49ers Year-by-Year: 2008

Here we are: 2008. The year it all began. Some of you weren't even alive for this season, it was so long ago....

I'll assume that I don't need a long preamble to introduce the 2008 season. If you'd like to relive Mike Singletary's ascension to head coach, just keep on reading.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 7

Arizona Cardinals

L: 23-13

0-1

1-0

Sept. 14

@ Seattle Seahawks

W: 33-30

1-1

0-2

Sept. 21

Detroit Lions

W: 13-31

2-1

0-3

Sept. 28

@ New Orleans Saints

L: 17-31

2-2

2-2

Oct. 5

New England Patriots

L: 30-21

2-3

3-1

Oct. 12

Philadelphia Eagles

L: 40-26

2-4

3-3

Oct. 19

@ New York Giants

L: 17-29

2-5

5-1

Oct. 26

Seattle Seahawks

L: 34-13

2-6

2-5

Nov. 10

@ Arizona Cardinals

L: 24-29

2-7

6-3

Nov. 16

St. Louis Rams

W: 16-35

3-7

2-8

Nov. 23

@ Dallas Cowboys

L: 22-35

3-8

7-4

Nov. 30

@ Buffalo Bills

W: 10-3

4-8

6-6

Dec. 7

New York Jets

W: 14-24

5-8

8-5

Dec. 14

@ Miami Dolphins

L: 9-14

5-9

9-5

Dec. 21

@ St. Louis Rams

W: 17-16

6-9

2-13

Dec. 28

Washington Redskins

W: 24-17

7-9

8-8

Head Coach: Mike Nolan / Mike Singletary

Key Losses: G Larry Allen, DT/DE Bryant Young, LB Derek Smith, T Kwame Harris, LB Brandon Moore

Key Additions: QB J.T. O'Sullivan, WR Isaac Bruce, DE Justin Smith, LB Takeo Spikes, WR Josh Morgan, FS Dashon Goldson

After what many were accepting as a successful campaign in 2006 for the 49ers, disaster struck in 2007. With the departure of offensive coordinator Norv Turner late in the offseason, the 49ers had been forced to promote in-house. However, former quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler proved ill-equipped for the job and had been usurped by "advisor" Ted Tollner by the end of the year. To make matters worse, the development of young quarterback Alex Smith had taken a major hit when he went down early in the season with a shoulder injury that would eventually require surgery. His injury would inspire controversy and conflict within the team, as head coach Mike Nolan even questioned Smith's heart and attitude. Other key members of the team would battle injuries - notably star back Frank Gore - but nowhere was the issue more of a problem than at quarterback. Not only was Smith lost for the season, but backup Trent Dilfer was eventually lost to injury, and he would be followed by third-stringer (and, in the eyes of many, savior) Shaun Hill. The team finally had to sign and start Chris Weinke at the position simply because nobody else was healthy enough to play. 2007 was an unmitigated disaster, but its failings had been clear and Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan set out to solve them.

First, the issue of the offense: With Jim Hostler ousted entirely, the team would need a new offensive coordinator. But perhaps even more pressing was the issue at quarterback. The health of Alex Smith's shoulder was and would remain uncertain, Trent Dilfer had retired, and Shaun Hill - for all of his heroics - was still a significant wild card. The 49ers struck two birds with one stone. Following the formula that had made 2006 such an optimistic season, Nolan targeted high-profile, established coordinators to turn his offense around. He found his man in Mike Martz. And by bringing in Martz, he found insurance at quarterback, signing Martz's pet project J.T. O'Sullivan. Martz had coached O'Sullivan in Detroit, and the former UC Davis quarterback was familiar with the offense.

But there were other problems. Throughout Nolan's regime, the WR corps had been a virtual revolving door, from Antonio Bryant to Darnell Walker. Even with the expected development of tight end Vernon Davis, Nolan and McCloughan recognized not only that the receiver position remained weak but also that it would be particularly important in a Mike Martz scheme. So they aggressively pursued both short- and long-term solutions, signing future Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce in free agency and selecting developmental project Josh Morgan in the draft.

One of the most noticeable losses from 2007 was on the defense, though. With the retirement of Bryant Young, the 49ers had a huge hill to fill on the defensive line. Saying goodbye to linebackers Derek Smith and Brandon Moore compounded the problem on defense, sapping depth from key positions. Again, Nolan and McCloughan were aggressive in free agency and the draft, bringing in players like Justin Smith, Takeo Spikes, Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson.

But was the team really so improved that it could not only forget the disaster that was 2007, but also build on the success that had been 2006? The consensus was that Mike Nolan's job would hinge on the answer to this question.

Going onto the season, many fans had high hopes that Shaun Hill would take the reigns of the quarterback competition. Hill was a fan favorite and with Alex Smith's shoulder in doubt he was the clear choice among fans. In fact, Smith would continue to have trouble returning from his injuries. However, it would be J.T. O'Sullivan's familiarity with Mike Martz's system that would be the difference, not Shaun Hill's own history with the 49ers.

Opening the season at home, it was clear that the team was still coming together. Between scheme changes, personnel turnover, and the sheer pressure of erasing the memory of 2007, the 49ers faltered against Arizona and fell 23-13. If there was silver lining, it was the altogether adequate play of O'Sullivan in the game. If there was a less desirable kind of lining, it was that Alex Smith revealed after the game that an MRI had revealed a fracture in his throwing shoulder - one that had already been surgically repaired once.

