But seriously, this 49ers season reminds me of a Washington Redskins season I remember from my days in college. I went to college in Washington, DC and was inundated with Redskins news week after week. I barely got to watch the 49ers but I learned a whole lot about the Redskins. One season (I believe 1998), the Redskins got into an ugly losing streak. Every week after the game, one of the Redskins (I believe Leslie Shepherd) would keep saying the team had hit rock bottom. This went on for four or five weeks. Every week was rock bottom.
This 49ers season has been something like that. Every time we think the 49ers are through sucking us in and then punching us in the stomach, they figure out a new one to lull us into thinking positive thoughts (well some of us at least). I don't view it so much as a new rock bottom each week, but it's more like the 49ers have plateaued at the bottom.
The question now is when, or even if this team will bounce back in some form or fashion. Since the end of last night's game, I've had several Titans fans tell me about their team's bounce back from an 0-6 start to their 2009 campaign. They finished the season 8-8 and just missed out on the playoffs. The difference for this year's 49ers would be that if they somehow found a way to get to 8-8, they probably would win the NFC West. I've seen some additional comments in the recap threads citing the Titans big comeback.
Well, the time has come to either bring back some optimism, or smash down any last semblances of hope. The 2009 Titans began the season 0-6 behind quarterback Kerry Collins. Vince Young's career seemed on life support in 2008, which led to Collins getting the starting job in 2009. Collins wasn't really awful, but he wasn't particularly good and it cost the Titans. However, the two real issues were that Chris Johnson couldn't really get going consistently and the defense as getting absolutely torched week in and week out.
Week seven saw Vince Young take over for the Titans. However, while Vince Young certainly contributed to the Titans strong run, it was a much more consistent attack from Chris Johnson and stronger defensive performances week in and week out that allowed the Titans to almost pull off the impossible.
As I look in comparison to the 2010 49ers, I will point to some potential positives. I don't necessarily share the optimism of some people on this Titans-49ers comparison, but I can see what might lead people to get at least a little excited at the prospect of a strong surge. I'd appreciate it if people don't go into this with the intent of crucifying me for being an unabashed homer.
If the 49ers were to make an unprecedented run to the playoffs, I see three primary factors. Obviously each entails numerous details, but I'm looking at this from a slightly broader perspective. Furthermore, I know this doesn't address all of the 49ers problems. I'm just spit-balling my thoughts on this.
1. More aggressive defense
We bash Alex Smith left, right and center. Frank Gore fumbles and people are on him and ready to dump him. And yet somehow it feels like the defense is getting more of a free pass than the others. The tide is turning on that as the defense continues to underperform at some of the most important moments. It's not that they're a bad defense, but they come across as wildly inconsistent. One minute they're letting Kevin Kolb scramble to convert a 3rd and 18, later in the game they stiffen up on a must have 3 and out (with a little help from LeSean McCoy's ill-time slide).
There are certainly some issues with talent in the defense, particularly in the secondary. It's a question of consistency at this point. Taylor Mays will certainly show signs of rookie development, and I'd imagine after Michael Lewis, many people are perfectly fine with that. And while Dashon Goldson has struggled at times, the talent is there. You don't do what he did last year without having a certain level of skill. The secondary as a whole can make plays but we're just not seeing it right now. I'm not sure what will be the difference maker for them, but they need to figure it out and fast if they want to turn this thing around.
That's not to say the rest of the defense doesn't have room to improve. Patrick Willis has been quiet at times thanks in large part to struggles on the defensive line in front of him. The d-line in a 3-4 is there to open up holes for the linebackers and it's not happening as frequently as some of us would like. Aubrayo Franklin is playing yet another walk year and better figure out a way to earn some bucks.
The big thing is that this defense needs to force more turnovers. I'll have a post later on this but that sack and fumble recovery from Kevin Kolb was the first fumble recovery of the season. Their four interceptions put them in the middle of the league while their six sacks put them at 23rd. Simply put, this defense needs to start making more plays and putting the offense in a better position to succeed.
2. The Continued Development of the Mike Johnson passing game
Alex Smith had one heck of a game last night (in good and bad ways) and it's interesting how a bunch of folks jumped off his dwindling band wagon, and others actually climbed aboard after seeing his response to the Candlestick crowd unleashing their venom on him. Alex Smith still seems like the ultimate of teases in the way he provides glimpses of skill one minute and then makes the most boneheaded of mistakes the next.
