Leading up until the regular season, there will be team capsules brought to you of every team in the NFL. These capsules will serve as a primer for the NFL regular season opening up. Today we examine one of the league’s more storied franchises, the San Francisco 49ers.
Will the 2007 season behold good karma for the organization?
The franchise was dealt a huge blow when the father of the west coast offense, Bill Walsh passed away just days into training camp. Fans of the team have even started a petition in Walsh’s honor to wear the 1981 uniforms in which he won his first of 3 NFL Championships with the organization. After this initial large blow, the immediate future looks very bright for this once proud franchise after 4 straight losing seasons in which they went 20-44.
The team looked very strong at points last year and nearly snuck into the final Wildcard spot which was eventually claimed by an 8-8 Giants team. They swept the division champion Seattle Seahawks and generally outplayed them in both meetings, getting big performances from their key players.
The 49ers enter the 2007 season as possibly the #1 candidate for the league’s cinderella team, or at least the team who was out of the playoffs last season which is most likely to be there in January 2008. There is going to be some karma, but that is only half the story. This team has talent, youth, and energy, which trickles down from Head Coach Mike Nolan down to the players in action on the playing field. While I’m sure the organization will decide to do something to honor legendary Coach Walsh, the biggest tribute they could pay him is to win their division outright, en route to another playoff appearance. That is exactly what I expect them to do.
Has QB Alex Smith ‘arrived’?
In his rookie season of 2005 after being the #1 overall pick, Smith left much to be desired. He completed just over 50% of his passes, and threw 1 TD and 11 interceptions. In 9 games he averaged only 97 yards passing and looked lost much of the time. This led many in the organization and outside (fans) to question whether or not the 49ers had selected the next #1 overall bust.
Last year, Smith made some impressive strides that reminded me of another big time QB that I will get to in a minute. He nearly led the team to the playoffs and his TD/INT ratio equaled eachother at 16 each. He still had some lackluster performances but showed flashes that made the front office and head coach Mike Nolan realize they may have got what was advertised with this kid. The best part about Smith is that he was 21 when he played his first NFL snap, making him just 23 now. He’s got a lifetime ahead of him in the NFL. The 49ers would be wise to build around him and to continue to call plays that tailor to his strengths, roll-outs, improvising, and making plays outside the pocket, complemented by a strong running game.
I remember another QB who had a similar sophomore season in his first real season of being ‘the guy’. Carson Palmer led the 2004 Bengals to an 8-8 record while throwing for similar yardage amounts and 18 TD with 18 interceptions. In the two seasons since, we all know what Palmer has been able to do. I’m not suggesting that Smith will develop into an offensive juggernaut like that of Palmer, but the similarities do exist. I will say that I believe the 49ers have a very good player in Alex Smith that will continue to lead by performance from the QB position.
Mike Nolan seems to be working out at head coach
Absolutely. The man has an impressive resume although many only remember his accomplishments in Baltimore, where he was both Wide Receivers coach and Defensive Coordinator. Nolan has also had extended periods of work with the Giants, Broncos, and Redskins. This coming after extended work stays at the University levels of Rice, Stanford, Oregon and LSU.
The guy is a football guru and his knowledge of the offensive game is underminded because he is such a great defensive coach. I am high on both his ability to build a team and his ability to get the most of those group of players. I like his drafts so far, as he has assembled the likes of Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore to name a few. These are very good players that could contribute right away and needed lesser development. Patrick Willis will also probably become a bright spot on the San Francisco defense. With all the problems the 49ers have had in the front office in recent years, Nolan may be the answer. This team has found a head coach, and one that I am envious of (if you’ll remember he was in consideration for the Cleveland job before Crennel was named).
I look for Nolan to have a long (and long in today’s NFL is 4 to 6 years) run of success with this organization and make several playoff runs. He and O-coordinator Jim Hostler seem to have devised a scheme that will score points, while assistant head coach Mike Singletary combines with Nolan and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky for three of the better young defensive philosophys in football. Look for a top 10 and possibly top 5 defense out of this team in 2007.
Will 2007 Frank Gore be as good as 2006’s version?
Gore might only be 5’9″, but he runs a lot bigger than that. Last year he set the NFL on fire, running for 1,695 yards. The 49ers then made the wise decision to lock him up through 2011 with an extension. He ecclipsed Garrison Hearst’s team record for rushing yardage and proved he’s 100% healthy. If you’re a fantasy player, go after this guy early. He’s going to be good for a long time and although he scored 9 times last year, look for him to grow with the offensive unit and find the end zone up to double the amount of times this season.
The look has always been there for Gore. When he was at University of Miami before he got hurt I saw him play a few games and said to myself ‘this guy is as good of a runner I’ve ever seen at this school.’ This includes the likes of Portis, Edgerrin James, and Willis Macgahee. Gore is a grinder with speed. He is patient enough to let his blocks develop and set up for the homerun.
I absolutely look for Gore to be what he was in 2006, and if he stays healthy he could replace star backs like Shaun Alexander and LaDanian Tomlinson when their tread wears off the tires. At age 24, he’s got enough years ahead of him so that he and Maurice Jones-Drew can be the running backs to carry the torch in this league in a few years. This team wants to make a run right now, so Gore is going to be the biggest weapon in getting this team to the playoffs. Health is always a concern, but if he stays healthy–he’s going to put up MVP numbers.
Where will the 49ers finish out?
They’re going to finish atop the NFC West. Ahead of the Seahawks (who I predict will be this organizations new whipping boy), and just ahead of Arizona. The 49ers are primed for a playoff run and one has a hard time picking out a weakness. They should be fun to watch develop, and true football fans can’t say they’re not ready for this franchise’s return to greatness. I’m just glad they aren’t in my team’s division. I’ll say 11-5 on the dot. Not a game less or a game more. They’ll probably win a home playoff game, but beyond that it is hard to tell. The key pieces are in place and 49er fans are going to have a team they can once again hold their heads high about.
Note: That part I mentioned about ‘Frank Gore staying healthy’? It looks like for the time being I might have cursed that. Frank Gore broke his hand.