There have been complaints. They were unrealistic, impossible goals, some said. They'd only inflate the team's hopes, and, when they were later dashed, deflate the team's faith in Coach Mike Nolan. Maybe even you, loyal readers of this, my second column, were among those who said Nolan was crazy when he told his team their task was to win the NFC West.
Okay, then, here's where you're wrong.
What so many fans and commentators seemed to miss was that in this case, the goal of winning the West complimented the long-term purpose of rebuilding the team. You see, what Nolan must have realized was that the first thing that needed rebuilding, before the talent, before the old 2-14 record, even before the fans perception, was the team's shattered psyche. Losing 14 games in a season can have a devastating effect on that kind of thing, and Nolan saw that he was in a unique position to deal with it.
By telling his team that their goal was to win now, Nolan was readying them to win in the future. The average fan has to look at teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions, which both would seem to be young, talented teams—on paper at least. The reality has been quite different, and a common thread between them is that neither had a coach who pushed them early in their development. To some observers (cough me cough), this would seem to be because they are only now learning how to win when they should be actually winning. Now. This year. Does this prove that Nolan is doing things the right way? No, of course not. These are only two examples of young teams who have underachieved so far this year. But it does show that at least Nolan is taking steps to avoid this happening with the 49ers.
So you see, in this case having short-term goals can fulfill the long-term purpose. These goals don't have to be achieved immediately, but just the fact that the team is learning to work towards them now means that they may not have to when the talent level on the roster is finally enough to match Nolan's vision for the team, hopefully in two or three years.
The next step in the development of the 49ers takes place this Sunday as the team takes on the 5-2 New York Giants at Monster Park. Cody Pickett, the fourth string quarterback at the season opener, will start for the 49ers.
Keys to the game:
Stop the run—Tiki Barber has without question been the most deadly weapon for the Giants this season, and if the 49ers are to stop him they'll need a big game from the their front seven on defense. The defensive line appeared to play particularly well in last week's victory over the Buccaneers, and only if that trend continues will the Niners have a chance in this week's contest.
Don't get out-muscled in the secondary—The Giants starting receiving duo of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer definitely has the size advantage over most of the 49ers secondary. The Niners' defensive backs will have to hang tough with them all game in order to prevent the Giant offense from skying its way downfield in the passing game.
Establish the Run—This strategy was finally fully "unleashed" in last week's win over Tampa, and will have to succeed again to give Cody Pickett a chance in his first regular season start. This strategy also plays to the strengths of Offensive Tackles Anthony Clement and Kwame Harris, who will have their work cut out for them as they face Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, respectively. For Harris, this week is particularly important, as he tries to carry over some of the momentum from what was possibly his best game as a professional last week, in which he gave up no sacks and was instrumental in opening holes for the ground game.