Will Adversity Help the 49ers?
That was a new one on me. I’ve found that adversity often breeds, well, more adversity. The Rams went through a period in the ‘90s when they were the worst team in the NFL, one bad season following another. The Cincinnati Bengals also had a long stretch of losing seasons. Adversity didn’t breed much success for them. It didn’t help the 49ers in the Joe Thomas years, when they went 5-9 and 2-14 and then had another 2-14 season in Bill Walsh’s first season.
All those teams eventually turned around, but not because of adversity. In each case, it was a combination of the right coach and the right players. In St. Louis, it was Dick Vermeil and a group of fast and talented wide receivers, coupled with quarterback Kurt Warner. The Bengals also have benefited from those years of high draft choices, including second-year quarterback Carson Palmer, and they had the good sense to hire Marvin Lewis, who had been passed over so many times. Walsh succeeded when he got the right quarterback, Joe Montana, to run his system and drafted three-quarters of his defensive backfield, Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson, in 1981.
That’s why I’ve looked so closely at the 49ers new coach, Mike Nolan, and the muddled quarterback situation. Until Nolan takes firm control of the situation and he gets the right quarterback, the 49ers will continue to be in a race for the top pick in the draft.
So far, I’d give Nolan no better than a C-plus. On the positive side, he has the team playing hard. I thought they were giving up when they got so soundly trashed by the Washington Redskins, who are only 4-6 in their games against other NFL opponents, but they’ve been playing hard since.
It bothers me, though, that Nolan is so determined not to get help from anybody. It’s incredible, for instance, that he has not asked Walsh for advice, or that he didn’t ask Montana to work with his quarterbacks in a mini-camp. Joe is very busy these days, but he did take time to work with Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn in the spring. Not coincidentally, Quinn is having a sensational year and will probably be among the candidates for the Heisman Trophy.
Nor did Nolan bring in anybody who could help him in his regular operations, because he was determined to be the only one making the decisions. As I’ve pointed out before, Walsh brought in two former NFL coaches, John McVay and John Ralston, to help him, even though he'd come off two years as a head coach at Stanford. Nolan is a rookie head coach. The entire NFL operation is much more complicated and sophisticated than when Walsh came to the 49ers, yet Nolan is certain he can do it all without help. That goes beyond confidence to arrogance.
His player decisions often baffle me. Jettisoning linebacker Jamie Wilborn still makes no sense, because Wilborn was a play-maker. Now, cornerback Ahmed Plummer is in his doghouse, for unspecified reasons. Plummer has not been the player the 49ers thought he would be when he was a first-round draft pick in 2000, but he has never had an attitude problem and he could still be a productive player. But not if he can’t get into the lineup.
The fact that Nolan went so long with waiver wire pickup Anthony Clement at left tackle is inexcusable. Rookie Adam Snyder struggled against the Titans’ quick defensive ends and he will have other problems, but he has an upside – and he’s already an improvement on Clement.
THE 49ERS have gone through four quarterbacks this season, without finding one who can lead them out of the wilderness.
The decision to dump Tim Rattay was a sound one. Rattay would have made the 49ers marginally more respectable this season, but he’d played enough to make it obvious that he was not a quarterback a team could build around.
Ken Dorsey, in his third season, is significantly ahead of the other two remaining quarterbacks in knowing the offense, but Dorsey has obvious physical limitations. He is not mobile, which makes him especially vulnerable to blitzes, and he doesn’t have a great arm. He’s probably about as good now as he ever will be, and that’s not good enough. At best, he’s a backup.
The fans’ favorite, Cody Pickett, started two games when Dorsey and Alex Smith were both injured, but a 1-for-13 passing effort in the wind at Chicago sent him back to the bench.
Pickett remains an intriguing player, with as yet undeveloped potential. He’s a good athlete, playing on special teams when he hasn’t been quarterbacking, and he has the swagger that good quarterbacks have. There is no way to measure how good a quarterback he could be because of his lack of experience. Until he was elevated to the starting position, he was only playing quarterback for the “Scout” team, which runs the offense of that week’s opponent. He had not taken snaps with the first team at all. Perhaps next year, he will be the backup and have more chance to learn the pro game.
Now that Smith is healthy again, I would expect him to start against the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick on Sunday. Because they’ve invested so much money in him, the 49ers have to give him every chance to show that he belongs – or not.
Frankly, at this point, I think it’s foolish to make anything but very general observations about him. He has the physical ability, which he’s shown in practice and occasionally in games. It was always unrealistic to expect him to be effective as a rookie, given the fact that he played only two years of college ball and in a spread formation, much different than the 49ers offense.
Smith has had some time to watch the game, to study videos, to learn the offense better, but that’s only a little help. The only way for him to adjust to the speed of the game, to learn how to go through his reads instead of just looking at one receiver, is to play. It’s a given that he’ll make more mistakes, and some of them will be awful. It’s also a given that some fans will declare him a bust; indeed, some already have. But the real question is how much he can learn from his mistakes and how quickly he can learn the system. His future – and the 49ers’ – rests on the answer to those questions.
THERE HAVE been some encouraging developments this season. The defense has had its moments. Even in defeat yesterday, second-year cornerback Shawntae Spencer was impressive. With Tony Parrish out, the secondary lacks a leader, but the motley group of unheralded players, like safety Mike Adams, has shown signs it could be a strong unit.
But there are still too many breakdowns and mistakes, most notably at the start of the second half yesterday. The Niners have yet to play well on the road, and they have three straight away games after Sunday. It’s quite likely they’ll be playing for the No. 1 pick when they host the Houston Texans on New Year’s Day.
And until they can be sure that they’ve got the right coach and the right quarterback, real improvement will continue to elude the 49ers.
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