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Inside Monster Park in San Francisco, a dozen or so teenagers danced on the dugout following Joe Nedney's game winning field goal in overtime to the sound system that played "Celebration." It was a great moment for the very few die-hard 49er fans present when the 2005 NFL season had finally come to its conclusion last Sunday afternoon.
With an announced crowd of 67,970, the crowd that actually showed up inside Monster Park nearly represented some 30,000 people in mass total. Many seats remained ominously empty on New Year's Day, with some 49er fans opting to forego on to something more interesting then watching the two worst teams battle it out at the end of then season for draft pick positioning.
I have to say the victory was a nice period to the end of our season, especially since it was a consecutive victory for us with Alex Smith still at the helm of this franchise. The heavens above Monster Park parted with the rain through three quarters of play, but the notorious winds of old Candlestick Park howled throughout the day at around 28 miles per hour to create havoc for punter Andy Lee. Lee struggled for the first time all season against Mother Nature, that saw him kick off an 18-yarder that rolled out of bounds at the San Francisco 21-yard line, which set up the first Houston score of the game with a field goal.
His second punt of the game made the first one look like an expensive Christmas present in that with his new adjustments to project better distance and direction, he wound up with absolutely nothing as the Texan's Ramon Walker broke through to block the kick at the 49ers 17-yard line.
This in fact set up the next Houston Texans score with a touchdown run by running back Vernand Morency that capped the score at 10-0 Texans. The San Francisco 49ers though, went back to the staple of their offense from just a week ago by implementing a running game that featured heavy doses of Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks. This churned up 182 total yards in rushing for the 49ers and left guard Justin Smiley had a lot of improvement on display to prove it.
Frank Gore had 25 carries on the day that generated 108 yards of offense. Most of these yards came right after impact on the first initial hit. I have never seen such a ferocious fighting machine as I've seen with Frank Gore. This is an athlete that honestly just loves playing the game.
Frank Gore has out gained Kevan Barlow for the team rushing lead by 27 total yards, by finishing with 608 yards. He also became the first rookie to lead the 49ers in rushing since Dexter Carter did it in 1990. Kevan Barlow has been criticized for dancing around too much instead of just finding a hole and making something happen. Barlow finished the season by being placed on injured reserve because of a sore knee he has been dealing with. Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks have been playing for the exclusive prime time as the main weapons of the San Francisco 49er offense. Both have made enormous strides towards establishing themselves as positive influences on the overall offense.
Frank Gore has arose suspicion throughout the team that he may be the best fit in this offense as the starting running back next season over veteran running back and teammate Barlow. Kevan Barlow has fallen below overall expectations this season, but some of that has to be attributed to the shake-ups that have happened on the offensive line with both left tackle Jonas Jennings and center Jeremy Newberry out.
Even Mike Nolan questioned Kevan Barlow's tendency to "dance around too much," as being a potential problem before hitting the line of scrimmage like he's supposed to be. Barlow right now is just two years into his new contract that was signed for five years at $20 million dollars that will reward him $2.5 million in 2006 alone. Some would say he hasn't earned that and that is why University of Southern California running back Reggie Bush looks so enticing.
In fact many San Francisco 49er fans have been anxious to accept consecutive losses for the team in order to position themselves for a shot at acquiring Reggie Bush with an early draft pick. I was one that disagreed with this, as winning is always the main goal of any team despite having a better shot at a premier college talent such as Reggie Bush.
Frank Gore, in my opinion, is the man of the future. He represents the San Francisco 49ers more than any running back on the present roster right now. He is a tenacious fighter that grinds out yards after the catch and while on the run. He breaks tackles and is able to bounce off several would be tacklers before he's brought down back to earth. He doesn't quit and he fights for every scrap of yardage he can. When you compare him to Kevan Barlow, you can see who the better running back is based upon the 2005 NFL season.
Maurice Hicks is another premier running back that adds a different look to our offense. He had a good day against the Houston Texans with 18 carries for 64 total yards as well, and is the type of back that is elusive with speed and a great burst of initial quickness. I feel very comfortable going into the 2006 NFL season with these running backs in our stable. I see absolutely no reason for us to even think about Reggie Bush with what we've seen from these two and a rejuvenated and healthy Kevan Barlow in our corner.
Running back coach Bishop Harris is a fan of Frank Gore and after seeing what he has done in his rookie season as a San Francisco 49er, we can all agree this guy is going somewhere. Not comparing Gore to Bush, but when you examine Frank Gore you see someone that has impressive inside-outside burst, he doesn't go down very easily as he is seen dragging defensive backs almost piggy back sometimes, where some backs are kneeling down as one defender is seen merely breathing on them.
