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Back 2 Back Wins - By Bryan Hersh Nov 14 2006

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Winning a couple games in a row is something completely foreign to Mike Nolanís 49ers Ė which is what makes the victory over the Lions so special. Truth be told, both teams needed this game, and the win puts the 49ers in the NFC playoff hunt. Yes, I did just say that. For better or worse the 49ers are chasing a wild card opportunity, and the way the remainder of their schedule shapes up, they could technically control their own destiny into the playoffs by winning the NFC West outright.

Now donít get me wrong, as much as I like the direction Nolan has this club travelling, I am not thinking this is a playoff team yet. Like it or not, the 49ers are not on the same level as the ĎHawks or other NFC contenders like the Bears (well that much was evident wasnít?). But that is OK, and itís OK because not only did I not expect the team to be in playoff contention at any point this season, but also because Iím not sure playoffs are the best thing for this team. Yes, you heard me right, making the playoffs may not be the ideal.

So why would I make such an ungodly statement? Really, for two reasons: 1) After watching Mariucci rebuild the 49ers, I learned that assending to the top before a team has the time to build a sustainable top level talent pool can lead to disaster. While I have no problem in moving forward in 2 or 3 or 5 years, the talent has to be there. Presently, it isnít for the 49ers. They need at least one more year of getting top talent onto this team before they can make any sort of sustainable run. Think about it, Mariucci had Bill Walsh bringing in the talent, and even with that huge advantage, the team was not able to sustain top level play. Nolan may or may not be a better coach, and he may have a front office that is stronger than it was under Terry Donahue, but he doesnít have Bill Walsh. Quick ascension will look good in the short run, but in the long run the talent just is not on the team yet to want that. 2) Winning builds character, and making the playoffs certainly would build some great character Ė but I expect even if the team made the playoffs for there to be a reasonable amount of turnover next season Ė so would it really matter? Would the character building of players no longer on the team really be an asset to the 49ers? No! Again, it would be beneficial to players who will remain with the club, but so would an improvement in the team without making the playoffs. If guys like Alex Smith and Frank Gore are just a little bit hungrier next season that could give the team an extra boost, without the confidence loss that comes with winning Ė because overall the team will have been improved from last season.

What I know:
-2 weeks after I stated that Nolan might be losing hold of his team, I believe that this is no longer an issue. Whatever Nolan has said or done to make up for this loss has worked. Players are finally on the same page, coaches are scheming to the teams strength, and the team is winning. I do not expect this team to keep turning out win after win, but I do think that Nolan has re-proven himself to the team, and that was a crucial turning point for the struggling 49ers.
-Frank Gore is a beast. Week after week, Gore continues to impress me. Heís doing a great job running, and receiving, and has become a key component to the teams offense. Gore has pretty much put his fumbletitis behind him, and took it up another step this past week. His concussion should be a minor injury, and should not set him back for the remainder of the season.
-Alex Smith has become a better game manager over the past few weeks. Though Smithís stats have not been impressive, he has picked up key first downs and improvised at times to keep the offense going. Smith still has lots to learn, but he is learning it, each and every week. And by the way, Alex would have had a sick TD pass had Bryant caught a ball that hit him squarely in the hands.
-Brandon Moore and Keith Lewis have added tenacity to the defense. It has certainly been a part of the turn around. The defense needs to continue to scheme around these players weaknesses and allow them to contribute their strengths. This may sound elementary but I guarantee itís harder than it sounds.
-Arnaz Battle is proving to be a legitimate number 2 receiver. Battle fought through this weeks game with a fractured hand and became a key outlook for Smith. This isnít new, itís what he has been doing all season, and is a good reason why Smith does not force the ball to Bryant.

What I donít know:
-Iíve been highly critical of Shawntae Spencer. Mainly I felt he was not deserving of the contract the team signed him to, and that he has benefited from being the strongest in a very weak pool of talent. I remain critical of Spencer largely because I cannot tell if he is making any progress. Spencer had a decent game, and an enormous sack, but I still do not have the confidence in matching him up 1 on 1 on most receivers in this league.
-If the eventual return of Vernon Davis can spark life into the offense, and in particular open up Antonio Bryant as a weapon. Davis needs to come back stronger than he left in order for him to prove his worth. -If the 49ers are really a playoff contender or if they simply have gotten a little lucky to be where they are in a very week division. What would the teamís record be if it played in the AFC?
-How long it will be before teams are able to expose the holes in the 49ers ďnewĒ defense. I really do not believe that it has been revamped to the point where those wholes have been filled.

Where I am left:
I am very excited to see Jerry Rice have an official retirement party at half time. The 49ers have made a concrete effort to improve their PR. Alumni day, and events like this will help keep ticket sales up, even when the win column is not rising. Jerry fully deserves it, and wow, do I wish I can be there. But about the team today, I think the success can be seen. This team is better than it was last year, itís better than it was at the start of the season even. But it still has a long way to go.

Hereís how you can measure success:
-Time of possession increases
-Win turnover battles
-Keep pressure of Alex Smith
-Pressure the opposing quarterback
-Build on momentum
-Avoid the blowouts
-Score, and pick up the key first downs when the game is on the line.

If the 49ers can continue to improve, it will be in these areas. If that improvement is seen, they will win more games this year. But for now, I am just happy that Nolan has regained the confidence of the team.

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