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First and foremost I want to express my deepest condolences and appreciation to the Bill Walsh family as they struggle through this very difficult time with the passing of a football legend and icon in our most revered Bill Walsh. Bill Walsh was and still is the very face of the San Francisco 49ers. He established the very dynasty that the San Francisco 49ers were able to formulate beginning from 1979 and continued right up and until the mid 1990's as we recall our very last Super Bowl.
As a President, General Manager and most thought of as the "Genius," Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers I have very fond memories of this man as I was in high school during the very handiwork of this marvelous human being that gave so much of himself to his family, friends, players and ultimately the communities that he touched from the college levels right up and into the professional ranks.
As his services indicated inside Monster Park not too long ago, he was the very soul and heartbeat of this organization throughout its glory years and supreme reign over the NFL during his tenure as head coach. His players and fellow coaches that sprouted up and underneath from him were there to legitimize and testify to his fortitude and greatness from the podium in honor of this legendary figure before his family, friends, colleagues and 49er faithful fans from all around.
So much of what I listened to jolted my memories of Bill Walsh pacing the sidelines during the 1980's and always studying every play with immense intensity and making the adjustments that were necessary to thwart one defense after another with his superior offensive skills and tenacity to win and win at all costs. No one did it better than Bill Walsh from my years of watching and analyzing football over the years, and so many will agree with me on this mark.
His philosophies and doctrines of what football is and continues to be are in evidence everywhere you go or may travel. His family tree of coaches has orchestrated a constant stream of plays and schemes designed by Bill and improvised with a twist or two here and there on a never ending basis even today as we watch the game and appreciate his legendary contributions to what is now officially called "The West-Coast Offense," by all counts and purposes.
Bill Walsh touched so many lives and they continue to be with many of the players inside the NFL today knighted by his words and thoughts of "there is something in that player that will compel him to be a great talent in the NFL." He was the best evaluator of pure football talent like you've never seen before. He could study a player for but one session or less and come away and provide you a complete analysis on why this particular player would be successful on the professional stage of the NFL.
He had a wit and style all his own and provided that to the San Francisco 49ers for many years to come rather as a coach or merely as a paid consultant his mind and will to find competitive and well-rounded football talent was never-ending. The ones that come fresh to my mind are quarterback Jeff Garcia and tight end Eric Johnson two phenomenal talents that were hand-picked by Bill Walsh for the San Francisco 49ers and continue to be very productive up and till today.
These two were but a few of the players that made immediate positive impacts on a franchise enshrouded with glory and a winning attitude. Everyone that was a player inside the NFL wanted to be a San Francisco 49er during Bill Walsh's reign here with us. Former owner Eddie DeBartolo said it best in that Bill Walsh was the San Francisco 49ers and that holding and conducting his final services right here in Candlestick Park now named Bill Walsh Field was a fitting testament to his well renown name among the elite and privileged that got to know him on more than just a professional level.
I am further honored that current owners in Dr. John York and Denise DeBartolo have asked the NFL to honor Bill Walsh with a special ceremony on the opening regular season game this year and for the "BW," insignia that will adorn every player's helmet recognizing Bill for his everlasting mark on this organization and even its next championship run under current head coach Mike Nolan.
Now let's get back to what I observed in the first pre-season game played against the Denver Broncos here on Bill Walsh Field this past Monday televised on ESPN. Ron Jaworski, the hawk analyzer for ESPN, said it best about San Francisco 49er quarterback Alex Smith. He said Smith has established a pinpoint accuracy with the football by placing it exactly where only his wide receivers can catch and haul it in while draped by opposing defensive backs and with a flair that resembles 49er quarterbacks of the past.
In his 13 plays and especially on his opening drive Alex Smith looked very comfortable with what he was doing while inside the pocket. I saw a quarterback staying more low-key while standing inside the pocket and delivering one completion right after another.
Overall pass protection was evident and so were the facts that unveiled themselves with his throwing accuracy in deliveries to wide receivers Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle. Alex ran each offensive drive that he had with a sound provision to score on each drive and he did just that with a Joe Nedney field goal and a Michael Robinson touchdown. He went 4-for-5 for 58 total yards getting sacked once and registered a quarterback rating of 115.0.
"I felt a lot more comfortable than I have ever played," Smith said. "Knowing what is happening and reading defenses; everything is really slowing down. I felt really comfortable about that."
It is evident from watching Alex Smith that he has a proven confidence on the field like he never did before. Being his third year, registered progress is an expected element that should translate into more points being scored on the field. Former offensive coordinator Norv Turner has definitely left his mark on this young man from the University of Utah in more ways than one.