He is a very humble person that doesn't cause waves inside the locker room or with the press. He demonstrates a great positive attitude and has an undying work ethic despite the injuries he is inflicted with on almost any given Sunday.
"Coach Harris has had a lot of great backs and I asked him one day, 'Who had the most yards for you in primarily a backup role?'" Gore said. "He told me it was LaMont Jordan (479 yards in 2004 with the Jets). So I set my goal: I told him I was going to have more yards than Jordan did in my first year."
This guy is really something special. He already has eclipsed that number by LaMont Jordan. He is convinced that he can be a starting running back inside the NFL despite the long history of injuries he has been dealing with since his college days as a Miami Hurricane.
When Nolan was asked if he could be a starting running back down the road in San Francisco his answer was a positive one despite the fact that Frank Gore sustained an injury early in the pre-season and has been dealing with it throughout the regular season.
"Not just today, but all along," Nolan said. "I felt that way when we drafted him. The setback was when we found out about his shoulder way back before the season started and we had to back off on his reps."
Frank Gore has sustained loose shoulder sockets that are sometimes prone to separations, and he tweaked one of them during pre-season. He will undergo corrective surgery in the off-season, but the 49ers felt they needed to limit his activity in practice and in games early to get him through the season.
If you know Frank Gore then you also know about his potentially catastrophic ACL surgeries on both of his knees, his left in 2002 and his right in 2003, while playing at the University of Miami. He has been determined and on a crusade to circumvent the notion that he cannot stay durable enough inside the NFL.
"I want to be something in this league, man," he said. "A lot of great backs have come into this league from the University of Miami, most of them five-year starters. Once I got my opportunity I wanted to show the NFL I'm a top-tier running back from the U. I can do what we do."
The San Francisco 49er offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy had enough confidence in Frank Gore that with just two minutes left in regulation, he had Alex Smith pitch him the ball on a left sweep on third-and-6 at the 50-yard line. Although we wound up not scoring, he did gain 15-yards and the first down. Very impressive indeed, if I do say so myself.
Getting back to the game in which we defeated the Houston Texans 20-17...
Emergency indoctrinated cornerback Mike Adams played a critical role in securing the victory by intercepting Houston Texan quarterback Tony Banks pass late in the third quarter. This spectacular interception at the Houston 40-yard line led to him sprinting in for the touchdown, and sent shockwaves throughout the stands Monster Park. It was a critical play that the 49er defense executed to tie the game up 17-17 to end the third quarter of play.
Mike Adams didn't end the victory ceremonies there either, as late in the overtime quarter, with 5:32 left to play, he intercepted Tony Banks yet again at the San Francisco 48-yard line and even did a lateral to safety Ben Emanuel, who ran it for 35-yards to the Houston 21-yard line and helped set-up Joe Nedney's game winning field goal.
Mike Adams has been a source of strength for the secondary throughout the injury-plagued season. He has played primarily as a nickel cornerback and as a safety. He started at cornerback this day and did a remarkable job in reading the eyes and facial expressions of veteran quarterback Tony Banks and positioning himself for the interceptions.
In regards to Alex Smith, well he did throw his very first offensive touchdown of the season on third-and-five from the Houston 14-yard line, after rolling to his right and spotting Brandon Lloyd in the corner of the end zone. Some may not think that this has any significance but in reality it builds on a confidence that has been shaken all season long. His celebration after sprinting to the end zone to meet Lloyd was a thriller since you can now believe he is at least capable of finding someone there.
Alex Smith made sure he secured the ball for himself as both a motivating factor and an affirmation that this was his first touchdown pass in the NFL. Alex Smith finished the season at least on a high note with two consecutive victories.
He recorded a passer rating of 40.8, the second lowest ever among No. 1 draft picks; but there has been definitely some improvement we can talk about. He finished the season with 84 completions in 165 passes for 875 yards, with 11 interceptions (he had another on Sunday), and that one, precious touchdown he can hang his hat on.
Still there has to be some sympathy expressed for Alex Smith. He is a young quarterback in a rebuilding franchise, with no real playmakers to spy and throw the ball to. He played behind a makeshift offensive line that was depleted of both talent and experience and was unable to become a cohesive unit until very late into the season.
In a way you are sad to see the season end, especially when you can see the improvement being made by him on a week-to-week basis. Now is the time for him to collect his thoughts and then get back into the off-season regimen and sharpen knowledge and tactics so he'll be better prepared to start with a fire burning next season.
In conclusion, I say this season has been a season of immense disappointment but also of immense improvement from the Dennis Erickson era. We have a coach and assistants that know what they are doing and are committed to winning.
We will rebuild and we will prosper with great decision-making and sound execution based upon coaching and, of course, experience. Let us be patient and cooperative in this long journey of ours and pack Monster Park and the airwaves next season for a revival in the making.