Walter Cronkite once said, "Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart. You want to linger as long as possible, unless of course your Mike Singletary. Then just get the hell out of town" Ok the last part isn't true but I don't hear Singletary protesting.
3 years ago Mike Singletary took the city by storm. He promised to bring toughness, to restore the tradition of winning and to lift the fog from the bay. He was the media's darling. ESPN did a whole special on him including his weird motivational hill which he built on the practice field and had the team run over and over.
2009 was Singletary's first full year as head coach after taking over for Mike Nolan. As promised the 49ers were tough and played hard... they just didn't win. Still, an 8-8 record was a considerable improvement and the team's first non-losing season since 2002 and hopes for this year were high.
Again, the media was enchanted by Singletary's 'no excuses, we are winners attitude.' Michael Irving called the 49ers 'a lock' to reach the playoffs. Others were convinced the 49ers 'had slowly but surely climbed the ladder and 2010 was there year to reach the top"
Too bad the players never got the memo. An 0-5 start nearly killed their playoff chances (remember this was the NFC West) and a 5-10 record had 49ers brass chasing Singletary out of town before the season even finished.
So much for lifting the fog.
Season in Review: Unlucky scheduling
In some ways the 49ers were a bit unlucky. Espn's Greg Easterbrook called it the Crabtree curse. Or it could have been the decision to hire Singletary in the first place (cheap shot alert - Singletary is not a terrible coach, its just his antics can be tiring).
More likely, it was the case of another rough starting schedule. In yesterday's season review of the Browns, I mentioned how even Harvard Law students winced at the Browns opening schedule. The same could be said about the 49ers treacherous start, although this time it would probably be Stanford students grimacing because Harvard students are east-coast snobs who can't be bothered by anything west of Philadelphia (I kid Harvardites, I kid).
Either way, much like the Browns, the 5 straight playoff opponents* and a 6th game against the Raiders who finished 8-8 wasn't exactly how the niners were hoping to ease into the season.
(* - the Seattle Seahawks were one of these teams. They're playoff caliber status is debatable. Played in the NFC West but did beat the Saints opening round... that's a tough call....Nice win, but NFC West wins out. Sorry Seattle but you weren't a real playoff team).
Yes the 49ers were unlucky to open with such a daunting 5 game stretch, but at some point, even Mike Singletary would agree, you can't keep making excuses. Either you are a playoff caliber team or not and to be one, you have to beat quality playoff teams. Sure not every week, but you can't go 0-5 to start a season if this was supposed to be your breakout season.
As it was, the 49ers were never really serious contenders because they never had a consistent starting quarterback. The way Singletary shuffled the two Smiths in and out was so dizzying it bordered nauseating. Such careless and corybantic maneuvering showed a lack of discipline and patience that was ultimately Singletary's and the team's downfall.
After the 0-5 start, which included a heartbreaking loss at home against New Orleans that they let slip away, the 49ers seemed to right the ship. Over the course of their remaining 11 games, they went 6-5, beating the teams they were supposed to and losing to the better teams. 2 exceptions doomed them and cost them a playoff berth: The Niners, still in their early season funk, fumbled away (literally) a week 7 game at lowly Carolina and gave away (also literally) a golden opportunity to stay in the playoff hunt losing week 15 at St. Louis. It was after this game, which Singletary was finally canned.
6-10 won't cut it in San Francisco certainly not with the talent they have assembled and the expectations they have built. New coach Jim Harbaugh knows this and seems a strong candidate to reverse the 49ners losing fortunes.
Offseason Momentum: Strong
Local favorite Jim Harbaugh was a great hire. The media loves him and he is well known and respected in the community.
As a new coach, Harbaugh should inject energy and enthusiasm right away and will go about putting his stamp on the organization... Heard that before?
The team is filled with veteran talent at all the skill positions and is primed for a playoff run. Sound familiar?
This year will be different... Oh boy.
No seriously it will.... uh oh. I am serious! Crap. I've done it. I've bought into the hype again...
The 49ers are like a restaurant that gets high reviews but in reality is just not that good.
The first time you go, you are excited. You've seen the menu and it looks fantastic. All day you've been craving those Charbroiled Lamb Chomps, dusted with a Mint demi-glaze and served over the chef's special garlic infused fluffed potatoes (notice that mashed or whipped potatoes are too unrefined - they must be fluffed).
All dressed up and secretly starving (it would be uncouth to admit it) you arrive at the restaurant only to find that the lamb chops are sold out. You end up ordering pork chops but they are cold and a bit overdone.
No worries. Undaunted you come back. Only this time the strip-steak, a last minute impulse gives you food poisoning. Frustrated and about to give up on it, you hear the restaurant's hired a chef...
A local guy, whose last restaurant in the bay area has been the rave of the bay area. Your excited again and you should be. The only thing, is that it needs a bit of a face-lift. That face lift will come in the replacement of starting quarterback.
