A couple of days before our preseason dress-rehearsal--the supposedly all-important game three--Trent Baalke was asked about our offensive line. According to reports, Baalke said that he was "very pleased with the depth the team has now." Indeed, he said, he'd been fielding offers from OTHER teams, so eager were they to trade for that depth. (Baalke, of course, just turned 'em away, opting to hoard this embarrassment of riches.) Our offensive line, to say the least, was certainly "a strength of the team."

And why shouldn't it be? Just look at what we've invested there. A first-round pick in Joe Staley (now signed, remember, through 2017). A first-round pick (plus, gulp, a fourth) in Anthony Davis. A first-round pick in Mike Iupati. A second-round pick in Chilo Rachal (who, though a second-rounder, was only a handful of spots behind Kentwan Balmer). And a third-round pick in Adam Snyder (not to mention the $11 million in Jonathan Goodwin, who's taking his sweet time showing he'll earn it).

A "strength of the team"? My God, with investments like these, it'd BETTER be.

Yet if there's one key difference between winning franchises and losing ones, it's that winning franchises HIT with their high draft-picks, while losing ones only THINK they do. And the Niners, for nearly a decade now, have been losers.

Against the Saints, the offensive line was unprepared--somewhat justifiably--for a blitz-crazy D right out of the gate. The Texans, by contrast, blitzed barely at all. Yet the line, this so-called "strength of the team," was simply overwhelmed.

Across the board, no one was spared. There was Staley, emasculated by Connor Barwin. There were Iupati, Snyder, and Rachal, each a turnstile for Antonio Smith. There was Davis, abused by Mario Williams. And there was Goodwin, the Pro Bowl center for the pass-happy Super Bowl Saints, letting THEIR Smith produce an almost-understandably panicked interception by OUR Smith, dropping his rating to 2.8.

Our defense, meanwhile, got a taste of what an NFL offense is supposed to be. Oh, sure, we were purely vanilla, showing none of Vic Fangio's tricks. And, no, Jim Harbaugh's strangely early insertion of back-ups didn't help. But 417 yards and 28 first downs? (Especially compared to our 105 and 6?)

Houston. We have a problem.

Actually, we've got SEVERAL problems, but none more pressing than that offensive line. Coaching might be an issue, of course--if Mike Solari has achieved anything, I'd love to know what it is--but you can't miss on so many guys without serious defects in scouting. Then again, when it came to pass-blocking, the red flags were out in the open; the scouting reports are still there today. Staley was a converted tight-end, at Central Michigan. Rachal "need[ed] some work in the pass blocking aspect of the game." Davis was "an adequate pass protector, but doesn't have great lateral movement, and that first drop step is a little slow meaning he can get beat by the speed rush." Iupati was "a mauling guard with inconsistent pass protection." (And the fact that Snyder is starting says more about Goodwin than it does about Snyder.) Taken together, is it really shocking that these guys looked like they did on Saturday?

In fairness, of course, we didn't necessarily ignore these warnings. In SOME cases, at least, we just didn't care. Need I remind you of our last head-coach's offensive philosophy? He wanted only to run the ball, so--sensibly enough--he wanted a line that could block for the run. Worked like a charm; with Davis and Iupati, even as rookies, the line last year ranked 13th in run-blocking. Pass-blocking, though, was a different story; there our ranking plunged to 30. Hence the coach's fatal predicament: he couldn't win running, because passing teams win; and he couldn't win passing, because his line couldn't block. (He might've had quarterback issues too, but let's just move on.)

Needless to say, the West Coast Offense is a passing offense. So why, you might ask, did the line get so little off-season attention? Simple: just look at all those costs we've sunk. Staley's got miles to go on his deal; it's way too early to cut and run. For Davis and Iupati, it's just their second year; what are we gonna do, send out an e-mail offering 'em to the highest bidder? (Insane!) And Rachal...well, okay; there's no excuse for keeping THAT guy. The only addition was Goodwin. We were excited to think that we might've nabbed a bargain upgrade over David Baas. At this point, though, he's not even an upgrade over Adam Snyder.

With so much invested, it's painful to think that we missed on these guys. But as painful as it is for us fans, it's doubly so for a personnel man who had a voice in their selection. And that's how all of us fooled ourselves, into thinking something so completely absurd.

This abysmal line is "a strength of the team." It is, for it simply MUST be.

Now, however, the truth is out, and much to his credit, Harbaugh didn't attempt to hide it. "It really was not real complicated what [the Texans] were doing up front," he said, exasperated. "But they were getting us. They were beating us." He also hinted at changes to come: "When that's happening, you have to look at all three phases of what you're doing: what you're doing schematically, how you're doing it, and who's doing it."

The "who," of course, is the phase that's most in need of review, and almost anything's worth a try. You've gotta leave Iupati alone, but put Alex Boone at left tackle and move Staley to right. Put Goodwin at center and Snyder at guard, or leave Snyder at center and put Daniel Kilgore at guard. Put Davis on the bench, and put Rachal on a plane.

Sure, this might disrupt the line's continuity. But if THIS is continuity, what's so wrong with a little change?

Seriously, though. Moving these offensive linemen around is like moving deck-chairs around the Titanic. Harbaugh's pass-first vision is stuck. Alex Smith, shaky under the BEST conditions, is utterly helpless. This offense, which has scored all of six first-half preseason points--exactly as many as Ahmad Brooks--has virtually no hope at all.

The season opener's almost here. Do what you can to stay out of the rush.