Let’s Talk Preseason Football

Full disclosure: I don’t really enjoy preseason football, at all. It might be the most joyless of all types of football. I’d rather watch NFL teams play pickup football against each other. Actually, that’s not a bad idea.

In all seriousness, though, it’s not football for the fans. The results don’t matter, the stats don’t matter, not even a little bit. The NFL markets the preseason like fans should care, should pay to go to games, but at full price, it’s a rip-off. Go watch your local high school play for 5 bucks, instead. What preseason football is, is football for the coaches. It exists so they can evaluate the players on their roster, and decide who gets spots on the (small) 53-man roster.

If you’re into the nitty gritty of roster details, however, then you should watch this week. In fact, even if you’re not, of all the weeks of the preseason, week 3 is the most interesting.

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The Life and Times of a San Francisco Quarterback

For a franchise whose legacy includes two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, one of whom many consider to be the best of all time, the San Francisco 49ers have had a remarkably difficult time finding decent play at the game’s most pivotal position.

The last consistently good 49ers quarterback was… Can you guess? It’s been a while. Okay, it was Jeff Garcia, who made the Pro-Bowl in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Between then and now, quarterbacks who have started a significant number of games for the 49ers include Ken Dorsey, Tim Rattay, Trent Dilfer, JT O’Sullivan, and Shaun Hill.

Let’s talk for a moment about Shaun Hill. He was, in my opinion, a fantastic backup quarterback. He was beloved by players, played his heart out, was a natural leader, and made good decisions. He didn’t have a strong arm or any sort of athleticism, but that was okay, because he wasn’t supposed to be the first option. He was supposed to be the emergency option. He fits the Jon Kitna-mold of backup QBs. At one point, though, things were so bad for the 49ers that people were clamoring to start(!) Shaun Hill. Fans extolled the virtues of the clubhouse favorite, and his winning record for the team.

All of the mediocrity, the malaise that has hung over the 49ers at the QB position, seems to be fading away, at last. Finally, the Shaun Hill’s of the world (in this case, Scott Tolzien and Josh Johnson) are fighting for the 49ers backup job, rather than the starting job.

(Sidenote: it looks as if Colin Kaepernick is taking hold of the backup gig, as I’m assuming the coaches wanted him to all along. That’s a good sign; it means he’s making progress as a passer, at least ahead of Johnson and Tolzien. Fans are excited about his ability to run, as showcased in last Friday’s preseason game; be careful, however, to not get to excited. Lots of guys can run, not a lot can play quarterback. Vince Young can run, Tim Tebow can run, Dennis Dixon can run. Unless one of those guys suddenly figures it out, they all look destined for backup QB jobs permanently. Get really excited about Kaepernick when he displays accuracy and touch consistently; that’s when you’ll know he’s ready.)

Interestingly enough, the main player is the same one who’s been here since 2005: Alex Smith. The only thing that has changed? Jim Harbaugh, the coach.

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49ers Training Camp: 2 Big Things

Training camp is upon us. It seems a lot less important than normal since it’s right in the middle of the Olympics (USA!), and I’m not a Jets or Broncos fan. Even so, it’s exciting. For the first time since last season, teams are in pads going full tilt boogie, and soon enough the season will be here. Here are 2 big thoughts for the 49ers this week.

1. The Guy Behind the Guy

One of the major concerns going into the 2012 season for the 49ers, as many have noted, is injuries. Not that they have many, or are injury prone, but that last season was remarkably injury free.  The team succeeded on the strength mainly of it’s top 22 starters; it seems people are worried that the team will regress to the mean this season and suffer any number of costly injuries. Success in 2012 will depend on one of two things: either A) the team remains mostly healthy once again or B) the team develops enough capable backups to step up in case of injury.

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Smart Money: The 49ers and Dashon Goldson

There are very few players you can afford to overpay. Most of them are quarterbacks, like the recently very-well compensated Drew Brees. Some are cornerstone defensive players, guys like the 49ers’ Patrick Willis, or stud pass rushers like Demarcus Ware. These are guys who make the team go, the guys other teams mention by name and gameplan around. With those sorts of guys, you can afford to pay more than market rate, more than what stats might indicate, because those guys are critical to a team’s success.

