Why you should watch the 49ers in December.
1. The Singletary effect.
You’ve heard the refrain interim head coaches don’t succeed. What does that mean for Singletary? He’s definitely not the traditional interim head coach, but does that mean he’s the right fit for the permanent job? The last four weeks should provide insight into his capabilities as a head coach, so pay attention.
The schedule is a little daunting, which is a good thing for evaluating an interim head coach. Next week at home vs. the Jets followed by a 10 am start in Miami, another 10 am start in St. Louis and ending the season by hosting Washington. Singletary is a Hall of Famer whowon a Super Bowl ring as the leader of one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen. He doesn’t speak in shades of gray, he speaks in black and white. In his first game as head coach, he famously sent Vernon Davis to the showers early and dropped his pants during his halftime speech for visual aid. During the following bye week, there was much consternation from the media that “Today’s player” is different and wouldn’t respond to Singletary’s antics. Yet, Vernon Davis said about Singletary after the Buffalo win just last week, "I think he should get the job. He's a great coach. He's been there, done that. He knows what it takes, and he's very straightforward." Davis only has three catches over the last four games and Niners have only thrown the ball his way seven times in those four games so it would be easy for him to be unhappy. It seems, Singletary has the players attention and they like what they’re hearing. Football is a manly game. It’s often associated (correctly or not) with warfare and battle because of its violent nature and the necessity of total team cooperation for success. True competitors don’t like to play he said/she said games. They want to hear it like it is -face to face. No need for sugar coating, just come clean. It seems to be working right now for Singletary, let’s see if it works the last four weeks.
If Singletary is seemingly winning over his players, what about the coaches? Singletary doesn’t have to win over his coaches, or Nolan’s coaches, but he is handling them differently, perhaps more effectively, than Nolan did. Let’s start with Martz. Nolan brought in Martz to save the offense and, thus, save his own job. Nolan wasn’t an offensive minded guy and left Martz to work on his own in his mad scientist laboratory trying to bring the monster of JTO to life. JTO was inserted as starting QB after a puppet QB competition and proceeded to get sacked repetitively and turn the ball over more than any other player in the league. Singletary saw less than one half of JTO as head coach and immediately went to Shaun Hill. Hill has already thrown as many touchdowns in 4 ½ games as JTO did in the first 7 ½ games, with 8(!) less interceptions. Hill is also getting sacked about half as much as JTO did. You can credit Hill and you can credit Martz with changing the offense to mesh with Hill’s skill set, but what took so long? Singletary doesn’t do offense, either. Yet, he has successfully reined in Martz and forced him to call the game according to the team game plan, not the mad scientist game plan. The defense has shifted to a base 3-4 instead of the ineffective hybrid that Nolan was running. Greg Manusky has gone from up in the booth to down on the field. Seems harmless, right? While Nolan was running the defense from the sideline Manusky was up in the booth. Was Nolan spending too much time worrying about the defense while ignoring his resposiblities as a head coach? I can’t say. From everything I’ve read throughout his tenure, Nolan was always overmatched as a head coach and a GM. Singletary seems to be running the team in a more CEO style than Nolan, which is a good thing. Monitor the temperature of the team and their response to Singletary throughout December.
2. Offensive line.
The unit has potential. When you use terms like “potential” it means that they aren’t good, but they are young and there is hope for a better future. Offensive line continuity is highly important to the overall success of any team. Look to see how the 49ers line plays over the next four games. The positions are firmly set: Staley, left tackle, Baas, left guard, Heitmann, center, Rookie Rachal, right guard and Snyder at right tackle. Good offensive line play involves teamwork and trust. Defensive blitzes and stunts are designed to confuse the offense into making mistakes. For an offensive line to be effective everybody has to be on the same page and that can only happen when guys play together. The 49er O-line currently ranks 8th in Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards(ALY), which measures the effectiveness of the RB/OL combination for all running back carries and then adjusts for down, distance, situation and opponent. Eighth!8th out of 32 teams is pretty darn impressive to me! . On the other hand, the 49ers are last in the Power Success category, which measures percentage of successful 3rd and 4th down carries of two yards and less to go as well as 1st or 2nd and goal of the same distance. The 49ers O-line also ranks 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR), which calculates sacks per pass attempt. The high ALY ranking is encouraging, indicating that (A Frank Gore is good and (B maybe the line hasn’t been playing as bad as it seems. In these next four games, look to see the sack rate drop, partly because Hill takes waaaaay less sacks than JTO, but the unit should also play more cohesively. The Power Success ranking should get better as well. On 3rd or 4th and short, see how many yards the team picks up and see which guys are making the key blocks.
