As I watched Frank Gore reach a thousand yards rushing for the fourth straight year, I was reminded of a story.
It was 2003, and the Chargers were on their way to a dreadful record of 4-and-12. They didn't have much of a passing game; their top QB, some guy named Brees who clearly would never amount to anything, had a rating in the 60s. But they had LaDainian Tomlinson, who in his third year was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. As a rookie, he'd rushed for 1,236 yards and 10 scores; the next year, he'd gone for 1,683 and 14. He'd finish '03 with another 1,645 and another 13. He was historically great, and the Chargers were wasting
him, unable to build up a winner around him.
A.J. Smith was in his first year as the Chargers' GM. On the plane ride back from another defeat, he sidled up to Tomlinson. "I want you to know something," he told him. "Trust me a little bit on this: I promise you, your career will not be in vain."
The next season, the Chargers were 12-and-4, and though they haven't gotten to the Super Bowl—not yet, anyway—they haven't suffered a losing season since.
A GM made a bold promise that he'd build a franchise worthy of the greatness of his star. And then he went out and did it.
That's what Scot McCloughan owes Frank Gore.
A thousand yards isn't such a big deal; all it takes is 63 yards per game. But given the Niners' glorious past, if you've done what no Niner has managed before, then you my friend have done something. No Niner had rushed for a thousand yards even three
straight years. Gore's now gotten to four, and he's done it on two reconstructed ACLs. He's done it by running hard on every single rush, even when, like so often this year, he's run into a wall of humanity. He's done it by never bitching, never criticizing his inept run-blockers, never going all T.O. when the offense drifted another direction.
He's done it by being a model of greatness. And it's up to McCloughan to be worthy
If Sunday's game proved anything, it proved that McCloughan's got work to do. The Lions, mind you, were 2-and-12. Granted, their offense—disturbingly—was ranked higher than ours, but Drew Stanton was making his first-ever start. And their defense was ranked as the absolute worst. Conditions were prime for a blowout.
Our defense did its
part, creating six turnovers and repeatedly giving us excellent field-position. And what did our offense manage to do?
At the end of the first quarter, the score was three-three. At halftime, it was six
-three. Of course, we blew it open with two touchdowns in the third, getting us to the 20 points we rode all the way to the end. An end that was nothing but meh.
We've been through this a million times; an ugly win counts, and that's just how Mike Singletary likes it. But 20 points despite forcing six turnovers from the league's perennial goat? That's just not
the stuff of a budding contender.
Our playoff drought stands at seven, and it'll surely be eight if this offense doesn't improve, and improve dramatically. The buzzword for many is "continuity," as if an offseason together is all it'll take. Singletary beat that drum on Monday: "This offseason will be the first time ever that anybody on offense has a coordinator consistently going into the offseason. Hopefully, next year will be a lot better."
I'm not saying continuity won't help. It might be enough to lift our O from 29th to 28th. But if you're expecting a serious jump from the mere consistency of your coordinator, you'd better hope your coordinator is someone better than Jimmy Raye.
There's a certain comfort in continuity, even when things are rough. That's the idea behind that famous idiom, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't." But I don't think that way. When things aren't going well, I don't want continuity. I want change
And since we know the coordinator won't change, our only hope is the players will. Either the players we've got must play better, or McCloughan must find better players.
We've already discussed the offensive line. We can't take a chance that these guys can play better. Two new starters, maybe even three, are an absolute must. The receivers, thank heavens, are quite good already. It's almost a lock that they'll play better still; Scotty just needs to find one to take punts. (Hey, that Michael Spurlock looked pretty good for Tampa; maybe he
could be one we could get.)
Which leads back to the question that won't go away: can Alex Smith play better, or not?
I'm a Smith agnostic, not supporter or hater. I think there's some merit to some "Alexcuses"; even against Detroit our O-line was too weak, and our penchant for running poorly—and passing horizontally—set up too many third-and-longs. He still ended up with some pretty good stats, a misleading rating of close to a hundred. But something just tells me if he were the answer, he simply would've buried the Lions. He simply would've destroyed
He's causing this franchise collective insanity. Just look at Singletary. After Philly, he said he didn't have "any questions" that Smith was the one. But during the week, in explaining why he couldn't give snaps to Nate Davis, he said Smith wasn't "proven" and didn't have "everything under control." (And yet I'm called names when I question the great and powerful Sing.)
