Coaching Is Difference for 49ers
Last year, Dennis Erickson had long-time friends as his assistants, and the team was very poorly coached, with little imagination and less energy.
This yearís team is a high energy team with imagination on both sides of the ball, and the Niners needed all of that energy and imagination to beat the Rams.
In the modern NFL, a head coach is usually like a chairman of the board, setting the tone for the organization but doing very little actual coaching. Thatís been Mike Nolanís role so far, though heís had to back off at times on defense, which is his specialty.
He has two excellent coordinators, Mike McCarthy on offense and Billy Davis on defense, and both showed their imagination yesterday.
The 49ers twice came out in a formation which put quarterback Tim Rattay out as a flanker with Arnaz Battle, who played quarterback in college, taking a direct snap from center. On another play, Rattay threw a lateral to Battle, lined up in his normal position as a wide receiver, who then threw downfield to Brandon Lloyd for a 27-yard gain.
The 49ers also executed a successful onside kick, which was called by Nolan.
All week in practice, the 49ers had been practicing trick plays, because Nolan knew they didnít match up well to the talented Rams, who probably have their best receiving group since the 1999 team that won the Super Bowl. Probably, the 49ers wonít rely often on such plays in games to come, but it was refreshing to see Nolan and his coaches willing to try different things.
Defensively, too, the Niners kept switching combinations of players and defenses, sometimes in the 3-4, sometimes in the 4-3, to keep the Rams off balance, which resulted in seven sacks.
With Julian Peterson back, this defense is good enough to keep the 49ers in games, even against superior teams, a class in which you can put the Rams. The question always will be whether the offense will be good enough to win those games. It was, just barely, yesterday, but the Niners canít expect to win many games when they get only 217 yards.
IN ONE AREA, I wish Nolan would take a cue from Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
When a Cal running back fumbles in a key situation, he earns a spot on the bench right now, but when Kevan Barlow coughed up the ball in the fourth quarter yesterday, he stayed in the game.
At the time, Barlowís fumble looked as if it could cost the 49ers the win because it gave the Rams the ball at midfield Ė and the Rams quickly converted that opportunity into a touchdown. Barlow has a well-deserved reputation as a fumbler, so he needs a vivid reminder to protect the ball in those situations.
There was another reason to bench Barlow: Heís ill-suited to the type of offense the 49ers are going to be forced to run.
Because the Rams brought up safety Adam Archuleta to a spot near the line of scrimmage (just as the 49ers used to use Tim McDonald), the 49ers could not run the ball effectively. The 49ers were able to exploit that with three Rattay passes of more than 20 yards, in just 16 attempts, but when they needed to run the ball to protect their lead in the fourth quarter, they could not.
Other teams will look at the video of this game and use similar defenses, so the 49ers have to deal with that. One way is to get more quickness in the backfield. Rookie Frank Gore showed that with a nice little nine-yard burst on one of his four carries. Maurice Hicks also has more quickness than Barlow, who is a slashing type of runner. Both Gore and Hicks should be used more frequently in games to come.
All coaches talk of open competition for spots, but few follow through on that promise. Nolan has. He gave Alex Smith a shot at starting for the first two exhibitions, but then went to Rattay, who was obviously better prepared to start in the NFL. Though Rashaun Woods was a No. 1 draft pick last year, he did not include Woods on the 45-man active roster yesterday because Woods had not shown he deserved to be there. Undrafted free agent rookie Otis (Donít Call Me Fred) Amey made more great catches in practice than anybody and looked good in games, too, so he made the active roster, as draft pick Rasheed Marshall did not. And, of course, that move paid off big time when Amey returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against the Rams.
Now, Nolan needs to make the point to Barlow that he should produce or sit.
ONE WIN doesnít mean the 49ers are back; donít forget that the first game Erickson coached for the Niners was a 49-7 win over the Chicago Bears. It would be a major upset if the 49ers beat the Eagles in Philadelphia in their next game.
Still, this was a very encouraging start because the energy and enthusiasm which have been apparent in practice continued into this game. Last yearís team would have folded in the second half against the Rams'írelentless attack, but this team did not. Last year's team would not have showed the offensive and defensive imagination that we saw yesterday. The NFL is a coachís game, and Nolan and his coordinators showed why it is.
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