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Attention 49ers fans! Last week's miraculous overtime win against the Arizona Cardinals was a fluke. The offense that finally woke up and showed some production was a quirk. This week against the Carolina Panthers, the painfully awful San Francisco team that we have gotten used to seeing every week this season returned to delivery yet another uninspiring performance in Charlotte, North Carolina.
What made this loss even more painful was the fact that it did not come at the hands of an NFL juggernaut. The loss came against a horrible Panthers team that had only won four games this season. In fact, the Panthers had lost five straight games until they were blessed by the schedule makers with some relief in the form of a much needed game against one of the few teams that are even worse than them. Normally, going on the road and facing a hostile environment would be a negative for a visiting team. However, this Panthers team had not won a home game all season. They had only scored an average of 10.8 points per game at home which ranked second to last in the NFL. Sadly, the one team that they beat out in that ranking is San Francisco. The Panthers' last win at home took place on November 19th, 2006. Yes, it has been over a year since their home crowd has had something worth celebrating. The 49ers have once again fulfilled their role of making even the worst of teams look good.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that Carolina's starting quarterback, their third this season, was the 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde. This is his 21st season playing in the NFL meaning he has been around for the Montana, Young, Garcia, Rattay and Smith eras in San Francisco. Alex Smith was three when Testaverde took his first NFL snap. He is the second oldest quarterback to start in the NFL. Earlier this season, he became the oldest NFL quarterback to win a game. The point of all of this is that Testeverde, the definition of a pocket passer in his seasoned years, should have been attacked by this defense. The 49ers should have delivered whatever pressure they could to disrupt his reads and force him to make mistakes. Instead, the team only managed to get to Testaverde twice, once by cornerback Nate Clements and the other by nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga.
The Panthers on the other hand did a great job of putting pressure on the quarterback. Prior to their game against San Francisco, they had only compiled 10 sacks for the season, tying them for last place in the NFL. On Sunday alone, they had more than half that with six. If you watched the game, you saw that a lot of these were due to Dilfer's inability to make a decision. He would either hold on to the ball too long, fail to roll out where he likely would have bought himself more time, or simply run right into a waiting sack essentially doing the Carolina defense's job for them.
If there is one good thing that you can say about Dilfer's play, and there probably is only one thing, it's that he at least shows some passion on the football field. He is always out there running around, yelling at the officials during poor calls or lack of calls, showing frustration when he or his teammates make a mistake, and displaying a genuine desire to win. All are character traits that Alex Smith seems to lack. Instead, Smith seems to lower his head in shame and keep his thoughts to himself rather than force his teammates to view him as the leader of this offense. Unfortunately for San Francisco, that is Dilfer's lone positive football quality at this point in his career. At times, Dilfer can look as though he is very much on target...if his target is the opposing team. On Sunday, Dilfer really hurt the 49ers with his four costly interceptions.
What is this coaching staff thinking?
Then you have head coach Mike Nolan. It is as if Nolan is trying to find new and creative ways to lose football games. Maybe he has a bet with the Miami Dolphins on who can be the more boring and utterly confusing team to watch.
With 13:20 left in the first quarter, Andy Lee punted the ball for San Francisco and it was fumbled by Panthers receiver Ryne Robinson. San Francisco recovered the football, the officials ruled it the 49ers' ball, and then changed the ruling in Carolina's favor. The 49ers were a 3-8 club and it was early in the football game so why not challenge the call? Even if there turned out to not be enough visual evidence to overrule the call, the chance to have the ball inside your opponents' 15-yard line and strike first on the scoreboard is too much of a benefit to not take a shot. The only loss would have been a timeout which Nolan likely would have wasted early anyway.
Whether it be Nolan or offensive coordinator Jim Hostler's fault, the fact that running back Frank Gore only touched the ball 17 times in the game is a travesty. 12 of those touches were on the ground as Gore rushed for only 58 yards. That was still over 4.8 yards per carry. The other 5 touches were catches where he contributed 53 more yards of total offense. With your star running back playing relatively well, you have to get him more involved in the game. If you are too far behind to run the ball, you have to remember that Gore is one of the team's most reliable pass catchers making him a double threat on offense.
The other travesty was tight end Vernon Davis' one reception. While it can be argued that Davis, now in his second year, has been a bit of a disappointment, he has improved. He has all of the physical attributes to be a deadly weapon for this offense, but instead, the team chooses to often use him as a blocker which can only be frustrating to a young and eager player like Davis. Whether or not he will be a success in the NFL has not yet been determined, but we will never learn the truth if the coaching staff does not involve him more in the game plan.
One bright spot on the team is the play of rookie Patrick Willis, who not only may be the best inside linebacker in the NFL, he may be the best linebacker...period. Willis is having a phenomenal year and now has 128 tackles for the season. He recorded 18 on Sunday against the Panthers. Usually, rookies make a lot of mistakes and have a lot to learn. Willis on the other hand looks like a seasoned veteran and it is guys like veterans Tully Banta-Cain and Derek Smith that could learn a lot from Willis. The loss of Manny Lawson really hurt this defense because a Willis and Lawson dual would have made this group of linebackers very dangerous to plan for.
Where does San Francisco go during the offseason?
Fans are still debating whether or not Nolan should be shown the door and if he keeps game planning like he has, the tough decision by the Yorks will be made simpler. Everyone always reports that the 49ers have good practices and the players say that they feel well prepared, they just fail to execute on Sundays. It doesn't really matter how good you look in practices if you fail to produce in actual games. Regardless of Nolan's eventual fate, something needs to be done about this coaching staff. There are problems everywhere from the head coach and on down to the offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, and yes, even the wide receivers coach. This staff needs a major shakeup and at the very least, Jim Hostler and George Warhop need to be replaced.
