...maybe losing is just your style. That seems to be a recurring theme in 49erland these days. With every loss the 49ers have endured this season, a little more hope has died and a little more scrutiny has been directed at the team. Some of this scrutiny is deserved. Some of it is not. This piece was going to be an analysis of the 49ers latest failure to secure a win, but with all the drama surrounding the team of late, it seems that there is much more to talk (and write) about than yet another road loss. What follows will be a look at the 49ers latest failure and the seemingly endless drama that seems to envelop 4949 Centennial Boulevard, and my take on what we can expect to see over the last 12 games of the season.
Who Dropped the Ball?
As far as last Sunday's disappointment in Atlanta goes, it is as simple as this: the team lost this one. There were far too many mistakes made over the course of the game to pin on one guy. That stated, I've managed to gather my thoughts on the two guys that had big parts to play in what went down last Sunday at the Georgia Dome:
Alex Smith. When it really mattered, he failed to lead the team. This 49er team needs a voice not named Coach Singletary to pull things together in the locker room, on the sidelines, and in the huddle. Could it be Vernon? Sure. Could it be Frank? You bet. Patrick? All week long, and twice on Sunday. But it should be Alex. He needs to grab guys by the face mask and get his squawk on when things start falling apart. He needs to YELL HIS BACKSIDE OFF when he gets flagged for intentional grounding on a play where he was very clearly throwing the ball to Frank Gore. He needs to stop forcing throws that result in interceptions. He needs to stop playing so carefully and start being guy that plays to win instead of playing "not to lose". Is it time to bench Alex? No way. It is time for Alex to take charge and become the leader the 49ers need him to be.
Nate Clements. He did a great job at NB/CB for the ENTIRE game...especially in run support. He kept Roddy White out of the end zone, and delivered a monster shot on Michael Turner in the 3rd quarter. His motivation to score on his late game interception is admirable, and he did everything right on the return: Ball in his outside hand, read and followed his blocks, and stayed close to the sideline. His teammates should have called out the pursuit (which is what you are supposed to do on a return). Could Clements have stepped out? Sure. Is this fumble anywhere near as bad as Dre Bly's high stepping fumble last season? No way. Not by a long shot. Nate wasn't showboating. He tried to make a play and failed...and it cost the team. That noted, Nate's failure came in the course of trying to put the game away and he shouldn't be faulted for that. If you're still stewing over Nate's fumble, stop. Being angry at a player for trying to put away a very close road game is ridiculous.
...so are the days of our lives. At least it seems that way with the 49ers lately. Every passing week has brought a more disturbing headline with it. Glen Coffee retires. Kentwan Balmer manifests his inner crybaby. A "source" close to the team says that there are Pop Warner programs with more continuity. Jimmy Raye is fired, and countless 49er fans across the country breathe a sigh of relief. Michael Lewis decides to quit the team rather than mentor a young, upcoming player. Ugh. As if being 0-4 wasn't bad enough, the aforementioned drama has only added to the media frenzy surrounding the 49ers. There is plenty to look at, plenty to analyze, plenty to criticize and even a few things to admire about this team. That stated here's my take on the drama surrounding the 49ers of late:
Dear Mr. Lewis, thanks for Quitting
When told that he would be losing playing time to rookie safety Taylor Mays, Michael Lewis decided to ask for his release. The media went nuts with this, primarily because Glenn Coffee and Kentwan Balmer had decided to leave the team under curious circumstances earlier this season. Given Lewis' reputation as a leader on the team and his popularity in the locker room, some media pundits went so far as to call this the beginning of the end for the 49ers. Last Sunday, Taylor Mays went a long way toward putting all negative speculation to rest. He spent Sunday afternoon racking up 11 tackles, and looking much more effective in coverage than Lewis has all season. In short, Michael Lewis' decision to pout over being replaced shouldn't be taken as a bad omen, but as a sign of the change that critics of the team have been clamoring for over the past seven increasingly painful seasons. Instead of a fading veteran, the coaching staff is going with a younger, faster, more explosive rookie. Ladies and gentlemen, that is how teams get better. So, Mr. Lewis, thank you for quitting. And while I'm at it, I'd like to thank Kentwan (largely ineffective as a Seahawk) and Glen (currently cooling his heels in jail for possession of a concealed weapon) for quitting, too.
So Long, Jimmy Raye
After three increasingly painful weeks, the 49ers decided to part ways with embattled offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. He was a focal point of media criticism for his unimaginative play calling, insistence on running the ball, and his unfamiliarity with Yahoo (insert laugh track here). Raye's departure wasn't all that surprising, nor was the choice to replace him. Michael Johnson has been rumored to be the heir apparent for the 49ers OC job from the moment he was hired to coach Alex Smith. While he employs the digit system, just like Raye, it should be noted that his is well versed in scheming the spread, and will likely work more spread looks into the 49er passing attack as we get deeper into the season, though it remains to be seen if that will be enough to reverse their fortunes on offense. All told, this move can only be viewed as a positive, as it was apparent that Raye was in over his head and getting worse with every passing week.
Is Coach Singletary Losing It?
Of all the 49ers under the media microscope of late, the first and foremost has been Head Coach Mike Singletary. At his best, Coach Singletary is hardly the most eloquent man. After the stress of four straight losses, three player defections, and a near perpetual string of questions surrounding the 49ers abysmal start, he has become a man on the edge. From his verbal evisceration of KPIX sports anchor Dennis O'Donnell to his refusal to talk about 49er failures and insisting that he wants to look forward, Coach Singletary has made himself a one man headline of late.
So, is Coach Singletary losing it? I don't think so. I think Coach Singletary is the same man the 49ers picked to lead the team in 2008. He is an intense, inspirational, very high strung, alpha-type individual. A man used to willing himself to success. He is not a master strategist. He is a very hard working, mentor-type coach. Coach Singletary is a guy that needs to surround himself with coordinators and assistants that are well versed in the minutiae of the game to be successful. There are some in the local media (most notably Lowell Cohn, Ralph Barbieri and Tom Tolbert) who have begun to snipe at Coach Singletary lately, and in my estimation, such sniping is uncalled for and undeserved. Expecting the man to be any more than he is (or anything like Bill Walsh, for that matter) is unrealistic and unfair.
Is this a defense of Mike Singletary's performance this season? No way. He is the leader of this team, and thus far, he has failed to deliver on the promise the 49ers showed in the offseason. The question isn't whether Coach Singletary is losing it. The question is whether or not he can be successful in the long term. I still think that is possible (though I am sure that I am in the minority on this one). A win Sunday can change the complexion of this season for the 49ers and their embattled Coach. A win against a beat up Eagles team at home could create the kind of momentum necessary to get the 49ers on the winning track, and take some heat off of their coach. Another loss will almost certainly seal his fate as Head Coach of the 49ers.
The 49ers are a team with promise...and problems. Every team has its weaknesses, and to date, weakness is all the 49ers have been able to muster. Does this team have the talent to win 9 or 10 of their next 12 games? You bet. From top to bottom, this team is as talented a squad as has been seen in San Francisco in a very long time. Unfortunately, talent alone is not enough to win games in the NFL. Focus, discipline and confidence are just as important, and the 49ers have failed to manifest any of the aforementioned in their first 4 games.
Ladies and gentlemen, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. This team needs to win. Badly. They are too talented not to...and until they find a way to put their talent ahead of their penchant for screwing up 2 of every 10 plays, they will continue to be heart-breakingly close to the team we all want them to be...and in San Francisco, that just isn't good enough.