Brief Note: My fanposts this season have been less detailed and much less frequent for many reasons, the biggest of which is I have been pre-occupied with the finishing touches on my approaching wedding as I will be getting married 2 weeks from tomorrow. I expect my posts to improve and increase in frequency come the 2nd half of the season.
The 49ers have a very touchy fanbase. We want to embrace the new coaching regime, but we want it to happen now, not later. After all, January of 2003 was the last time we saw our team in the playoffs. And I don't know about you, but when I look back to where I was in January 2003, it was 3 residences ago and an entirely different phase in my life.
Fast forward to today. Our team is 1-1 and about to embark on a baseball-style 10 day road trip. These next 2 games will have a significant impact on the trajectory of this season for the 49ers. A bunch of new coaches, a few new players (and a whole lot of youth), yet for the most part the same ol' offensive personnel (particularly now that Braylon Edwards is injured). That has led to a lot of the same problems as recent years.
For the record, I had the 49ers losing to the Cowboys, and the 49ers played better than I anticipated.
The fans and media alike seem to have a disappointed air about their 49ers conversations. However, I somewhat differ from this majority. Complaints about lack of offensive yardage are on the forefront. While I understand this concern and have it myself, I see a lot of good things. First of all, despite any support from the running game, Alex Smith has had two solid outings. No, he isn't putting up big passing numbers, but his efficiency for the first 8 quarters of this season may be the best consecutive 8 quarters he has ever put together in the NFL.
The biggest key I have seen regarding Smith's play has nothing to do with stats. It has been his feet. It is dramatically evident to me that Harbaugh & Co. have been hard at work on Smith's fundamentals, in particular regarding his footwork. Steve Young has cited the importance of a quarterbacks feet, so much so that you can black out the film with the only visible part of the screen being the QBs feet, and more often than not a knowledgeable individual can predict positive or negative play simply by watching the QBs feet and nothing else.
Smith isn't anywhere near a Drew Brees with his feet, but the significant improvement he has made in such a short time tells me Harbaugh has already made a big impact on his play. Last season (particularly once he lost trust in his teammates) we saw Smith either sack himself with happy feet, hurt his blockers by not stepping up or by running backwards and to the right, or otherwise not adjusting in the pocket in a way to give his blockers help. This season, he is much improved at his drops, his movement in the pocket, and using his athleticism to attack the line of scrimmage and make plays. He is more on the attack (though if the line keeps up its poor play, we could see that revert). He isn't great at any of this yet, but no more is he doing the "oh no... that was terrible" play. And those always start with the feet. Taking running lane opportunities as he has this season also reduces the risk of a bad play. Also, Smith has been moving to his left nearly as much as his right this year, and that can't be ignored.
Yes, we all want to see explosive plays. However, we must not forget this coaching staff has had their hands on the players for roughly 6 weeks. In comparison to a regular offseason, it won't be until the 2nd half of the season that this staff will have had the coaching time they would have had elapsed by the START of the season. As Jim Harbaugh has stated before, "it's a process." I find it a victory in of itself that the offense hasn't been a turnover prone disaster (I really thought that could happen with how little coaching time they had).
The other piece of offense I would like to touch on is the running game. Many of us are concerned that Frank Gore has lost a step, but even the 2006 Gore would have trouble with what he has had to work with this season. Also, I'm tired of hearing about the 8 and 9 man fronts. First off, there are fewer of those than people seem to think. I have seen play after player where the 49ers simply get dominated by the opposing front 7. Each individual lineman is getting beat. There is very little push, if any at all. And making matters worse is the lack of time in this offense (this goes for all 11 on offense). People want big plays, but its the little things that create big plays (as Josh Morgan mentioned). The running game works in tandem with the passing game, and with all things considered, I think it is a bit much to expect an explosive offense until the 2nd half of the season. The fact they have protected the football and been responsible for 19 (the other 14 by Ginn) and 24 points isn't a bad thing. Good defensive performances can win with those point totals.
The defense is apparently the same story as always. You can't run on them no matter how hard you try, but if you throw the ball around you will exploit mistakes in the secondary for big plays. It is the main reason I don't think this team will make a lot of noise this year (though I do expect them to be consistently competitive). And while the coverage style is definitely different than the Manusky schemes, the results seem quite similar. A lack of talent is a lack of talent. However, i have seen stretches of very good play between the big plays. That is encouraging.
The Decision: Take the points off the board or keep them on? People are up in arms about this one. However, I had no problem with the decision at the time and I still don't. Decisions like this must be made in context, not in stubborn philosophy. Yes, Harbaugh would be expected to be aggressive and go on the attack. However, the context of the game made the 3 points make sense. A two score lead with 11 minutes in the 4th quarter when the opposing offense had been sluggish and their star QB had busted ribs is a shoe-in. If you can't win in that scenario, your defense is pretty shameful.
Touching more on the context of the decision, we can look back at week 1 when Harbaugh did take points off the board. Why the different decisions? Well, when you can have a first down in a goal line situation, you take it. You can even just run it 3 times to try to safely punch it in or take a chip shot field goal. But in regards to week 2, we're talking a first down at the 23 yard line, not even in the redzone. You'd in theory have to put a pair of first downs together to be talking about a touchdown. And what were the benefits of a touchdown? Essentially none. It would have still been a two score game at 28-14. Worth the risk? Maybe with a well oiled machine, but not 6 weeks into a new team.
If people are still so sure they disagree with the decision, I have a question for you: Why are you up in arms about that decision, but not the decision the play before to kick a 55 yard field goal in the first place rather than go for 4th and 1? Going for it on 4th and 1 at the 38 is the decision I would have made, David Akers as kicker or not. A punt would have been pointless, and if you miss a 55 yard FG, that improves the field position for the opponent.
In conclusion, I find the performance against the Cowboys as impressive, not depressive. It was either a tie or a 49ers lead the entire game against the Cowboys. Seriously. That is important. Especially without any resemblance of a running game. Chalk this one up not to the coach or lack of explosive offensive plays, but on an inability to run the ball late ("4 minute offense") and to complete breakdowns in the secondary. Oh, and that Tono Romo guy is one talented, tough son of a gun. That truly was a great clutch performance, not just in football terms but in mere human capacity.
The first road game in the Harbaugh regime will be telling. I really hope they can pull this one off as the Bengals have some talented young players (I still would have prefered the 49ers made a move for Dalton instead of Kaepernick). If the 49ers lose this one, I could see a quick downward spiral with the Eagles, Bucs, and Lions coming up. However, one consolation is the run defenses of the Bengals and Lions is middle of the pack after 2 weeks and the Bucs and Eagles are two of the worst in the NFL so far. Let's hope Gore gets some of those lanes where he can bust big runs to free up the offense. But I'll be honest, I have the Niners at 2-4 come the week 7 bye. Again, it's a process.