Monday, November 14, 2011

The 49ers - A Mid Season Checkup....

Who are these guys and what have they done with the 49ers? After nearly a decade of institutional ineptitude and on-field impotence the 49ers have finally, if grudgingly gotten the attention of Bay Area fans and the national sports media.

Earlier this year I posted a piece to this blog ( HERE ) wherein I criticized the 49ers organization for the process it employed in attempting to turn the tide of organizational buffoonery. In that piece I made the following points:

Jed York said he would leave no stone unturned in his search for a new GM for the franchise.
Well clearly he didn’t. In reality he went about 8’ down the hall and hired a guy with no experience as a GM or Assistant GM in a successful NFL organization. That said, Baalke has overseen two drafts and thus far they’ve worked out quite well. Credit his reputation as a scout & talent evaluator. Two draft years does not a great GM make and there is a whole lot more involved in the job than just managing a draft. We’ll have to see how he works with salary cap issues, the long term retention of talent and free agency over a few more off-seasons in order to make a final analysis of Baalke. The fact remains though, that York didn’t honor his own words in his methodology for seeking and selecting a GM.

Jed York said he would seek the best and most experienced candidates for the position of head coach.
York and Baalke identified the guy they wanted and they went and got him. Bravo. But in doing so they omitted from consideration some potential candidates with infinitely more NFL experience than Harbaugh. I understand that some are loathe to idea of hiring “retread” coaches but when the “retread” is a guy with a Lombardi Trophy in his back pocket they warrant additional consideration. Now we don’t know if Bill Cowher or John Gruden could have been talked out of retirement but it’s clear that there was no effort made to try. Further, York & Baalke’s negotiation with Harbaugh was sloppy at best. I said at the time:

"The list of failures here is long but not limited to:
1) you never negotiate in public, we all knew within minutes what figure had been offered to Harbaugh
2) you never throw offers around until you have interviewed all desirable candidates
3) you never make your 1st offer your “best and final” offer"

.........all points remain true.

The final point I made was this:
I honestly do hope this works. This could go brilliantly and turn out to be a wildly successful combination of young NFL leaders. Or it could go right back into the same toilet the 49ers have been in for the last 8yrs. Given past performance....I'm leaning toward the latter.

Nine games into the season the 49ers sit at 8-1 with a nearly insurmountable lead in the NFC-West. They lead the entire NFL in run defense allowing a mere 3.4yds per carry, 73yds per game and a total of ZERO rushing touchdowns. The passing defense is a bit shaky. There are only seven teams with worse passing defenses in the league, interestingly, that list includes the division leading Patriots and undefeated Packers. They allow a somewhat ignominious 6.9yds per passing attempt. In terms of overall defense they are 12th best in the league. Offensively they are 7th best in rushing and 29th best in passing trailed only by the Colts, Broncos and Jaguars (ouch). Overall they are the 24th ranked offense in the league.

All of the above represent significant improvement with what is mostly the same talent used by the previous staff. Credit Harbaugh and his staff with significantly better game planning, play calling and individual coaching. The offensive effectiveness isn't significantly improved however, they ARE making far fewer mistakes, the play calling is FAR better and they are not turning the ball over much. Further, you have to credit Harbaugh with improving the individual performance of Alex Smith. Smith is still, by nearly every measure a poor NFL quarterback but he is FAR better now than he’s ever been. If you paid attention to him in the past you would have seen that he locked his eyes onto his receivers and telegraphed his throws. He doesn’t do that nearly as much now. The most obvious result is only three interceptions thus far in 2011 versus nine at this point in the 2010 season. Again, you can directly credit Harbaugh’s influence on Smith and significantly better offensive line play.

Bottom line - They are winning and the 49ers ARE significantly better than they were last year. They’ve gotten their fanbase interested again. They’ve gotten the league to pay attention to them as well. All of that is great and I’m excited about it. But have Harbaugh and Baalke turned the franchise around? I don't think 9 games is a large enough a sample size to say so but things are certainly looking up.

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