The second game of the season would offer more excitement. In a game that included a blocked punt by Manny Lawson and a Patrick Willis interception return for a touchdown, it was O'Sullivan's 321 yards of passing offense that stole the show in the 49ers 33-30 victory. The next week, O'Sullivan would again shine, this time teaming up with a potent Frank Gore to dazzle the Lions on their way to a second straight victory. Suddenly, with a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, and a new season, the 49ers were 2-1 and on top of the world.

Which was exactly when the world came crashing down.

Starting with a trip to New Orleans, the 49ers began a brutal five week stretch that would face them off against four of the best teams in the league: The Saints, Patriots, Eagles, and Giants. And it was a brutal stretch, but the difficulty was compounded by the 49ers' own mistakes. Against the Saints, it was O'Sullivan's three turnovers (a fumble and two interceptions) that cost the team - though it may have been the pitiful play of the offensive line that cost O'Sullivan. Against the Patriots, the 49ers got beat repeatedly downfield and gave up critical yards on third and fourth downs, including a game-changing failed fourth down goal-line stand late in the game. Against the Eagles, poor clock management, inconsistent defense, and continued turnovers from O'Sullivan squandered a fourth quarter lead. Against the Giants, it was a similar story. At that point, there was nothing more to take from the losses. It was clear that the coaching was not learning from its mistakes. It was clear that team was unprepared and sloppy. It was clear that something had to be done.

And so, early in the week, Mike Nolan was shown his walking papers. Assistant head coach Mike Singletary was promoted to interim head coach in his stead, but only after receiving Nolan's personal blessing for the job.

Sadly, Singletary's head coaching wouldn't start any better than Nolan's had ended. In Singletary's debut against the Seahawks at home, the 49ers lost for the fifth straight week. However, the change was immediately apparent. Singletary benched O'Sullivan in favor of Hill without hesitation after O'Sullivan threw his second interception of the game. With Hill at the helm, Singletary coaxed Martz into scaling down his scheme to fit the quarterback's more traditional West Coast style. Singletary also benched Vernon Davis after a critical personal foul penalty cost the team. His personnel switches and hard-nosed approach paid off: The unit immediately played with greater efficiency and fewer errors. After losing, Singletary made an in-stadium apology to the fans. However, despite the loss, he had already given 49ers fans something to look forward to after the bye week.

On Monday night in Arizona, looking for the third win of the season, the 49ers came closer than they had in over a month. Down by five late in the game, Shaun Hill conducted a last-minute drive that took the team down to Arizona's one-yard line. Within three feet of the win, chaos reigned. Hill got the call in his headset to run a spike play and kill the clock. At the same time, Martz actually called for a personnel change, hoping to run an actual play. The confusion was massive, and it cost the 49ers most of the remaining clock time. They wouldn't be able to capitalize before the last second ticked off. It was an embarrassing way to lose, and one that showed how dis-unified the team had really become toward the end of Mike Nolan's regime.

Mercifully, after weeks of getting pounded by unquestionably superior opponents, the 49ers caught a break, facing the St. Louis Rams. Though both teams were 2-7 at the time, they were headed in opposite directions. And by the time the 49ers were beating the Rams 35-3 at the half, it was apparent just how misleading the similarity between their records was.

But the Rams had just been a breather for the 49ers, as they flew to Dallas the next week to lose to a superior Cowboys team. Their trip to Buffalo after that would end better, although only somewhat. The struggling Bills gave the 49ers trouble all day.

At home against Brett Favre and the Jets, though, the 49ers would put together a season-defining performance. The 49ers' defense, which had been picked on by similar teams earlier in the season, put up a stiff front and silenced Favre and the rest of the Jets offense for nearly the entire game. The 49ers' offensive line, which had struggled so much for so long, dominated the trenches to give Shaun Hill as much time as he needed. Hill himself took full advantage of that protection to lead the team to its third victory in the last five games. Suddenly at 5-8, this was not the same 49ers team from a mere month prior.

Or were they? A fairly limp week 15 loss to the Dolphins would raise doubts. But in perspective, the Dolphins were on their way to a playoff berth and the 49ers were playing without a banged up Frank Gore. The loss, while discouraging, was not as bad as it felt.

Luckily, the 49ers and their fans wouldn't have to feel that sting for long. Week 16 brought the Rams again. And while the 49ers failed to dispatch their division rivals with the same ease as before, they nonetheless emerged victorious again. With a season finale victory over the Redskins, the 49ers somehow managed to post their best season record since 2002. And it was in large part to the second half turnaround overseen by Mike Singletary.

But the future of the team was still a question. The ownership moved quickly to try to resolve the immediate future of the team by announcing Mike Singletary's signing as the official head coach for the 2009 season. But would Singletary, a first-time coach with little experience as a coordinator, be able to bring the same spark to the team over the course of a full offseason and regular season? Would his fundamental disagreements with Mike Martz's offensive philosophy doom the team to another season of offensive overhaul? Was Shaun Hill good enough to shoulder the team for an entire season? Would Alex Smith ever play in a 49ers uniform again?

Only time would tell.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/2008.htm
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-12-08/sports/17129737_1_49ers-frank-gore-locker-room
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-11-17/sports/17129432_1_49ers-spiking-st-louis-rams
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-10-13/sports/17137650_1_nolan-s-niners-49ers-frank-gore
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-10-27/sports/17137965_1_o-sullivan-virtual-comfort-zone
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-11-11/sports/17125712_1_49ers-mike-nolan-headset
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-10-06/sports/17137225_1_49ers-ex-patriot-empty-hype/2
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-09-29/sports/17158016_1_o-sullivan-49ers-offense-saints
http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-09-15/sports/17157242_1_patrick-willis-49ers-sacks/2

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