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I spent my entire Tuesday thinking about what to write here. I took a few hours for the initial anger and disappointment at Monday night's disaster in the desert to clear my head, to piece together what happened and why, and to objectively assess what to expect moving into the 49ers final 7 games. There are a few things that became crystal clear to me during my "Monday night through Tuesday night reflection session". First, Mike Singletary is a fine motivator, and he understands how to get the most out of his players, even though his inexperience is a liability. Second, the 49ers' roster has players on both sides of the ball that would not be starting for a top-tier NFL franchise. Finally, this team is unlikely to enjoy much success through the remainder of their 2008 schedule.
Make no mistake...the reason why this team was competitive on a nationally televised Monday night game had everything to do with their head coach, even if his game management skills are less than perfect. There is no question that this game should have been over in the third quarter. The 49ers had plenty of opportunities to put the game away...yet questionable play calls, stupid penalties, and unforgivable mental lapses kept them from doing so. Every single shortfall that caused 49er fans across the country to scream in vain at their television screens can be traced directly to coaching. This team can get better, and coaching will make them better. So what made Monday's game different than the losses to Philly, New England, and New York? The difference is that the team somehow managed to overcome the shortfalls and miscues that killed them in previous games. Most of them, anyway. Whether or not the howling masses care to admit it, this is also a reflection of coaching. In a nutshell, Mike Singletary has managed to take a roster that is skinny on talent, short on focus, and accustomed to losing...and has turned it into a roster that will play hard for four straight quarters. He may not have them playing well yet...but I daresay that Coach Singletary's team will not lose for lack of effort.
Any objective viewer of Monday night's game has to admit what many of us have long suspected...this team's offensive line does not have 5 quality starters. The 49ers offensive line is pretty good at run blocking...and terrible at pass blocking. Over the course of the game, the holes became easy to identify. Guards Tony Wragge and David Baas were on their heels in pass protection all night long. Arizona defensive tackles Gabe Watson and Darnell Dockett are quality players...but they are not good enough to stroll into the backfield untouched. Were it not for Shaun Hill's ability to sense the rush and use his feet to create time, he would have been sacked at least 5 times on Monday night. For the 49ers to have long-term success, the problems with the line have got to be addressed. This is not the kind of fix that can be made in a week...it's the kind of fix that needs to be made in the offseason. For the foreseeable future, fans should expect pass protection to be sketchy at best. Next season, Baas will probably get a chance to redeem himself...but Wragge will likely either be sent to the bench or to another team.
Mr. Hill and Mr. Ziegler, please stand up. In the last 5 minutes of the game, fans were treated to some of the best play from the wide receiver position in the 2008 season. Whatever the catalyst, both men made a strong case to see more playing time. Ziegler's ability to find a seam in the Cardinal's zone defense on 2nd and forever, and Hill's repeated abuse of Arizona CB Rod Hood in the 4th quarter made Monday night's game worth watching. Does this mean more 5 receiver sets in crunch time? Maybe. Does it mean that game time no-shows like highly touted Bryant Johnson find the bench? Probably. With only 7 games left in the season, it is time for the team to find out what it has in its seldom-used youngsters.
Another game day, another box score with zero sacks. In 42 chances, the 49ers failed to do what must be done to beat Kurt Warner: collapse the pocket. Rod Green had a fine day off the edge, bringing pressure consistently whenever he was in the game, and forcing Warner to step up into the pocket. The only thing missing was complimentary pressure up the gut. Since it is readily apparent that Aubrayo Franklin, Ron Fields, Isaac Sopoaga or any combination thereof cannot push the pocket, the only way the 49ers will generate that kind of pressure is with a blitz. Their reluctance to do so is puzzling, especially when one considers that the few times Warner was harried with effective blitzes on Monday night, he looked painfully average. Can players like Justin Smith and Ray McDonald get it done? Sure...but not by themselves. Until the coaches realize that their best defensive weapons are the team's middle linebackers, and begin to use them creatively to bring heat, it is unlikely that fans will see any additional pressure on opposing passers.
If your last name is Lewis or Roman, and you are employed as a defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, you had a bad night on Monday ...a really bad one. While no one expects a strong safety to be a force in coverage, Lewis, Lewis & Roman looked more like a three-man comedy team against Arizona than NFL defensive backs. These three have a lot to do with the flagging 49ers pass defense. The corners are forced to play off their men less because they are unable to disrupt routes at the line, and more because the 49ers safeties are not good enough to rely on in the event that they are isolated over the top. As a result, the corners cannot "sit" on routes, looking to bat passes and generate turnovers. As long as opposing teams see this in game film, they will consistently take the short and intermediate routes that the 49ers' soft coverage gives them. Until the 49ers manage to shore up their secondary, fans should expect to see exactly what they have: a conservative defensive philosophy geared toward containment rather than dominance. When can improvement be expected? Next season is optimistic, to say the least.
This is a really interesting (and simultaneously painful) time to be a 49er fan. Coach Singletary is showing early signs that he could be a good head coach. How good? Only time will tell...but based on the game management mistakes he's making now...that time will be next season, at the earliest. Mike Martz has created an offense that can move the ball, score points, and keep the team in games it would have lost by double digits last season. If the reaction to his late game play-calling gaffe and his seeming inability to call a play for Frank Gore in the 4th quarter is any indication, it will not be enough keep the fans happy for the remainder of the season. Greg Manusky is coordinating a defense that has the ability to stop the run, almost no ability to pressure the pass without blitzing, and two massive holes in its secondary. While the unit was considered the strongest unit on the team last season, it is possible that the offense was so bad that the defense just appeared to be a team strength. All three men took their jobs under unrealistic expectations (Martz) or with no direct experience (Manusky, Singletary). They have 7 games to prove to the fans and to the organization that they deserve a shot to continue what they've started. Can they right the ship against road heavy schedule featuring the Rams, Cowboys, Bills, Jets, Dolphins and Redskins? It would take some seriously rose colored glasses to see more than 2 victories for the duration of the season. Will that be enough? Maybe. Can the 49ers manage surprise wins against the more talented but ultimately beatable Cowboys, Dolphins, Jets, and Redskins? Doubtful. But if Monday night was any indication, it should be fun, if not nerve wracking, to watch.