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Snapping Things Back Together - By Bryan Hersh Sept 13 2005

THIS CONTENT IS COPYWRITED, REDISTRIBUTION OF IT (including copy/pasting it to a message board, forum or bbs) IS PROHIBITED AND COULD RESULT IN LEGAL ACTIONS - feel free to quote up to 1 paragraph providing a source link to http://www.49ersparadise.com is included

Ok, I admit it, it’s been a while since I’ve posted an article. But I think I have a good reason – in that I’ve been working my tail off to complete the re-design of 49ers Paradise, and to add great new features to the site like a search, and RSS feed. There’s more to come I’m sure… there always is, so thanks as always for your understanding, and the 49ers Paradise Team for their additional articles and assistance moderating the forum while I was pre-occupied.

There is a whole lot I want to cover in this article, including the game re-cap and next weeks preview, so please stay with me as I try and catch my thoughts up to the present day.

I’ll begin on a sombre note, speaking on Thomas Herrion. Herrion, a 49ers offensive lineman, passed away this off-season after being an integral part of the 49ers final scoring drive against the Broncos during the pre-season. During the team’s after game prayer ritual, Herrion reportedly suffered from seizures and cardiac arrest. Doctors were unable to revive Herrion who was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after. Test results confirmed post-mortem that Herrion passed as a result of previously undiagnosed heart disease. His passing put the game of football into perspective.

From what I have read about Herrion and from what I saw on the field, I know that his heart and mind were in the right place. He appeared genuine and was becoming part of the 49ers Paradise family when disaster struck. It is imperative that the 49ers and NFL do not let his passing occur in vain.

Shortly after Herrion’s passing there was some questioning ‘what the difference really was’ given that he was so far down on the depth chart. This line of questioning though, negates the human factor of football, negates the relationships formed in the locker rooms, and negates the general need for humanity. The difference was a man died, and that is tragic regardless of the circumstances. Herrion’s death has clearly pulled the 49ers together. They are a tighter unit as a result. His death lead to a scholarship fund created by the team. But ultimately that is not enough. Herrion’s legacy should be bigger than the game, his legacy should be corrective actions by the NFL to assure that its players and those that aspire to be part of the league are in the best of health.

Obesity runs large in the NFL. It is a problem. Steroid and illegal substance testing is good, but not good enough. And ultimately, it is time that the team and the NFL acted to right this ship. The rest of the article is trivial in comparison to the magnitude of the grief Herrion’s family must be feeling, I recognize that.

Switching gears towards the team ownership… I try and put bias aside whenever I speak of the John York, and when I do, this is what I see. A man who is ultimately responsible for hiring coach Mike Nolan, which appears to be a better and better move every day (and let’s hope that continues). But I also see a liar. The stadium issue continues to creep up, mainly because York has not done anything to suggest that the question is being taken care of. He promised the team, the fans, and the city that he would have a public statement regarding a plan for a stadium by the start of this season. That day has come and gone – and not surprisingly – nothing.

York is obviously a smart man. He has a doctorate, he has tons of money, and even if he is not that smart, he has enough people working under him that one of them must be. So why is it that this team continues to make this public relations blunder? They keep making promises regarding the stadium they cannot and do not keep. Surely York does not think that this problem will just go away. The ‘Stick is crumbling before our very eyes. On top of all that, a new stadium means way more revenue for the team. Not building one just seems counter intuitive. And so I have this peace of advice for York. BUILD A STADIUM, DECLARE A PLAN, AND DO IT ALL SOON! York needs to keep his promises, and needs to get into action because this issue is not going away until it is dealt with.

On another note, with one week gone in the season, I am still trying to fathom what it will be like not to see Jerry Rice take the field this season. Rice, who retired from football earlier this month, is arguable the greatest football player of all time. He has a place in the hearts of all us 49ers fans, and I know he will surely be missed. His emotion during his press conference was heart warming. It made clear, what most of us have known for quite some time. There is more to life than football, but for Jerry Rice, football was his life.

The dedication Rice showed to the game, his work ethic, his unparallelled performance and incomprehensible records will be his legacy with the sport. I feel privileged to have watched him play, and be a part of the 49ers. The 49ers are working on a method to allow Rice to retire as a 49er this season, and when he signs that one day contract with the team (and yes there will be complications), I would be so tempted to see him step back on the field one more time, and catch three touchdown passes bringing his regular season total to 200. It won’t happen, but imagine if it did.

Going in yet another direction, when I look at some of the decisions Mike Nolan had to make this off-season, I believe I have already seen him grow as a coach. Nolan dealt with the adversity of Herrion’s passing with virtue and dignity. He was able to lead his team though this adverse situation stronger than they had entered. That is the sign of a leader. Nolan also had to make some tough roster decisions including the release of two draft choices, and cornerback Willy Middlebrooks. Also players like Tony Brown and Ray Wells as well as Rayshaun Reed and Norm Katnik were all exposed to the waivers. Choosing to go with Jeremy Newberry at center had risk associated with it, moving Mike Rumph to safety or Andre Carter to linebacker, or choosing to start Tim Rattay over Alex Smith, all risky decisions, and so far they are working out for the team. None of these decisions were easy given the competition at each position. When it comes to making decisions though, Nolan has begun to show he makes solid, well founded ones.