Davis doesn't need to play in St. Louis; because we won't draft us a blue-chip QB—thanks of course to Smith—we don't have to learn about Davis this year. But we can't go into next year with the eternally unproven Smith, the completely unproven Davis, and the proven-as-backup-only Shaun Hill. Smith'll get his last chance, but he cannot be trusted. We need a proven Plan B. And that, again, is up to McCloughan.
For Frank Gore, the clock is ticking. The average career of an NFL running back is 2.6 years. Gore is about to finish his fifth, and he's never been on a winning team. He deserves one, now.
Gore's career must not be in vain. McCloughan should swear that he won't let it be.
Date: April 8, 2010 at 9:21 PM
Comment: I read some of these posts, specifically the ones calling Smith a failure and I don't know the authors so I don't know if they ever played the game and if they did I don't know if they played offense. I, however, did. In high school in Illinois and at Cal in the 80s. I remember the doubts fans had about Steve Young when he came over from Tampa. Having to succeed possibly the greatest QB of that era, they said he couldn't win the big game. The Super Bowl year after the Eagle game there were fans that wanted Young gone. By the way, Young played behind a far better offensive line than does Smith. Young did not spend, as Smith did, essentially two years out for the season, hurt. Young played in the "West Coast Offense" for his whole career at SF under coordinators that shared a common philosophy. Not Smith. I don't know if Smith can do the job. I will guarantee you that he will win more games than Nate at this point in his career, so you can ditch that idea now! I say let's see what Smith can do working in the same system for a second year in a row for a change, hm??
Date: January 4, 2010 at 9:14 AM
Comment: We all know how exceptional Frank Gore is. He is a hard downhill punishing runner between the tackles w/ a good lead blocker. Unfortunately the NFL is becoming a style league. A throwing league. That will be the direction this offseason for Mc & Sing. To tailor the OL to pass block for the vertical threats. The 49ers have a back that will need to learn to broaden his skill set to one back sets, shotgun draws, etc. Frankly Frank is pretty good in a shotgun draw. I am positive the LT discussion you are speaking of has occurred already between Sing and Gore. Look at his attitude during all the experimentation that has happened this year. Nothing but positive. Look deeper. In order for this team to stay together this year there has been a well laid plan. That plan has been conveyed to all the players. They have bought their tickets for a front row seat. Otherwise they would have been looking for a way to jump ship and mailed it in for the last 3 weeks. Continuity is a big part of that. It breeds learning, familiarity and confidence. You cannot build if you keep tearing it down just for the sake of change. Football is at least 50% mental and lots of repetition to become proficient.
Date: January 2, 2010 at 4:33 PM
Comment: It's nice to think that a team player like Gore deserves better, but then so do a lot of others. McCloughan owes his bosses, the players and to a good degree the fans (who help pay his paycheck) better! IMO going back the last 10 to 15 years this team's GMs have been terribly inconsistent at one of the biggest things they have control over...the draft. One can easily see why we are a middle of the road team. Far too many misses especially at # 1 & 2 draft picks have cost this team starters AND depth at almost every position except punter. The biggest mistake of course was Alex Smith. Why a defensive minded coach (Nolan) who wanted to turn the Niners into the Ravens would not have picked the best defensive player available is inexcusable. Since the draft is a bit of a gamble anyway, saying one wasn't able to trade down or get proper "value" for a certain # pick is silly. Would any knowledgeable person be questioning the draft of Ware or Merrimen at number one now with all things being the same? Imagine how much better this team would have been with one of those two and some journeyman qb than what we have at qb now which is VERY cloudy.
Date: January 2, 2010 at 11:07 AM
Comment: Nice poetic bit with the LT bit. You are right, this dismal offense starts with AWFUL coaching. Good coaches wouldn't have been fooled by the pre-season's stout running game. They would have factored in the vanailla (sic) defenses. They would have taken stock in the first AZ game and moved towards passing/spread to minimize a mediocre line. It's been 7 or 8 years since the Niners were featured on offense highlight films. Martz would've given us an extra win or two. We're not so much wasting Gore as Willis & Company.
Date: January 1, 2010 at 7:47 PM
Comment: I dunno that anyone owes Gore a winning season as much as the entire staff and players owe the San Francisco 49ers program in general a winning season... the "GM" needs to be aggressive for once in free agency and find a way to bring in big talent for our offense... and with TWO first round picks this year he needs to give us a good draft too.
