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Season Rundown - By Bryan Hersh Jan 9 2007

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Season Rundown
Another season bites the dust, and as I sit here wondering what the future holds I wonder … was the win over Denver really a reason for optimism? Before the season started many fans including myself admitted that an 8-8 season would be a tremendous improvement for the team, but that the “improvement” needed to come in more ways than just victories. A wholesale attitude change was needed, a different look on offense and defense, emerging talent, a reason to believe in Alex Smith, were among the many areas cited for improvement. So how did the team fair?

The first thing I wonder is whether the team’s confidence for the future born out of the Denver victory is indeed justified. Had the team finished 6-10, would the same confidence exist? I think not. And as such, I wonder if the win against Broncos really is a sign of things to come. Unfortunately, I still think the team has a ways to go before I am sold that they have returned to a powerhouse in the NFL. And the reason I feel that way, is that despite winning against a tough opponent, despite showing the character of a team that never quits, the 49ers still lost too many winnable games this years. Games in which for whatever reason the team could not function as a unit, and had its weaknesses exposed.

The Broncos victory may be a starting point to build on, but unfortunately I am not convinced that we can expect that level of play on a week-to-week basis. There are still wholesale improvements that need to occur.

The Coaching Staff
Head Coach Mike Nolan made plenty of rookie mistakes in his first season as coach. He reduced these errors this season, but he was far from flawless. With the onus of managing the team’s defense, Nolan often lost track of the game – even confusing down and distances at times. Nolan also made some peculiar time out calls, and replay challenges that reeked of an inexperienced coach and team. But perhaps his biggest flaw, was not setting the right tone at times for his team. When the game was on the line, or on fourth and shorts Nolan often played it safe. In so doing, he told his team “you aren’t good enough” whether he meant to or not. There are times when the safe call is the right call, but I firmly believe that the attitude Nolan has tried to instil in the team, has been undermined by some of these actions.

Next season I expect Nolan to be much better. The inexperienced excuse will have worn out, and he will have a new defensive coordinator who he should be able to trust to run the defense, allowing him to focus on the greater game. Nolan has been able to get some high level production out of the team, and with improvements on his part, may be able to bring the consistency that this team so sorely lacks.

The defensive line has been a problem for the 49ers for years, and Mike Nolan seems convinced that part of the problem was the line coach. Nolan fired him, along with defensive coordinator Billy Davis after the season, and will be looking for an improved coaching staff that can do to the defense what Norv Turner has done to the offense. Expect an experienced coach with a strong knowledge of the 3-4 defense.

Special teams coach Larry MacDuff left the 49ers to join Texas as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. MacDuff has done a superb job with the 49ers special teams, and will be sorely missed. Filling his shoes will not be easy, but the groundwork is there to keep up the solid play.

Linebacker’s coach, and assistant head coach Mike Singeltary continues to receive interest from other teams for a promotion. The consensus though is that he needs a bit more experience before he’ll be able to make that leap. If a team is willing to overlook that inexperience, Nolan may have to find a linebacker coach as well this offseason.

There are no further changes expected in the coaching staff. The addition of Norv Turner last offseason to the offense showed great improvement from the offense. Turner still needs to get more out of the young players on the offense, and further improvements will be expected form his unit next season.

The Offense:
Quarterback Alex Smith was inconsistent this season, but was still much improved over his rookie debut. Smith showed flashes of what can be expected of him in the future, but needs to get better moving through his progressions, not locking on his receivers, and in managing the redzone. Smith also needs to become a bit more of a risk taker. He should benefit from some changes on offense, or the materialization of some of the younger talent, as currently his complement of weapons is sub par. Backup quarterback Trent Dilfer seems to have grown into his mentor role extremely well. The team may consider changes at the third quarterback position.

Running back Frank Gore simply had an unreal season. His record-breaking performance proved to the 49ers, and the world that he can be a legitimate offensive threat for the team. The 49ers running game was completely dependent on Gore – and that perhaps was the only problem with it. As the 49ers look to next season they should consider finding Gore a complement to help take some of the load off of his shoulders. That complement can come from an improved passing game, or from another workhorse running back, but it is imperative that the 49ers find a way to keep Gore from wearing out early in his career.

The offensive line was much improved from last season. There is no question that the restructuring and the addition of Larry Allen made a significant difference to the pleasure of Alex Smith. The work should not be done on the offensive line. The team will have to find a way to protect against injury, or the inevitable downslide of its older lineman. The Niners may also look to improve the line, perhaps with a new tackle to replace Kwame Harris. Jeremy Newberry could also return to the team from injury. The work in this area should not be complete.

Tight end is another area where the 49ers will be in an interesting predicament this offseason. Eric Johnson had a very strong season with the team. But he is a free agent this year, and with the drafting of Vernon Davis who came on strong late in the season, there is question as to whether the 49ers will sink money into Johnson as well. It is unlikely the team will add a free agent or draftee at the position though, as they also have Michael Robinson and Delanie Walker who play the hybrid FB/TE role.

The Defense
The defensive line continued to struggle this season. In the constant switch from the 3-4 to 4-3 it was unable to mobilize a pass rush, but did well against the run. The team has invested several picks in the line recently, but nothing has fully materialized. Melvin Oliver and Manny Lawson may be sources of a pass rush, as good Parys Haralson, but if the 49ers are smart this off-season they will aggressively pursue a top tier defensive lineman or two.

Manny Lawson was a good addition to the linbacking core, as was the materialization of Brandon Moore. But while linebacker used to be a strength of the defense, it no longer is. Players are aging, depth has decreased, and overall the play from this core has not been good enough. The 49ers will focus on all areas of defense this offseason, and linebacker will be no exception.

Although Walt Harris made the Pro Bowl, and Shawntae Spencer had a decent season the team still needs to improve its defensive backfield. It needs help at safety and at corner, and the draft will certainly be a source of that. Harris’ age further complicates matters. Expect the 49ers to fill out this area of their roster.

Special Teams
The special teams performed adequately all season. The may seek out real competition for place kicker Joe Nedney who is beginning to show his age. The team may also look to further improve its return team. But overall, the only wholesale change expected is the new coach, and that is unforunate.

 
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