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As I search for a new career that will hopefully be more fulfilling and challenging than my last, my mind wondered and began to compare failing corporations to the current state of the 49ers. As my mind wondered, I began to think about customer base versus fan base, and management in the corporate world versus bad team management. Some companies are too stubborn to drastically alter their business plan for a chance at success. I mean, here I was in a company that had horrible management and seemed to be very disorganized. Its failures came from their inability to adapt to their customer base. But in other ways, it is very different than the 49ers organization. Certainly there is a sense of loyalty from fans in sports that you typically will not find in most major corporations. However, the 2007 season may have been unique. Going into the season, expectations of a playoff team were high. The team seemed to have built a solid foundation on defense to help compliment what many thought would be an improved offense.
The offensive core was there and the team seemed to have the making of a solid threesome in Alex Smith, Frank Gore, and Vernon Davis. They added some new faces on defense in players like Nate Clements and Patrick Willis. Clements would be the first shut down corner that the team had since Deion Sanders. Patrick Willis ... well ... he would be Patrick Willis. As many fans on this site have pointed out, "2/3 of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by Patrick Willis." On paper, this team certainly had the look of an improved club. While the offense never really got into sync, the team managed to edge out wins during their first two games. From there, it was a horrible slide of eight straight losses.
Now, when I talk about management, I am not saying that the 49ers owners don't have a desire to win. Even if the motives are purely financial, the desire must be there. Winning brings in more money. As long as the money is coming in, there is very little reason to change your methods of running a company. A company typically fails when there is no more demand and you have an excess of supply. Those that do not adapt, die. It will be very interesting to see what happens to the 49ers fan base after an embarrassing 5-11 season. Will the demand still be high or does the team have too much supply to meet the fans' needs?
To add insult to injury, in 2008, the team raised ticket prices for a product that continues to disappoint. The expectations from prior to the 2007 season have certainly been lowered. Those fans that are in the know may still head out to see what Mike Martz, our 2008 draft picks, and any free agents have to offer, but unless things improve soon, the team may be looking at more empty seats in 2008. The fans that jumped on the bandwagon last offseason are probably long gone at this point.
What does it mean to be part of the Niner Faithful?
Then there are those fans like myself who will continue to follow the team no matter what. We may be disappointed, but it is our team. We are the Niner Faithful. The funny thing about faith is that it is often blind. I have no proof that this team will improve and it is entirely possible that this team will suffer through another miserable season, but I have to believe. After all, faith is an obligation of loyalty. It is a desire to belong to something that is bigger than you. It is a promise of alliance to something. In the case of the Niner Faithful, it is a promise to always support the team no matter what. Sure the Faithful may sometimes feel that the team is more trouble than it is worth, not willing to dish out the high costs of attending a game, but they continue to watch and hope for brighter days. After all, this is their team. It is like family. No matter how much some family members may annoy you, they are still family.
The 49ers can no longer afford to "Stay the course"
In the corporate world, if someone fails to do their job properly or if the person's cost outweighs the gain, that person would most likely not be with the company for that much longer. However, this was not the case for San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan. I am not totally unhappy with this decision to keep him as many other fans are. However, I do believe that this is Nolan's last chance to convince the fans that he is the right guy for the job. How many times have we heard him say, "Stay the course" during a press conference or interview? If this team is to improve, that course will need a few alterations on the map. Nolan is known for being very unreasonable when it comes to deviating from the course, even in the slightest.
His obsession with the 3-4 defense despite the lack of proper personnel is an instance of a bad decision. The 49ers may have the linebackers to pull it off, especially after Manny Lawson returns, but they simply do not have the defensive line to get it done. This team looks like a team built for the 4-3, yet Nolan continues to force the unit into a defense that is not right for the players that they have. Yes the defense improved. You probably did not notice it since they were on the field so much due to the offense's inability to move the ball. However, during half of the team's games, the defense held the opposing team to 20 or less points. The 49ers only won 4 of those games. Proof enough that the biggest flaw in this team was not the defense, but the offense. Now imagine what this team might have done with a slightly improved offense and a defense that was using its personnel correctly.
Another bad decision was Nolan's refusal to start anyone other than quarterback Trent Dilfer after Alex Smith's injury. Dilfer was, in a word, terrible. He had one great game in his stint as the starter, a 37-31 overtime win against the Arizona Cardinals. Outside of that, he was painful for fans to watch. Dilfer may be a smart quarterback, but he simply does not have the physical ability anymore to match his intelligence. Even at the top of his game, Dilfer was the type of quarterback that would not lose a football game for you. However, he was never the type of guy that would win a game for you. For a quarterback like Dilfer, you must already have a solid team built around you. Fans were crying to see what Shaun Hill had in the tank long before an injury to Dilfer forced the lineup change. The result was a fairly solid game against the Minnesota Vikings and two wins in his only two NFL starts against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite being the team's third quarterback, he looked more prepared to lead the offense than either Alex Smith or Trent Dilfer. Now this is not a "bash Alex" commentary since I have seen flashes of what he could be. A quarter here and there where he really stepped up and a couple of preseason games against good defenses where he shined. His injury was a serious one and before that, the team's offensive coordinator was not exactly letting Smith open it up with the passing game.
These are just a couple of examples of bad decisions in 2007. Hopefully the introduction of Mike Martz and the stripping of some of Nolan's power will allow this team to be more flexible with the course that they have set. The goal is to arrive at your destination. It does not really matter which road you take.
Alex Smith versus Shaun Hill
That will probably be one of the more intriguing things to watch out for in training camp. Who will win the starting job for the 49ers? If the team drafts a quarterback in April, the competition gets even more interesting. As I said, I feel that Smith has the ability to do well in the NFL. He has shown things here and there that lead me to believe that he can be successful. Will he ever be? Who knows? I am sure that his confidence took a shot in 2007. Add to that the fact that he will now have some serious competition trying to take his job and it may push him to improve even more and become the leader this team needs him to be. One criticism I always had about Smith is that he lacks the intensity needed at the quarterback position. When he makes a mistake, he hangs his head and heads back to the sideline. On the other side of that, we have Shaun Hill who gets excited about every big play or score that he is part of. It is like watching a kid playing a pickup game with his buddies. During one score against the Bengals, he practically jumped on top of Larry Allen while heading off the field. Allen just kind of gave him a pat with a "yeah, good job kid" kind of look. The point is that Hill seems to display that desire to succeed and it motivates the players around him. Smith does not display enthusiasm like this and that can be a real problem when you are trying to forge some team chemistry. Am I saying that Hill should start over Smith? No. Training camp will determine that. I am saying that this young team needs that type of enthusiasm out of their leader...whoever it may be.
Yes, I know that there was no real point to this commentary. It was just a collection of thoughts on this Thursday afternoon. Outside of linebacker Derek Smith's release, not much is going on right now. However, that will all change in a week when free agency begins. Go Niners!