Yesterday's victory by the San Francisco 49ers was a thrilling way to close out the first quarter of the 2011 NFL season. They now sit atop the NFC west and lead their closest rival by two games with record of 3-1.
Despite this outstanding record, I think we can all agree that there are a number of areas that need vast improvement. They still have a long ways to go before we, as fans, can really hope for a win each and every week. I think most of us are still in the "cautiously optimistic" category as it pertains to how much we are willing to invest emotionally.
Now is a good time to evaluate what we have learned about the personality of this team. What can we realistically expect from them, given what they have been able to prove on the field? At this stage in the season, it is important to remember not to get to high about the things we are doing well and not too low about the things that we haven't done well. So, What have we learned?
Harbaugh is committed to running the football
Despite a very frustrating inability to make much hay on the ground until this weekend, the 49ers have been slightly over 50% in running plays vs. passing plays. Many fans have complained that this looks too close to Singletary/Raye's philosophy.
Consider the possibility that it might still be possible to win in the NFL with a running team. I know, that's just crazy talk. But trends, like records, are made to be broken. With the pinnacle of each trend comes the origin of the next. The NFL is undoubtedly a passing league. But as it has evolved into a passing league, the defenses have evolved right along with the offenses. Maybe it's time for the new cycle to begin.
Harbaugh is a former 16 year veteran quarterback in the NFL. You might think that he'd be more inclined to turn the offense into a pass happy program like last week's opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. But he has been adamantly committed to establishing a rushing attack, even if it meant at a clip of 2.8 yards per carry.
The difference between what Singletary did and what Harbaugh is doing is a matter of basic philosophy. Singletary tried to inspire his team to do better, and Harbaugh is committed to teaching them how to be better and leaving the results up to the players. Harbaugh is teaching them to inspire themselves with the knowledge of what they can accomplish.
Alex Smith is as tough as nails
Alex has endured some very tough seasons with the 49ers. Many people, including those who have supported Alex through thick and thin, thought a change of scenery would be the best thing for his career. All it is going to take is one abysmal performance for the chorus of calls to come for him to be replaced. Heck, even with a solid start, some have been calling for it this year.
Instead of boos, fans are now excited about what Smith can accomplish. He has shown incredible tenacity this season. He isn't playing scared.
The offensive line is related to Jekyll and Hyde
Sometimes they can go out and pulverize their opponent, and sometimes they look weak and confused. This is the biggest area of concern for this team. Period.
This unit needs to gel, and quickly. I'm as high on the future of Colin Kaepernick as the next guy, but have no illusions about what a monumental step backwards it would be to lose Alex Smith due to injury. If the line doesn't come together soon, Alex may get hit one time too many, and we would lose the season.
The front 7 on defense is savage
When Patrick Willis burst onto the scene and emerged as one of the best young linebackers in the league in 2007, no one could predict that the Niners would find another version of him a few years later. NaVorrow Bowman has made the loss of Takeo Spikes seem like a distant memory. His own coaches have a hard time telling him apart from Willis out on the field.
The three outside linebackers are contributing in a major way. Between the two of them, they have added 4.5 sacks to the team total of 9. That stat doesn't really tell the whole story, however. They have been all over their opposing quarterbacks.
The front 3 has been incredibly disruptive up front. Sopoaga is like a statue out there. He is tough to move, so he can really free up the linebackers to run to the ball. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are the best 3-4 DE combination in the league.
The secondary is stil average
These players will do very well if they can keep the receivers in front of them. They struggle at times when they allow the receivers to get over the top. This is the second weak link in our football team.
I can't look at this unit and realistically expect them to become the New York Jets. They are creating turnovers, but they will always be prone to getting beat a few times a game against good offenses.
They have been very solid in the red zone, however, and have been a vital part of the Niners number one rank in allowing touchdowns in the red zone.
The team is becoming a reflection of the new Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh. His energy, focus, determination and knowledge is slowly beginning to sink it's way into the culture of the locker room. The team is completely sold out to follow him, and he is making the best out of what he has on a daily basis.
It's much too early to start thinking Super Bowl, but the team has shown flashes of a legitimate playoff team. Time will tell if they can endure the long NFL season and finish what they have begun.