Date: January 1, 2010 at 7:36 PM
Comment: frank gore is a great player no doubt about it, but at the same time, he just came into a bad situation by coming to a team that was totally in rebuilding mode. As the team improves, and it clearly has, his chances at success beyond the regular season are clearly in alex smith's hands. Alex must prove he is the guy and win 10 plus games. We need a playoff run next season or he is toast, i don't care if he throws for 4k and has 20 plus TD's. If the picks continue to closely number the TD's, and he stinks it up, he should be out of there no questions asked, if he has a losing season (non-playoff) and he comes back the following year on the basis that he is getting better, i will burn my niners jersey and swear off as a niners fan until alex smith is completely axed. Come to think of it, even his name pisses me off cause of how bad he has been.
Date: December 31, 2009 at 10:12 AM
Comment: Your article seems to compare the 49ers to the Chargers and then go on to say McCloughan owes Gore a winning team based on this analogy. My complaint is that you compare the 49ers to a team whose only trip to the Super Bowl was when we dominated them 49-26. I agree the 49ers should be a winning team but I wouldn't go so far as to say they owe it to anyone. Especially not based on what the Chargers have done. Interesting stat this average career of a running back. Frank should have a few more years left in him if the 49ers take care of him, and they do. I think the 49ers can put together a run at the Super Bowl in the near future, but I doubt it will be to repay a debt to Frank Gore, or to keep up with the Chargers.
Date: December 30, 2009 at 8:43 PM
Comment: ok let me preface this by saying that yes, Gore does kick ass. But hear me out. You say McCloughan owes it to Gore for doing something no Niner has done. But traditionally the niners have employed a "committee" approach. From the million dollar backfield, to rathman/craig. Lenvil Elliot/Earl Cooper. Essentially we haven't had a true "featured" back in the traditional sense. (1 lead blocker 1 runner, ours were always hybrids) So therefore they would have never had the opportunity like Gore has to accomplish 1k yds 4 years straight. I am not trying to take away from Gore's accomplishment, and I do believe he is deserving of being on a winning team. I just don't agree with your justification of it. If the Niners were a pound the rock team in our heyday, and Gore broke their record that's one thing. But our team's offensive philosophy directly contradicted the pound the rock formula, and therefore the older players really never had a chance at achieving it. Gore is deserving of a winning team, because of the above stuff you mentioned. The knees, the non criticizing, non bitching. That alone should justify it, imo. GO NINERS
Date: December 30, 2009 at 5:29 AM
Comment: get gore and smith a decent o line...yes they do need continuity. the niners are on track.
Date: December 29, 2009 at 4:41 PM
Comment: Jeff, stay clear eyed. The only way to move forward with this team is to demand that the standard by which all NFL teams are judged, winning the S.B., is implemented by ownership. Until that happens we are doomed to watch, what is it, the 29th rated offense. As the Tuna said, "you are what your record says you are." Happy New Year.
Date: December 29, 2009 at 12:02 PM
Comment: I can understand the DESIRE to come out of the gates and score 3 touchdowns in the 1st quarter and destroy the Lions. There are several factors to consider here. Detroit, while a bad team, does tend to put up a fight. They played Minnesota twice and didn't get blown out either time. Sure they lost, but they didn't get blown out. They just took AZ to the wire the week before they played us. A hungry AZ by the way. They played Cincinnati and Pittsburgh close as well. A lot of people expected the Colts to destroy the 49ers this year, but it didn't happen. The Colts are still a good team even though they didn't completely destroy an inferior opponent. Again while I understand the desire to clearly separate ourselves from a bad team like Detroit, it is not clearly indicative of how strong/weak our team is. Case in point, Indy vs SF this year.
Date: December 29, 2009 at 9:48 AM
Comment: Jeff, I've read many columns that claim the 49ers' win wasn't impressive because it wasn't a blowout. This is where some analysis comes in handy. The 49ers were up 20-6 late in the 3rd quarter. They simply went conservative and milked the clock at that point. This has ALWAYS been Singletary's style. He didn't need a blowout, he needed a win. Go back and look at the playcalling in the 4th quarter. It was Gore on 1st, Gore on 2nd and sometimes Gore on 3rd. Granted, the 1st half was ugly, but we came out in the 2nd half and looked good. Two touchdowns in the 3rd quarter and then they let up off the gas once they knew the game was in hand. They could have run up the score if they wanted, but that's not going to happen with Singletary.