Over two games Mike Johnson has certainly appeared to be the Anti-Raye. When Jimmy Raye would try to mix things up with the offense it always felt incredibly forced. It might be an ill-time flea flicker or reverse. Once in a while something would work, but generally it just never seemed smooth. Enter Mike Johnson. He certainly hasn't been the greatest offensive coordinator to walk the planet, but the offense does manage to show signs of life. Alex Smith and the 49ers offense converted a greater percentage of third downs yesterday than they have since 2003.
Simply put, the offense is improving in the way play selection and even in some of the execution. The problem is the developments in certain areas of execution are not happening fast enough. Rookie offensive tackle Anthony Davis continues to show enormous growing pains at times. I won't badmouth the pass to Moran Norris because you can't just never throw to your fullback. The team has to mix in an occasional play there to keep defenses honest.
And once again it comes down to everybody's favorite punching bag, Alex Smith. He put together impressive numbers but had that horrific fumble that ended up being a difference in the game. We could play the game of saying that was the key difference, but you could say the same about Nedney's missed field goal or either of Frank Gore's fumbles. Heck, Kolb's 19 yard scramble didn't cost them points, but did cost them several minutes they could have used at the end of the game.
Last year's Titans made a QB switch, but at this point we aren't seeing a QB switch....yet. But even if the 49ers made a switch, I don't know if a switch would enable this Titans 2009 option. Some will argue for Nate Davis, but I don't see that happening anytime soon, whether I agree with it or not. If the 49ers are going to make a move at all this year, it will be with Alex Smith whether we like it or not.
3. The stabilzation of the running game
One big change for the 2009 Tennessee Titans was that Chris Johnson seemed to bring a more stabilizing affect to the offense. Part of that might be due to the improved defense, but whatever the case, Johnson put up triple digits in rushing yards every week from week seven on. Prior to that Johnson had been held to under 100 yards in four of the six Titans losses.
Obviously a second year Chris Johnson differs greatly from a 27-year old Frank Gore with a whole lot of tread on his tires. Gore currently has 322 rushing yards and is on pace 1,030 yards, which would equal his worst mark since taking over as starting running back. An equally big concern would be the fumbles. Gore currently has four fumbles, which puts him on pace to easily surpass his career high six fumbles in 2008. One could argue his two fumbles were as big a reason for tonight's loss as anything else.
The question is whether the 49ers can stabilize the running game and get some more consistent efforts from Gore. This season he's rushed for 38, 112, 43, 77, and 52 yards. Not exactly a stellar set of performances. As important as a competent Alex Smith is, a strong Frank Gore can often carry this team to victory. He almost did it against the Saints in his one truly strong performance of the season. If the 49ers are going to make some kind of amazing comeback in 2010, it very well could start on the shoulders of Frank Gore.
So the question at the end of the day is whether the 49ers could actually pull something like this off. Personally, I'm not holding my breath, although I certainly keep one toe in the circle. I realize many of you are in full-fledged tanking mode for draft pick status. Part of the reason I have not yet reached that is the fact the NFC West remains there for the taking.
Until the 49ers actually prove they can beat somebody, I suppose it really makes no difference in the world how awful the West is. After all, if you can't win more than 5 or 6 games, you're not going to even have a shot at this thing. And right now, the way the 49ers are playing, it's certainly difficult to see them winning more than 5 or 6 games, if that.
However, I am willing to at least consider the possibility. I look at fandom as being a coin with two sides. Last night we saw one side of the coin with fans going berserk chanting for David Carr. I won't call that the ugly side of fandom, but it's certainly not pretty. The other side of the coin is the optimistic one I generally lean towards. It gets harder and harder each week, but I'm not ready to give up on the season. For me, and many of you who spend 365 days a year (or close to that) on this site, I've built the individual season up to such a level that to give up now would make me feel like I've wasted the past nine months.
I'm not going to get my ups up too high, but I'm not ready to dash them yet. Consider me in for another week. We'll see if Operation Titans 2009 can maintain a flicker of hope.