There's something going haywire in San Francisco, and I'm not talking about the BART riots. (Seriously, did the whole city fall into a Cory Doctorow fever dream?) The San Francisco 49ers, arguably the most talented team in the NFC West, are on a fast track to the bottom of the division.
Keep hearing that #49ers are the favorite according to Vegas-that really shocks me. Might put them 4th. D will go backwards. Passing Game??
After a decent draft that landed them pass-rush project Aldon Smith, a legitimate change-of-pace runner in Kendall Hunter, and potentially their quarterback of the future in Colin Kaepernick, there was reason to believe that new coach Jim Harbaugh had this team heading in the right direction. All the team had to do to contend was maintain the dominant strength of the defense, and sprinkle some of his magical pixie dust on the offense, and this team would become a formidable contender.
Instead, they're quickly turning into a joke.
Free agency foibles
If the best way to strengthen your team is to start up the middle, then surely it's also the quickest path to weakening it. And the Niners have gotten weaker on both sides of the ball, inexplicably letting stalwart nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin go, and letting their starting center get poached in free agency. Their solution to both problems? Fill from within by sliding semi-skilled backups (DE Isaac Sopoaga and G Adam Snyder) out of position.
They've gone sideways or worse with a number of free agent moves, perhaps improving only at receiver with the addition of Braylon Edwards. But with Michael Crabtree not participating in training camp practices for a third consecutive year, they may be squandering their high-upside talent just as fast.
And their latest "plan" in free agency, after an ugly opening start for Alex Smith's offense (2-7 passing for 10 yards, getting sacked and fumbling twice once while earning one first down in five series): bring Daunte Culpepper back from the UFL in for a visit. (Jeff George was apparently not returning phone calls.)
Early returns are not very positive. Snaps are on the ground, gaping holes are opening in the running game for backs like the Saints' Mark Ingram, and the offense, if anything, looks worse than before. A post on Niners Nation about the awfulness of Alex Smith's very first throw of the preseason ignited a firestorm of more than 500 comments from angry and bewildered fans.
Granted, it's only the first preseason game for a brand new coach. But the coach is sounding dangerously out of his depth.
Frantic energy on the sidelines
The legion of advanced offensive minds from the collegiate ranks that have failed in the NFL is long and storied. No doubt optimists in San Francisco think that Harbaugh is closer to the second coming of Don Coryell coming out of San Diego State, than to Steve Spurrier coming out of the University of Florida. But there have been a lot more stories like Spurrier's, of talented minds being overwhelmed by the pro game, than of Coryell's.
And camp reports, while they have the patina of good news that every preseason camp report has, also have oddly ominous notes. Harbaugh seems determined to conquer the advanced tempo of the pro game by speeding up his own team's pace to a frantic level.
“It’s been pretty intense, especially with this lockout,” Davis said. “We’re behind. Everybody’s behind. So we’ve got to move really fast. So we’ve been moving fast.
“Everything’s just fast right now. Really fast.”
That’s at Harbaugh-speed, all summed up by the banner posted outside the locker room that partly reads “if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
The idea appears to be that the 49ers can overwhelm opponents by lining up faster and snapping the ball quicker than their opponents can adjust. But the danger is that the pace is also moving faster than Harbaugh's own team can absorb. Mike Sando intimated as much in his visit to camp:
Harbaugh keeps the time in his head, sometimes without even consulting a watch. The only whistle at practice belongs to him. Harbaugh blows it when he's ready for a new period to begin. If there's a bad snap or miscue, too bad. It's on to the next play. Corrections can wait until the end of practice.
For Alex Smith, a player whose entire career has been a series of rapid-fire scheme changes with no chance to pause or try again, this has the makings of yet another disaster.
Rams are slowing down, focusing on precision.
The contrast to Rams camp couldn't be more stark. On offense and defense for the Rams, the focus is on precision. Josh McDaniels has been all over his receivers, focusing on proper route depth, timing, and execution. He is not afraid to break up a play or a drill that isn't going right, and reset it.
And in Friday's rain-shortened practice, the Rams spent an entire 20-minute period on defense lining up in various formations, without any offensive players in front of them, and focusing on their first three steps after the snap. It wasn't very tweet-worthy or very photogenic, but it was fascinating to watch.
Line up. Snap ball. Take three steps. Line up. Snap ball. Take three steps. Again and again, unit by unit, until they were able to move as one giant monster, living and breathing as one.
I was reminded of this by Dan Pompei's excellent Sunday Blitz column in the National Football Post, talking about Bengals' offensive-line coach Paul Alexander's practice of borrowing ideas of repetition and precision from virtuoso musicians.
“I found it so revealing to get inside the head of concert pianist,” Alexander said. “Their hands fly so fast all over the place—but that’s not how they learn it. It becomes a mortal achievement when it’s done very slowly. Great, great performers, whether pro players or elite musicians, make it look very simple, make it look easy. The reason is they learn to eliminate extraneous movements and false movements by slowing it down in practice.”
Spagnuolo was once noted for his frantic energy in camp as well, but this year's Rams camp is notably more settled down, more business-like. And Spagnuolo's famous attention to detail is now focusing on the little things that make complex plays like Fred Robbins' and CJ Ah You's intricate pass rush work.
Again, getting back to Harbaugh, it's only the first preseason game for a brand new coach.
That's the Niners' fan's mantra right now. Just as the Rams shouldn't get too high from their 33-10 victory in all phases of the game against an un-Manning-ed Colts team, we shouldn't start gloating too heavily over the 49ers' troubles.