Erick Arnold. 7th October, 2010 - 11:23 pm
With preseason expectations from fans of the 49ers bordering on Dallas or Jets levels this season, San Francisco has started their hyped 2010 campaign with a dreadful 0-4 start. Such a dreadful start, in fact, that they fired Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye following a week three loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. With playoff expectations creating high levels of pressure, turmoil inside the coaching staff, and critical mistakes being made during every game thus far, it?s really no secret as to why the Niners are 0-4 in 2010.
Certainly, any football fan knows that a team without a win going into Week 5 is a team that is customarily looking forward to the next season. That logic is very well justified, especially given that only one team in NFL history has started 0-4 and made the postseason (1992 San Diego Chargers). However, looking closer at the 49ers situation, there is still reason to believe that the team will rise to the expectations of their fan base and win their division. Before you pass judgment on that statement, here are five reasons explaining why San Francisco, much like their baseball counterparts, will make the playoffs this season.
1. The Schedule
Nobody should make excuses for going 0-4, but if any of the current winless teams can, the 49ers could point to a daunting opening schedule. Divisional matchups are always tough regardless of the opponent, and Seattle is a tough place to play due to noise (No ?12th Man? it isn?t that you are that loud it?s your acoustically designed stadium). Facing the defending Super Bowl Champions is tough at any point in the season but probably more so early on. Playing in Kansas City isn?t easy either but then immediately drawing a strong Atlanta team on the road makes it all the more tough.
The point here is that these games weren?t ?circle wins? by any stretch and the Niners could have easily finished this tough opening schedule at 2-2 if not for a single critical play in each game.
However, the good news is that the schedule does favor the 49ers moving forward. Granted, the upcoming matchup against the Eagles isn?t easy, but with Michael Vick out for the game, San Francisco now matches up extremely well on both sides of the ball.
Moving past this game, the Niners finish the first half with matchups against their cross-bridge rivals the Oakland Raiders at home, the awful Carolina Panthers in Carolina, and then the Denver Broncos in London. If the Niners learn to enjoy fish and chips, it?s very plausible they enter their bye week with a record of 4-4 or 3-5. Granted that?s not the type of record any team would desire halfway through the season but looking at the second half of their schedule, either of those records isn?t disastrous by any means.
San Francisco ultimately controls their own destiny in the second half of 2010 with five divisional matchups. San Francisco has yet to face their most recent rival in Arizona, who sans QB Kurt Warner, are not even shadows of their three-time NFC West Champion selves. Furthermore, they get to face the rebuilding St. Louis Rams twice and the Seahawks at home. If the Niners can win either two or three of the games against the Eagles, Raiders, Panthers, and Broncos then these divisional matchups will mean that much more.
2. The Mistakes
Fumbles inside the red zone, bone-headed interceptions, running the wrong passing routes, dropping WIDE open passes, not having plays relayed to the offense in time, missed tackles, false starts, missed blocks, muffed punts, poor pass coverage, checking down instead of pushing the ball down the field, pointless intentional groundings that move your team out of field goal range in a one point game, running for a touchdown with a game-winning interception instead of taking a knee (that one was the worst)? the list of miscues is long and extensive for the 49ers in 2010. Heck, they really don?t have any mistakes left that they haven?t already made.
However, because the list of mistakes is so long, it actually favors the 49ers. These mistakes clearly, and unfortunately, demonstrate that Head Coach Mike Singletary (dare I say) isn?t a very good coach. Do you think a Bill Belichick team would try for a pick six with less than two minutes in a ball game nursing a one point lead? That being said, because they?ve made the mistakes so obvious it makes it easier for Singletary and his staff to correct. The point is they?ve experienced a full range of lessons from mistakes that can?t possibly be made again for fear of the individual who repeats them losing his job. This team is young and the lessons they?ve learned will serve them well moving forward. As the saying goes, players learn from their mistakes more than they learn from successes and the Niners have learned more in four games then most teams learn in a season.
3. The Talent
The 49ers own talent at some very key positions on both sides of the ball. Vernon Davis is the most athletic tight end in the NFL. Patrick Willis is the best middle linebacker in football today. Frank Gore is a flat out beast and is now an anomaly in today?s NFL as a lone workhorse in a team?s backfield. Potential stars are everywhere on this squad such as rookie S Taylor Mays, second-year WR Michael Crabtree, and rookie offensive linemen RT Anthony Davis and G Mike Iupati. Furthermore, the 49ers have potent veterans in LB Takeo Spikes, DE Justin Smith and LT Joe Staley. Traditionally, 0-4 teams have a myriad of issues but most glaringly, a lack of talent generally stands atop the list. Such is not the case for San Francisco and that is arguably the most important factor in the Niners turning the ship around. What is not arguable is the fact that the team does possess talent that has the potential to make game-changing plays. These plays have yet to happen but with superstars that own proven track records, over time these plays will happen. So, if the law of averages holds, get ready for a few to happen very soon.
