On to the real stuff…
The fifth way in which success should be evaluated this season, is whether or not a reliable special teams unit has been established. In recent years the 49ers kicking game has gone from bad to worse, and then to ‘I don’t think it can get any worse’. The 49ers think they finally have a place kicker who can consistently hit field goals from 45 yards and in. Todd Peterson signed with the 49ers towards the end of last season. He seems to be consistent so long as the holder can actually put the ball on the ground and not fumble the snap. Peterson’s leg is a little below average, particularly on kickoffs, but the 49ers seem to be willing to take that trade off in order to have a clutch kicker when it comes to scoring points. That being said, the team still has questions at holder. For some reason the 49ers do not use their quarterbacks – who are more familiar with handling a snap – to place the ball for the kicker. Instead, the team uses the punter – in this case rookie Andy Lee. Holders missing their mark last season contribute to some ugly field goals and extra point tries, and did cost the 49ers some winnable games. We all know that long snapper Brian Jennings is among the best of the game, but that means absolutely nothing if the holder is the worst in the game. It is absolutely essential that the 49ers put an end to the land slide that is their kicking game this season – failure to do so will seriously reduce the success of the season, but success in the kicking game, will certainly help add up to a successful season.
There is of course more to special teams than kick offs, snaps, holds, and field goals. The punting game is another area of special teams that needs to establish some serious reliability. The 49ers drafted rookie Andy Lee and he won the punting position with a great showing in practice, and very average showing in real games. Lee doesn’t have big shoes to fill, but the 49ers are looking for consistent direction and distance approaching a 40 yard average, which will not be easy, particularly in home games at Candelstick. The 49ers punting game needs to show improvement for this to be a successful season for the 49ers.
The return and coverage units are often over looked when evaluating special teams. The 49ers units in recent years have not been impressive, but when compared to the other special teams woes, return and coverage units have been great. This year the 49ers will work Arnaz Battle into the return game some more, Derrick Hamilton, Jamal Robertson, Terry Jackson, and Jimmy Williams should get involved to, creating a rather explosive group. It is the blocking up front though that makes the difference, and ultimately is what will have to improve this season. The coverage game has missed out on Terry Jackson in the past couple of years, his return should help, but one man can only make so big of a difference. The team needs to translate its overall team speed into a reliable special teams coverage and return units. This means staying disciplined, holding containment and executing so that the offense and defense are not constantly at a disadvantage. Without improvement in the coverage and return special teams unit, the 49ers can not expect success this season.
The 49ers are counting on Kevan Barlow to be a key player on offense this season. The team released Garrison Hearst this off-season, and Barlow’s primary backup is Terry Jackson. In other words: “it’s the Barlow show”. The past 7 years the 49ers have relied on a dual rushing attack, but this year things will be different. While there is good reason to go with one primary running back, particularly the rhythm of the back, the 49ers may have taken too big of a risk in doing so without a proven backup. You need two solid running backs to win in the NFL today, Barlow is one, does the team have another? Full back Fred Beasley will pick up some of the slack, rushing and opening up huge holes for Jackson, or even Jamal Robertson, but it is very hard to believe that the Barlow / Jackson tandem can be as successful and the Hearst / Barlow tandem of recent years. With such a young team the 49ers will be relying heavily on the running game. Barlow has yet to stay healthy for an entire season. This season the team will learn if they can stake their future at running back in Barlow, or if they are going to have to find another good back to work in tandem with him for the future.
No question that offensive line improvement is necessary for a successful season. The 49ers have been able to escape some awful sack statistics in recent years mainly because of Jeff Garcia’s mobility. Gone is Jeff Garcia and in steps Tim Rattay and maybe even Ken Dorsey. The two quarterbacks ‘stay at home’ more which should make it easier to block for them, but they are also less likely to escape the rush than Garcia has been. The offensive line lost some key veterans over the off-season, and remains one of the key injury prone areas of the team. Success starts in the trenches, and the 49ers will be depending on a line that will have to show improvement if the team wants success.
Terrell Owens and Tai Streets are gone. For better of for worse? I personally think for better, but have the 49ers adequately addressed the receiving position. Brandon Lloyd looks like an explosive star in the making, but let’s be honest here, the guy is young and inexperienced and has done very little in the NFL regular season to date. Cederick Wilson works harder than almost anybody on the team, but he is short for a receiver and has not exactly inspired as the team’s number three over the past few years. With a young and inexperienced quarterback calling the plays, the 49ers need receivers who can get open and reliably catch the ball, and in some cases bail the quarterback out. If the 49ers receivers have a big year, the front office will look really smart letting Owens and Streets go, if not, fans will cry early for first round pick Rashaun Woods to take the field. Success at receiver is critical for a successful season, otherwise the 49ers will be left scrambling into next season.
If pre-season is any indication of the pass rush the 49ers will bring this season, I suggest fans close their eyes when the team plays defense. The 49ers thought they made some good moves on the defensive line this off-season, but injuries have slowed the progress of the group, and starting ends John Engelberger and Andre Carter did not inspire this pre-season. The team will get pressure from the blitz, and the 3-4, but with no real pressure from the starting defensive line, this could be a very long season. Success this season will be partly measured by whether or not the 49ers have found a defensive line that can actually cause commotion in the offensive backfield, and sack the quarterback. Without a successful defensive line, the 49ers can not expect success this season, regardless of what else or who else they have on the defense.
Beating teams with winning records has been a problem for the 49ers in recent years. For some reason the team just could not contend with the leagues best, even when the 49ers record indicated that it should be able to. Whether the 49ers are 4-12 or 12-4 this season, if half of those victories do not come against teams with winning records, than this team will not have come very far. This team needs to learn how to beat winning teams, and needs to carry that knowledge forward, so that in the future when something big is at stake, the 49ers can step up and win the tough game as they used to. Good teams find a way to win, and if the 49ers cannot find a way to beat winning teams, than they cannot be considered a good team, and there season cannot be considered a success.
Success for the 49ers is not a matter of winning every game this year, or even having a winning record. It is about progress. It is about righting the wrongs of recent years and establishing a foundation that a real powerhouse can be built around for the future.