The Colts have a better chance of signing Oakland corner Nnamdi Asomugha than the 49ers do of bringing back both Smiths at Qb. One of them will probably be back, but not both. Neither, will start - at least hopefully not if you are a niners fan.
A bit of a tangent but with David Carr listed as the 3rd string Qb, the 49ers just need to sign JaMarcus Russell and maybe Cade McNown to win the prize of having the biggest Qb draft busts of all time on the same team.
Anyway, the Niners are close. Harbaugh knows it, the team feels it and the fans believe it.
The defense was staunch last season. Ranking 6th against the run, the unit surrendered just 96 rushing yards a game. Patrick Willis is certainly the most underrated defensive player in the game and could be the best one period. Putting aside what Easterbrook might claim, Crabtree should emerge as a top flight receiver who should provide the new qb with an explosive deep threat. Frank Gore while maybe not as explosive as he once was, is still a top 10 back when heathy and tight end Vernon Davis has a chance to supplant Antonio Gates as the most dominant tight end in the league next year (my apologies to Dallas Clark who is no worse than 3rd in my opinion).
All they need now is a quarterback.
Offseason Anxiety: QUARTERBACK, QUARTERBACK and QUARTERBACK!
The Niners are a solid quarterback from making the playoffs. They need to upgrade defensive tackle as well, but a good quarterback, or a least stability at the position and they should make the jump to the playoffs and win 3-4 more games in process.
Because the quarterback class is fairly weak this year, it is doubtful that the 49ers will reach and try to solve their woes with the 6th pick. If they do select a quarterback in the 2nd round, rumor has it that Harbaugh likes fellow former pac-10 opponent Jake Locker.
Because the team has a definite win now approach, it seems more likely that they will look to free agency or explore trade possibilities to fill the need. Marc Bulger, Kerry Collins and Chad Pennington head up the list of available veteran quarterbacks. Of course Peyton Manning is currently available too I guess (not that the 49ers would be interested). If not one of those guys, the Niners will probably make calls to Philadelphia and Cincinnati to see about the availability of Kevin Kolb and Carson Palmer respectively. Don't forget about dark horse Jim Sorgi!!!!
Draft Desires: Surprisingly not QUARTERBACK
Will they draft a quarterback at some point? Of course and it will probably be earlier rather than later. But don't be surprised if they go defense with their first two picks. Their secondary is young and talented but sometimes shaky. To shore up the cornerback position and provide help opposite Nate Clements, Prince Amukamara out of Nebraska. Amukamara is a fast shut down corner. His highlights are enough to make any Colts fan jealous. Plus, anyone named Prince should find great success in the bay area (and yes I did steal my pick from Bleacher report - after looking at that video can you blame me?)
In the second round, the Niners have a decision to make. Go after Locker or settle for much needed help on the defensive line. A trade to move up to ensure both wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.
The draft is loaded with athletic, beefy defensive tackles who could thrive in San Fran's 3-4 base defensive. Notables included but are not limited to, Jurrell Casey from USC, Allen Bailey from Miami and Marvin Austin out of UNC. All three are big time players who have been tested playing in big time conferences. Patrick Willis would no doubt welcome any of them.
Free Agent Farewells: Quarterbacks (a popular theme huh?) Defense
All three quarterbacks currently on the roster are free agents. Not that is a particularly huge blow, but the Niners should resign at least 1 - probably Smith. Gotcha, you don't know which Smith I am talking about do you? Probably Alex.
On defense, the Niners have some big names they need to lock up. Manny Lawson was once a bust, but has preformed well - better - of late. Takeo Spikes is must sign player as well. He may be 34, but he is the emotional leader of the defense and finished with 108 tackles. Not bad for an old man. A 2 year deal should be offered.
Dashon Goldson is a bit unheralded but was the best player in the Niners secondary most of the year. If the 49ers are stupid enough to let him go, and they might because they recently drafted USC safety Taylor Mays, the Colts should pounce. Unfortunately, Goldson will probably stay in gold and maroon. Demetric Evans and Aubrayo Franklin both shared time on the defensive and were big bodied solid contributors, but they are past there primes (So much so that the Colts won't consider them). Lastly Jeff Reed is still one of the most accurate place kickers in the league, but given that his name is in one of the Pittsburgh Steeler's team fight songs, it is only right that he go back. It ruins the song!!!
Sadly, no real prospects for the Colts to poach for San Fran.
Premature Glimpse into the Future: All or Nothing
This is San Francisco's year. If they underachieve and blow it then they will have major overhauls set for next future.
The 49ers have about a 2-3 year window where they could be really good. If they don't make the playoffs this year, fans and ownership will become exasperated and lose patience and the rebuilding process will start early.
If they find a stable leader for quarterback anything short of a 10 win season is a bust.
The pressure in San Francisco to lift the fog is on.
Threat to the Stampede: None
We don't play San Fran during the regular season and the chances that the Colts and the Niners make the super bowl are well, none. I would put a lot more money on the Colts though if you had to choose one.