sharesShare this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Google+ Share this on Tumblr Flip into Flipboard Share this on Reddit Share via SMS Share via Email
Hype is a funny thing. It gives fans hope that this year will be better than last year. It buoys desperate spectators vying for a chance to root for a winner. The offseason forces fans to play games on paper and on paper, it's easy to argue that the 2007 49ers should make waves in the NFL playoff race.
Fact is, though, hype is just that - hype. Hype alone cannot win you football games. If that were the case the Arizona Cardinals would be the only team to three-peat as Super Bowl champions. You need a solid team to win games on a consistent basis. While the 49ers have certainly gained some consistency under head coach Mike Nolan, consistency eludes the once mighty franchise; and has done so since the Steve Mariucci days. (As an aside, who would have thought that 6 years later fans would be looking on the Mariucci days with nostalgia?)
If the 49ers were running for a political office, they would certainly earn the dreaded "flip-flopper" tag. They beat Seattle twice and Denver in Mile High, both playoff-caliber teams. However they lost to Arizona twice, and couldn't handle Green Bay at home when a potential playoff berth was in the balance. According to Vegas, the 49ers won only one of three games they were supposed to win (Oakland) but managed to win two games where they were 10-point underdogs.
Yet, despite all that, ESPN is touting the 49ers as the team that will shock everyone. People are jumping on the bandwagon left and right and fueling the hype machine, oiling it's gears and helping it create expectations that mask many of the the team's question marks.
Alex Smith is still, by any calculation or voodoo math, a young quarterback learning on the job. He has not proven that he can put together an entire game, playing well in one half or the other, but never both. Last season He did not have over 300 yards passing in a game and only threw for multiple TD's three times. He showed flashes of brilliance against Seattle in week 15 after barely throwing for over a hundred yards against the Vikings, a team tied for last place in pass defense in 2006.
Sure, Smith has better targets this year, but the upgrade at wide receiver is anything but assured. Darrell Jackson is a definite upgrade, if he can remain healthy and make the transition from a West Coast/Cincinnatti style offense to a Coryell style offense. Ashley Lelie might as well have "underachiever" tattooed on his right butt-cheek. Only once has he surpassed 770 yards and while he could thrive in the 49ers' offense, he is still further from a proven commodity than Lindsey Lohan is from successful rehab. In fact, the only real proven commodities are Jackson and Arnaz Battle. Yes, the receiver corps are upgraded, but there are so many question marks, potentialities, and unproven players that it certainly takes some shine off the off-season hype.
Defensively, there is no question that the defense is certainly improved. The 49ers added starters at corner back, safety, nose tackle and outside linebacker via free agency. Through the draft, the 49ers added depth on the defensive line, defensive backfield, and drafted a potential star at inside linebacker in first-round pick Patrick Willis.
By no means does this mean all problems are solved on the defensive side of the ball. The transition to the 3-4 defense is going to involve some work as it will be a major shift in defensive scheme. The assignments will be new and this means a learning curve. It takes time for a team to not only assimilate players but also install schemes. There will be growing pains that could very well cost the 49ers a game or two. Remember, Nolan's defense relies on each player trusting the player next to him to fulfill his assignment. Building trust takes time and is not readily supplied out of the box in the NFL.
Many of the 49ers problems the last few seasons were with talent, namely the lack thereof. Now that the talent portion seems to be almost handled, there is another issue that could potentially be the most important, yet seemingly least talked about, issue for this young team. Namely, the ability of the offensive and defensive coordinators to call games and handle their respective sides of the ball. Both Greg Mankusy (defense) and Jim Hostler (offense) are first time coordinators at the NFL level. While I am by no means saying that they will be terrible, they are at the very least unproven in their current capacities.
Will Hostler be able to take advantage of Smith's skills? Will he have a feel for the game and be able to call plays at the right time? (Alex Smith's naked bootleg against Seattle comes to mind). Will he be able to design plays that take advantage of the offensive skill players like Vernon Davis? We all know what a poor coordinator can do to an offense - just ask Al Davis how that whole Tom Walsh thing worked out. And while the continuity is there and the potential is there, will we see results? On the other side of the ball Mankusy brings many of the same questions. Without a doubt, the coordinator situation is one worth watching closely as they could determine whether this new infusion of talent is all for naught.
The 49ers are better than they have been in years in terms of talent. But it is way too early to say that they should be getting deep into the playoffs. Heck, the 49ers own director of personnel, Scott McCloughan, said that they are finally able to be competitive on a weekly basis. Not that they will win on a regular basis, but that they can finally compete in the NFL.
Quite simply - don't believe the hype. The 49ers have too many questions to answer. They may look good on paper but the things lost in translation to the field on Sunday's could be dramatic. For one, this writer hopes that they answer all of those questions in a positive manner. If they do, they could really meet the lofty expectations being set by writers looking for the next story.
Reality, though, always lies somewhere in the middle.