All this brings us to the start of the season, and the opening day victory against the Rams. Already the 49ers are half way to equalling their win total from last season, and a quarter of the way to equalling their win total from the first year of Dennis Erickson’s career. On top of that, the win against the NFC West division rivals, the Rams helped the 49ers secure the lone position on top of the NFC West…. Granted it is only week one, but certainly it is a step in the right direction.

There are of course areas that still need work, that became even more apparent during the game, depth at cornerback, and offensive line are still concerns. Not playing a full 60 minutes at the top of their games almost lead to the team’s defeat. But for now we savour victory.

The 49ers special teams came through quite strongly on Sunday, and as such it makes sense that they are spoken of first. Maurice Hicks and Otis Amey were a big part of that improvement. So was Terry Jackson and Joe Nedney. The improvement in the special teams is really just a sign of a great attention to detail. The 49ers need to win the field position battles and get the occasional big play from this third unit, to have a successful season. So far, the special teams are on the right track.

For the first three quarters the 49ers defense shined. The 3-4 alignment allowed Bryant Young to record 3 sacks, equalling his total from last season. Others like Julian Peterson, Derek Smith, Mike Adams, Shawntae Spencer, and Tony Parish all had big plays. Ahmed Plummer did a decent job against Isaac Bruce. Mike Adams was ok at nickel cornerback but does need to improve his play a fair bit. When it came down to it though, it was his big play that secured the win for the team. Isaac Sopoaga looked good at defensive tackle too. The defense played a good game, bending but not breaking nearly as often as it did last season. Had it stood its ground for the full game, it would have recorded an excellent game. Ultimately though, it spent too much time on the field, and part of that at least, was the 49ers offense not providing adequate rest time on the sidelines.

Tim Rattay looked better than last season at quarterback, of course he had way more protection. Given time to throw, I have no doubt in my mind that he can quarterback this team, but I am still worried about his performance under pressure, and after getting rattled a little bit, as well as his durability. Nevertheless, it was a good start from Rattay, and having Smith as an insurance policy is not an awful contingency.

The 49ers really had no run game to speak of. Part of that was the interior line’s inability to open up holes, and the other part, was simply the performance of the running backs. The team needs more from Barlow, and will likely increase its dependence on Gore rather quickly if they are not getting the rushes they expect. The running backs were fine in pass protection, and were good catching the ball out of the backfield – but ultimately they get paid to run, and need to improve in this area.

Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd had very good games for the team. The other receivers were involved but not nearly to the extent of these two. They looked legitimate, although the Rams defense may not provide a fair bench mark for evaluation. Battle showed his athletic ability and concentration, where Lloyd showed he has improved at getting off the line and creating separation. Woods was nowhere to be found, and Morton had a key grab to keep the chains moving. For the receivers this was an excellent game to keep building on.

Ultimately though, the difference from last season to this season was the coaching staff. Nolan and his team, especially the coordinators, had the 49ers prepared to beat the Rams. The team was disciplined, passionate, and was more prepared than the Rams. This lead to victory, and this addresses my largest concern from last season. Both coordinators called very good games, and Nolan took the appropriate approach to planning and motivating his team and his staff. It lead to a successful first outing for the first time head coach, and it something I hope to see lots more in the coming season.

As the 49ers get set to face the Eagles this week, one of the strongest teams in the NFC, much of the focus will be on Terrell Owens, and his antics. The 49ers need to look past this, they need to scheme against him so that his role is mitigated, and that will involve really counting on the defensive backs to have an even stronger game than last week.

The coaching staff needs to continue to prepare this team more so than the competition. The game plan last week was successful because it fully accounted for the Rams tendencies and shifts. The 49ers will need an even better plan against the Eagles, a better team, and coming off of a win. I expect Nolan is up to the task, but winning the game, and handling success, even with the perfect plan the team will have to elevate its play above its first performance.

Keys to the game:
1) Be prepared. The 49ers need to be prepared, and be more prepared than the competition. This goes hand in hand with being disciplined and each player knowing their roles inside and out.

2) Get the defense off the field. The 49ers lost the time of possession battle big time in their first outing. The defense is good, but does not have the depth to spend 40+ minutes on the field. The 49ers thus need long sustained offensive drives, which also means an established running game.

3) The offensive line. The offensive line needs to protect Rattay, and open up holes for the run game, it really is that simple.

4) Generate a pass rush. In order to get the defense off the field, and protect against a still suspect defensive backfield, the 49ers need a strong pass rush. This goes hand in hand with shutting down Terrell Owens.

5) Win the special teams battle. Much like last game the 49ers need to win the field position battle, and getting one or two big plays would be a huge advantage

The keys to the game sound easy, and quite frankly they are quite generic. But the truth of the matter is that if the 49ers are successful at performing these keys, week in, week out, it should lead to success during the season.

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