Dashon Goldson is not on that list. And that’s why, for 2012, Goldson will be playing under the franchise tag instead of the long-term deal he covets.

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Destroy With Speed

The ESPYs on Wednesday night didn’t teach 49ers fans anything new. They already knew that last year’s playoff cha-cha with New Orleans was the game of the year. Everyone knew the minute it was over that it was one of best games in recent memory, and certainly the best 49ers game of the last ten years.

What made it so great? It wasn’t the incredible defense. There was plenty of that, to be sure. Justin Smith’s one-handed manhandling of Drew Brees over a reeling Jerome Bushrod was a sight to behold. The way the secondary forced Brees into more mistakes than he’d made all season was downright impressive. But it wasn’t the defense.

Let’s cut to the chase. It was the offense. Derided all season, labeled as impotent, not explosive, the weakness of the team. On that day, though, when it mattered, Alex Smith and crew went blow for blow with one of the top offenses in the league, and won. This was Hagler vs Hearns, The War. Finally, San Francisco was throwing punches that landed, and it left them standing at final bell.

So when we talk about what the 49ers need to improve, it’s not so much a discussion as a demonstrated fact. The 49ers had plenty of wins last season; the best one was when the offense showed up. For the 49ers to improve on last season (which I expect they will), the offense must be more consistent and explosive. That’s why LaMichael James is the most exciting addition to the 2012 49ers.

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The 49ers, Wide Receivers, and You

If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If your receivers have 0ne catch for three yards in the NFC championship, and you lose in overtime, does anybody notice?

The first question, you can debate with your philosophy professor. The second? The answer is an unequivocal yes. In fact, for the 49ers and their fanbase, it seems like that’s all anyone wants to talk about these days. What needs to be done at wideout? Is Randy Moss the answer? Is Michael Crabtree a bust?

Honestly, that’s a luxury most teams and fans can’t afford. Fans should be thankful. The reason the receivers are getting so much attention is because, in 2011, they were the only weak spot on a team that went 13-3. The 49ers had a monstrous defense, the sort a 4 year-old checks for under his bed. They had a pounding run game, led by a workhorse running back and a young, improving offensive line. Alex Smith, for years the object of ire for 49ers fans, became a QB many had stopped believing he could be.

I believe, however, for the 49ers to sustain high levels of success, they will need significantly more from their offense. I also believe that any new offensive production will not be a result of  upgraded talent at receiver, but because of an improved Alex Smith, a better offensive line, and a more fully realized Jim Harbaugh offense.

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On: 2012 Expectations

With a 13-3 season in the rear view mirror, and a heartbreaking overtime loss in the NFC championship perhaps fading ever so slightly, it’s time to look forward to the 2012 season.

What, reasonably, can we expect from the 2012 San Francisco 49ers?

First off, this needs to be said: not every bit of information is important this time of year. What Vernon Davis ate for breakfast definitely doesn’t matter, but even how Randy Moss looked catching passes isn’t particularly crucial at this point. It’s the end of June, and the season doesn’t start for several months. If preseason games aren’t important, then June practices really aren’t important.

That’s why what I’m about to say is not in the slightest about rookie mini-camps, Frank Gore’s workout habits, or anything like that. My prognostication is based on observations—of last year’s team, of Harbaugh’s track record, etc.—the sort of things you can take to the bank. Let’s begin.

The 49ers exceeded all expectations last season by being the No. 2 seed in the NFC, beating the high-powered Saints in a shootout, and coming so close to a berth in the Super Bowl, all after a lockout-shortened offseason. Jim Harbaugh’s cachet at the moment is that of a miracle worker—a genius. The fanbase’s belief in Harbaugh couldn’t be higher.

Harbaugh and Smith

St. Harbaugh and the Miracle of Alex Smith

The fear when someone has such a strong debut is that their next effort won’t be able to match it. Like when, after wowing the hip-hop world with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Wu-Tang Clan followed that up with the stunningly disappointing Wu-Tang Forever. Or any number of movie sequels that failed to live up to their predecessors: Ghostbusters II, The Matrix Reloaded, The Sandlot 2. This is called the sophomore slump, and every impressive newcomer faces this danger.

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