New offensive coordinator Jim Hostler changed things up a little for Alex by keeping him more contained inside the pocket and working on those raw skills he needs to strengthen instead of swaying him towards his strength last season in rolling out of the pocket and making dump passes in the 10-15-yard completion categories. His improved ability to read and react to defensive alignments and improvised schemes are starting to show positive signs to all of the 49er faithful that tune in to watch him.
It is the start of something special in Alex Smith and I am looking forward to watching continued progress with Alex in the next few pre-season games in which the passing attack needs to show signs of making more than just first downs but to be a registered trademark while inside the red zone with establishing a touchdown rather than just field goals.
Both Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle made Alex Smith look impressive by being where they needed to be on pass completions that threw the 49er faithful into a frenzy of celebrating activity all along the sidelines and far into the outer reaches of the skyline above Monster Park this past Monday. It was exciting and comforting to see a consistent movement of the ball offensively by air with Alex Smith starting to register a comfort zone between him and his receivers that will be most vital to continued improvement.
With Frank Gore nursing a broken hand that needs to be fully healed in my opinion before stepping out on the field, Maurice Hicks who hasn't looked all that good in training camp suddenly dashed those doubts by playing hard in this game with three carries for 30 total yards with a long run of 20-yards that looked spectacular.
In fact the rushing game for the 49ers looked promising despite the absence of Frank Gore with Michael Robinson running in for a touchdown and rookie Thomas Clayton averaging 4.8 yards a carry on six carries. Offensively we looked good even though veteran Trent Dilfer looked a bit rusty with getting sacked twice and throwing an interception to boot.
"What you want to do in pre-season is get a lot of plays and that means first downs," said backup quarterback Trent Dilfer, who got into the game early in the second quarter after Alex Smith got in a bit more than his prescribed 15 snaps. "And we held on to the ball (11 minutes, 42 seconds in the second quarter), which is key."
The San Francisco 49er defense, which has seen a complete overhaul in personnel through the draft and especially in free agency, didn't fair as well as the offense in this first pre-season game. First and foremost tackling was a key problem for the defense especially on the Denver Broncos opening drive with second-year quarterback Jay Cutler at the controls.
Three of the defenders on that drive (Cornerback Shawntae Spencer, linebacker Brandon Moore and defensive end Marques Douglass) missed clear opportunities that would've slowed down this offensive drive completely by way of the tackle. The Denver Bronco rushing attack established a 6.4-yard average per carry with Mike Bell and Travis Henry leading the way like a hot knife through butter on our defensive line.
Defensively, those that did stand out were rookie cornerback Tarell Brown that intercepted a Patrick Ramsey pass that provided us a field goal from Joe Nedney, and newly inserted pass rush specialist Tully Banta-Cain looked particularly impressive in providing some greatly needed heat that rattled veteran quarterback Patrick Ramsey on more than one occasion.
One has to remember that the 49ers are now switching to a 3-4 defensive alignment versus the 4-3 in which they have been greatly accustomed to over the years. Mike Nolan has been organizing personnel and gathering the winning formula to put all the right parts and philosophies in place for this to happen. As you can see from this game those very things are still falling into order and need time to work themselves out in proper fashion.
I am confident that the defense will make the necessary adjustments needed under Mike Nolan and Greg Manusky and progress will continue to register from one pre-season game to the next. You also have rookies and newly un-drafted players going full speed to try and make a name for them and try and secure a roster spot on this team. Mistakes and mental lapses are expected within the framework of pre-season games, as we all know all too well.
Final team statistics despite losing to the Denver Broncos 17-13 were impressive. We were able to accomplish 22 first downs and had a better third down efficiency then the Broncos did at 44%. We beat them in total net yards with 386 to their 270 but gave up more rushing yards to them 182 to our 144 because of tackling deficiencies. We lost efficiency still as noted while in the red zone with a 25% rating compared to their 67% in being able to score effectively.
We did win time of possession with 34:45 to the Broncos 25:15 setting the bar in overall offensive improvement even with it being just the first pre-season game. Again big progress with all aspects of our offense from the offensive line to the wide receivers everyone played a positive part in this game.
The San Francisco 49er defense will come around, as Mike Nolan indicated right after the game there were some disappointments but further highlighted that everyone will be accountable. The players have already been grumbling and fuming over individual deficiencies, but are committed towards getting better in the next game and the one after that. If anything I am on cloud nine even despite the loss by my opinion wasn't a loss at all when you analyze the statistics we were a winner and that formula will continue to manifest itself as we progress towards the regular season.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Press Democrat, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.