3. Receiving corps.
It’s not pretty going down the list of leading wide receivers on the 49ers since T.O. left in 2003. The list includes, Cedrick Wilson, Curtis Conway, Brandon Lloyd, Johnnie Morton, Antonio Bryant, Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle. Four years of bad, ugly, pug-fugly receiving. No wide receiver has even had 60 receptions since 2003. This season, with Mike Martz, Isaac Bruce would have to average at least 5 catches each of the remaining games to get to 60 receptions. The 49ers need to create a more balanced offensive attack and the passing game needs to provide a more consistent threat to opposing defenses. Josh Morgan and Jason Hill have provided reasons to believe that there could be hope for the future. Morgan showed up in the pre-season then got a staph infection, lost a bunch of weight and was on the sidelines for a couple weeks. When he got back, he was looking good, and then he tweaked his groin and has been out the last couple weeks. The staph infection is random and unfortunate and the groin could be the same, but now Morgan has to comeback and prove he can stay healthy and productive. Jason Hill has had a couple nice games after barely even getting on the field last season. A strong finish to the season could be a sign of bigger and better things to come.
Patrick Willis was defensive rookie of the year for 2007. He’s got the second most tackles in the NFL this season after leading the league last season. If there is one guy you can watch on this team every defensive play, it’s Willis. He’s active. He’s exciting. His motor is always running on high. He’s a playmaker. Yet, he hasn’t been the same P-Willy all year. Sure, he had that 85 yard INT return against Seattle early in the season, but something has been missing. Mostly, it’s because O-lineman were getting to him and keeping him from making more tackles. The constant changing of defensive sets put out there by Nolan seemed to be the biggest reason for his drop off in production. Last year, the success of P-Willy had to do with the NT clogging up opposing offensive lines enough to let P-Willy roam freely and hunt down ball carriers. Since Singletary took the headsets, he and Manusky have stayed with a base 3-4 most of the time. Players (Sopoaga and Franklin, mostly) can focus on that one formation and getting comfortable in their responsibilities. This newfound defensive stability should allow P-Willy to do what he does best – dominate. Watch for P-Willy to make more plays over the last month.
5. 2009 1st round draft pick.
The 49ers are likely going to be selecting between the 6th and 12th picks in the April draft. I’d feel pretty comfortable if the 49ers get the 11th pick. Since 2003, here are the #11 picks: Marcus Trufant, Ben Roethlisberger, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Cutler, Patrick Willis and Leodis McKelvin. That’s going to be a prime pick that should contribute immediately. Who will it be? Go over and check out the top 12 rated prospects and various sites and then pick your favorites. Could they get a Michael Jenkins or Vontae Davis to step in for an aging Walt Harris? Will they decide they need to go Michael Crabtree or Jeremy Maclin at wide receiver? Or maybe pick an OT, with Michael Oher or Eben Britton, moving Snyder to the utility lineman role? I didn’t even mention the elephant in the room, quarterback. Sam Bradford? Matt Stafford? These last four weeks will be used by the coaching staff and front office to evaluate personnel. Do your own evaluations. Keep track of who’s giving up big plays, sacks, dropping passes, missing tackles or not really doing anything when they’re on the field? Which players are standing out above the rest? Diagnose the most troubled starting position and then check the draft boards and figure out who would fit best.
There are reasons to watch the Niners in December.
The Fat Guy