As for the head coach spot, there have been many rumors like the possibility of current Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren coming in either as a general manager or coach to try and clean up the mess. Would the 49ers be willing to pay big money to pull in a guy like Bill Cowher? Would a guy like that even want to come to San Francisco? Remember, there is plenty of room to maneuver with this roster given the team's solid salary cap situation. If the team were to take a different direction with the team's head coaching job, they would need to hire someone with major NFL experience to appease the fans and not take another risk on a "potential" guy.
The team will likely make some kind of move at the quarterback position. Some interesting information has surfaced regarding Alex Smith's 2008 salary cap number (thanks to AB83Rules*). Smith was originally thought to count for $8.2 million against the 2008 salary cap. However, he may only count for $4.2 million. Much of Smith's contract was incentive based. Because he will likely fail to meet those incentives, approximately $4 million may be shaved off of his contract. Should the 49ers decide to cut Smith, they would save $2.3 million against the 2008 salary cap if they were to do so after June 1st. If they did it prior to June 1st, it would create an extra $1.9 million of dead money on top of his salary. The media is just now getting hold of this information and you may hear more about it in the coming days or weeks.
However, it is doubtful that the team would be willing to part ways with Smith in the offseason, nor should they. Instead, it may be more beneficial to bring in some competition for Smith. Backup Trent Dilfer would probably be more valuable as a coach than a player. From the looks of things, he simply does not have the limited skill he once had. Shaun Hill has only had one snap of regular season NFL action in his six year career and that was merely a kneel down while in Minnesota. The 49ers could easily replace both of Smith's backups. His main competition should not come from a draftee though. Drafting a quarterback is too much of a risk and it would mean rebuilding the offense all over again around another guy that may never pan out. Fans have already been waiting three years for the Alex Smith project to develop.
The problem may be the free agent list itself. Cleveland's Derek Anderson will be a restricted free agent. However, there is the possibility that the franchise tag will be applied to him or very likely that the Browns will sign him to an extension. If that were the case, where would that leave 2007 first round draft pick Brady Quinn? Unrestricted free agents include two Oakland Raiders in Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown as well as Rex Grossman from the Bears. Outside of Anderson, a player that the 49ers would likely have to give up a lot for, no quarterback free agents look overwhelmingly desirable, but you never know what names may come up as the close of the season draws closer. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb may become available. The bad thing about that is McNabb has not proven much in recent years for Philadelphia.
At wide receiver, Darrell Jackson either needs to be disposed of or dropped on the depth chart. He has been a disappointment since the beginning of the season and constantly drops catchable balls. A playmaker needs to be brought in to compliment Arnaz Battle. Randy Moss will likely be wrapped up by New England so that will leave a bunch of potential guys like Dallas' Patrick Crayton and Arizona's Bryant Johnson. While it would be nice to get a guy like Denver's Brandon Stokley, the Broncos would be stupid to let him go and will likely overpay him.
There is no telling what could happen along the 49ers' offensive line. Amazingly, rookie tackle Joe Staley is the only guy that has secured his position for 2008. Who knows what could happen at guard with Larry Allen or at tackle with Jonas Jennings. Guys like Alan Faneca of the Steelers will be very sought after during the offseason, but the 49ers will likely go after someone a little younger to at least introduce some competition. Players like the Colts' Ryan Lilja, the Steelers' Max Starks, the Panthers' Travelle Wharton and the Seahawks' Floyd Womack may get a look. The Colts' Jake Scott would also be nice but it is unlikely that Indianapolis would let him go and would be more likely to get rid of Lilja.
The 49ers need some help along the defensive line to create more of a pass rush. The only problem is the lack of young nose tackles available. At end, Bryant Young's years may be numbered but he is still playing with more heart than most of his teammates. Marques Douglas has even received a little media attention due to his potential and rookie Ray McDonald has shown some promise this season. While the defensive line would be much easier to fix if the team were to permanently switch back to the 4-3, should Nolan remain, that is not likely to happen. A young player like Jared Allen of the Chiefs would be a nice fit at the defensive end spot. It would be nice to get a guy like Corey Williams of the Packers or Albert Haynesworth of the Titans, but both those guys are better suited for the 4-3. Ravens linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs would be a nice addition as well. Imagine that guy, who is a great pass rusher, lined up with Willis and Lawson.
At safety, it would be nice to grab a young guy like Dallas' Ken Hamlin and pair him up with Michael Lewis. That would solidify the defensive backfield with Lewis, Clements and Harris. Of course, the team will also have Dashon Goldson waiting for his chance to prove himself.
Whatever changes happen to the coaching staff after the season, the 49ers have the available money to spend and can upgrade at a number of positions or at least add some valuable depth.
Pro Bowl voting
Don't forget to help guys like linebacker Patrick Willis and punter Andy Lee make it to the Pro Bowl to represent San Francisco. Both players are very deserving. You could also make a case for guys like Nate Clements and Joe Nedney.
Despite being ranked 5th among the NFC in tackles with 96, Brian Urlacher leads the votes for inside linebacker. Patrick Willis leads the league in tackles with 128, 23 more than his closest NFC competitor, Ernie Sims.
Punter Andy Lee leads the league in average yards per punt with 49.5. However, Mat McBriar of the Cowboys leads the voting. He is ranked 3rd in the NFC.
Kicker Joe Nedney has the best field goal percentage in the NFC at 88%. In fact, his only misses are from more than 50 yards away. He is perfect inside 50. However, Nicholas Folk of the Cowboys, who ranks second, leads the voting.
You can vote for your favorite 49ers here:
* AB83Rules is the cap guru on the 49erswebzone.com forum