongst some of the more fickle of evaluators, the fans. While he's 13 for 16 on the season, it should be noted that he is just 2 for 5 on the road. Nothing will be given in the second half of the year, so it's not difficult to imagine that a game or two may very well come down to #9 splitting the uprights when it matters most.
6. Tramaine Brock/Chris Culliver (tie)
Both of these guys are here because one of them will need to step up. As far as I'm concerned, Perrish Cox has played his way into the starting lineup and has clearly looked like the best cover man on the 49ers. Against the Broncos, Tramaine Brock looked about as rusty as a guy who had missed the previous five weeks could possibly look. Chris Culliver, nursing an injury of his own, hasn't impressed me. Both players began the season as the teams' starting corners for a reason, and I think it's important for one and/or both of them to rise to the occasion. I may be off base on the Cox assumption and the team is just waiting to get both of these guy back on the field together, and if so, terrific. Time to show us what you got. There is an added pressure for both of these players to deliver, considering the team's pass rush woes.
5. Carlos Hyde
Where's the player that dazzled in the preseason and forced many of us to snatch him up late on draft day in our fantasy leagues? Carlos Hyde has had some nice moments early in the 2014 season, but he isn't quite the force (yet) that I imagine many fans were expecting. With 48 carries this young season, Hyde has gotten nearly half as many touches as his mentor (Gore has 102 carries), but clearly the coaching staff believes in his ability and has not shied away from giving him the ball on crucial downs. Frank Gore has proven that against certain teams at certain points, he can still produce like the good ole' days, but Carlos Hyde possesses fresh legs and a penchant for yards after contact that this offense could really use to create a consistent balance.
4. Jim Harbaugh
I just had to throw a curve ball into the mix! We all know the "unnamed sources" headline fodder that has been a mainstay this season, but it's fairly evident that Jim Harbaugh is getting a level of scrutiny week-to-week that he hasn't been accustomed to since he became the head coach of the 49ers. Love him or hate him, Jim Harbaugh has put this team in a position to win nearly every game this season (Not Denver). I don't think anyone is overjoyed at being 4-3, but outside of a Colin Kaepernick meltdown in the fourth quarter against the Bears and some shockingly bad penalties in Arizona, this team could very easily be 6-1 and I don't know that anyone would think twice about it. Harbaugh's ability to motivate this team, oversee a gradual offensive evolution, and trust in a grossly undermanned bend-don't-break defense (at the moment) has them in the thick of the NFC West race. Say what you want about the guy, but his value for this particular team down the stretch cannot be overstated.
3. NaVorro Bowman
"Just wait until Bowman gets back". "Man, once NaVorro is healthy this D will look right again." Love the sentiment and I hope those feelings come to fruition, but isn't there a small part of you that wonders if Bowman can ever get back to his pre-injury level? For the record, I believe he's a special talent and the team has appeared to do a terrific job with handling his rehab, but let's not forget how brutal that injury truly was. Obviously getting Aldon Smith back will be a shot in the arm to this ailing defense, but a healthy Bowman has proven to be the unit's most valuable player. Michael Wilhoite has been serviceable alongside Patrick Willis, but if Bowman can get back to the 2013 version of himself, this team becomes instantly better.
2. Interior Offensive Line
Again, I'm cheating here with multiple players in one spot, but this has been a surprising weak spot for the team. Center Daniel Kilgore was arguably the most consistent player in the middle for the 49ers and with his season-ending injury, rookie Marcus Martin will be forced into the fray earlier than anticipated. Alex Boone has not looked like the same player from previous seasons and I believe we're past the "he missed the preseason give him some time" argument. He got the money he was holding out for and now it's time for him to step his game up. Mike Iupati has had an up-and-down season as his run-blocking is still amongst the league's best, but his pass protection has been uncharacteristically bad (Pro Football Focus has him in the bottom ten for guards). Much of the offense's success is riding on Martin, Boone, and Iupati (and perhaps Looney) playing above average football the rest of the way. Power rushing and a ladder for Kaepernick to climb up in the pocket depend on it. Speaking of…
1. Colin Kaepernick
What, were you expecting someone else? Yes, he still throws one or two "what are you thinking?" passes a game. Sure, he still has some clock management issues to work on. Clearly, he misses an occasional open receiver. All that said, Colin Kaepernick is playing very good football. More than a few have said as Colin goes so goes the 49ers, and I think this team is becoming more and more comfortable with that notion. This season he's making reads, looking at secondary options, and taking chances down the field. I may be in the minority, but I still wouldn't mind seeing him tuck the ball down and running a bit more; with a struggling line in front of him, it appears he's patient to a fault trying to stay in the pocket at times. It is however forcing him to keep his eyes down the field, so in theory, this is also helping him mature as a quarterback (I believe I just countered my own point). Bottom line, with the defense showing some serious wear, and the run game struggling to consistently produce, Kap will need to continue to play very good football and has to play two halves of it each week. He has weapons at his disposal and the trust of the coaching staff, now it's time for Colin Kaepernick to put this team on his shoulders.
So there you have it, my eight to be great.
Oh, and the bar just closed. I need a ride home.