4. Mike Johnson
The games? best Offensive Coordinators (former and current) generally all have distinctive regal names that, when said aloud, fans automatically associate with their respective offensive philosophy. For example: Schottenheimer (power running game), Shanahan (zone blocking scheme), Holmgren (West Coast offense), Martz (Air Coryell)? but Mike Johnson? Names aside, Johnson is a former quarterback himself, albeit in the CFL, but his general understanding of what Alex Smith is experiencing is crucial in the development of the former number one overall pick. In only one game, the 49er offense was exponentially less predictable than when former OC Jimmy Raye was calling offensive plays (there were rumors that in the game against the Chiefs, Chiefs defensive players were calling out the plays before the Niners even ran them). Usually, when a team gets a new offensive coordinator a change in the offensive scheme comes with him, but that is not the case here. This is important to note because Smith?s development has been hindered due to new offensive coordinators every year of his career up until now. However with this change, it?s the exact same scheme just with a different person selecting the plays for the offense.
It?s no secret that the Niners lack an explosive offense. Thus, ball control and converting on third down are the most important tasks that Johnson must accomplish with the 49er offense. That being said, the most glaring statistic that marks the change from Raye to Johnson as a positive one is San Francisco?s third down conversion percentage with Johnson calling plays. Under Raye, the Niners were averaging a paltry 24% converting on third down. Under Johnson, that rate doubled to 50% against Atlanta which is a direct result of Johnson?s play calling. Under Johnson, the offense will continue to find themselves in manageable third down situations versus the third and long?s they were in under Raye. Granted there are still improvements to be made here ? most notably Smith?s interceptions ? but Singletary?s decision to move forward with Johnson looks to be a positive one.
5. The Division
Even with the 49ers at 0-4, they are only two games behind the division leader St. Louis and every other team in the NFC West for that matter, who are all at 2-2. Analyzing the rest of the division, it?s safe to say that there really isn?t a team that can clearly run away with the NFC West this year. Thus, the NFC West title is still very much up for grabs, especially considering the weaknesses of each team - most noticeably their respective wuarterbacks.
For Arizona, Hall is getting his first NFL start this week against the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. Not exactly ideal an ideal situation for Arizona but terrible play from recently acquired Derek Anderson forced the move.
St. Louis, on the other hand, has a rookie quarterback with a few games under his belt in Sam Bradford. Generally speaking, rookie QB?s are going to have bone-headed interceptions and that?s understandable. However, that doesn?t exactly bode well for St. Louis if they?re in a fight to make the playoffs.
Seattle has oft-injured QB Matt Hasselbeck in the twilight of his career. Hasselbeck is only at his best with a strong running game but unfortunately, the Seahawks have yet to find that.
Besides the quarterbacks there are, to put it bluntly, holes in every NFC West team. St. Louis lacks a legitimate receiving corp. Seattle (although recently addressed with the acquisition of Marshawn Lynch from the Bills) is unable to run the ball effectively and lacks a legitimate pass rush. Arizona has lost too many key players from their recent playoff teams and the lack of a quarterback remains their largest obstacle.
Furthermore, the tough opponents the 49ers have faced thus far this season, their NFC West counterparts will have to face some as well. Given that Arizona was the division winner last season, they face other 2009 NFC Division winners in Minnesota, Dallas, and New Orleans. The Rams have yet to play San Diego, New Orleans, and Atlanta. The Seahawks still have the Bears, Chiefs, Falcons and Saints on their schedule.
The point here is that San Francisco has faced the majority of their toughest opponents already, whereas their division foes have yet to be truly tested. Thus, things should balance out in San Francisco?s favor over time, meaning that an 8-8 record could ? undeservingly ? lead to a Division title in the NFC West.
In 2009, the New York Jets were all but eliminated from the postseason going into a Week 16 matchup against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts. With a stroke of luck (Head Coach Jim Caldwell deciding to bench the Colts starters after halftime) and by playing their best football of the year, the Jets seized their opportunity and were the hottest team entering the playoffs. So hot in fact, they made it all the way to the AFC Championship behind a strong defense and a punishing running game. That Jets team has many parallels to the 2010 49ers in that San Francisco also has a good defense and a punishing running game (when the team plays well, that is).
Given the five reasons mentioned above, the 49er faithful shouldn?t give up hope just yet. Granted 0-4 is a very large hole to climb out of, but under these circumstances, history may repeat itself just one more time.