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Is This Progress? - By Bryan Hersh Dec 21 2005

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Watching the 49ers lose to the Jaguars this weekend I kept thinking to myself: “Is this progress”. It’s a question I have been wrestling with for most of this season, particularly since Alex Smith secured the starting position. I was certain that under Tim Rattay, the team could not progress. When Ken Dorsey had success, I was not quite sure what to think. With Alex Smith, I believe, that yes, this is progress.

Although the 49ers have yet to win a game with Smith at quarterback, he has more combined fumbles and interceptions than all of the turnovers of the entire Bengals, Broncos or Colts teams, and he still has not thrown for as many yards this season as Tim Rattay has this season – I believe that the 49ers are indeed progressing, as is Alex Smith.

Why you ask? For me it’s pretty simple. 10-9, 41-3, 17-10, 52-17, 28-3. Those are the scores in the games that Alex Smith started this season (with the most recent game first). Notice anything? I do. Working with Smith at the helm the 49ers were blown out in his first two starts. But then what happens? The team plays tough, gets blown out, and plays tough. No they didn’t play well enough to win, but they did keep the games close in two out of three of Smith’s past starts. This speaks to me. It says: “One step back, two steps forward”.

When you think about it the 49ers are a young team, decimated by injuries with a young coaching and front office staff. They are not supposed to win. Heck they are not supposed to put a fight for the most part – yet with Alex Smith starting, this team is progressing - albeit slowly. The moral of the story here is that the 49ers and Smith are improving, and for the most part not repeating their errors.

There are of course exceptions to this idea of not repeating mistkaes, and these exceptions are areas where Mike Nolan must take swift action this off-season. Kwame Harris is one of those exceptions. Harris has been outplayed in all but one game this season, and not only is he losing battles in the trenches he is putting a 40 million dollar investment at extreme risk. Harris is also guilty of far too many penalties – especially at key times. The offensive line in general is something the 49ers continue to have to improve this off-season, and it pains me to say it, especially considering how much faith I had in Harris when we drafted him, the improvement will likely come at Harris’ expense.

The coaching staff is also an area where I have concern – and not because I do not think the right people are not in place, but mainly because I think they have stifled the opportunity to learn from their players, and cater a system to the players they have. It is absolutely crucial that the coaching staff be open to suggestionss from their players. It is also crucial that the coaches do not punish a player for speaking their mind. I have a feeling that Fred Beasley is suffering from this, and it is to the detriment of the entire team. Beasley has not been out played this season, I firmly believe that. The coaching staff needs to recognize the talent they have, and fit a system that exploits that talent. The opposite will never work.

Kevan Barlow is averaging 1.5 fewer yards per carry than Frank Gore this season. If the 49ers cannot see the problem with that they have to be blind. Although Gore may not be able to shoulder the load on his own for the entire season, it is likely time to recognize that Kevan Barlow will not succeed as the feature back in an offense, particularly an offense with a woeful offensive line that requires his help in pass support.

I find it particularly interesting that at running back and fullback it seems that the superior player is not starting. I thus hold out hope that there is some truth to the rumor that Tom Rathman may return to the 49ers to coach the runningbacks. Rathman did an amazing job in that role under Steve Mariucci, and I would welcome him back with open arms if I were the 49ers.

Injuries are a recurrent problem. It’s something that to me is too recurrent to be just bad luck. There is a breakdown in the system somewhere, either with the doctors screening of the players, the scouting of the players or in the training of the players. Whatever it is, the 49ers have no chance to improve for next season if they cannot correct for this deficiency. Mike Nolan brought in an entirely new conditioning staff this off-season to focus on the use of free weight training. Unfortunately the results have not been any better than what has been seen in the past.

Year after year the defensive backfield – mainly the cornerback position has been an area of concern for the 49ers. Although the team was decimated by injuries at the position this season, I have no reason to believe that the situation has improved. To contend in the NFC West the 49ers need to have really good cornerbacks to match up with opponents who feature tons of depth at the receiver position.

Bryant Young is the heart and sole of the defense if not the entire team. Unfortunately, Young who is having an incredible season is not getting any younger. The team needs to plan for his eventual departure and doing so sooner rather than later is a good idea. Whether Young’s replacement comes from in-house, free-agency, or the draft, the 49ers must find a suitable successor to this future hall of famer. This has become evident over the past few years, and yet the problem remains.

For the most part, that sums up the problems the 49ers have failed to address and progress in this season. The team still has two weeks to address some of these issues, and to continue to progress in areas that have shown improvement this season. I am pleased that the team has become more disciplined, and more prepared to play. Despite the false start penalties the reduction in these miscues is quite evident. The team once again has direction, and a plan for the future. This is progress. The team is utilizing some of its younger talent (out of necessity and out of a desire to build for the future), compared to past seasons this too is progress. Taking the next step will be very difficult. A solid draft and extreme emphasis on keeping the tam healthy will be key to taking that next step. The valuable experience gained by the team’s you with will also be instrumental in that role. Ultimately though, the future of this team lies squarely on the shoulders of Mike Nolan and Alex Smith. Nolan must surround Smith with the player to succeed. Smith must have the confidence and desire to do so.

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