When Will 49ers Contend?
by Glenn Dickey
Dec 13, 2006

The ups and downs of the 49ers season have their fans on an emotional roller coaster, but the truth is, they’re just about where they should be.

Before the season, most NFL observers figured the Niners as a 5-6 win team. I wrote that 6-10 would mean progress. When the 49ers won three straight in November, it seemed they might be moving into position for a run at a wild card, but the latest three-game losing streak has dashed those hopes. Truthfully, I’m more surprised by that winning streak than the current losing one.

When Mike Nolan inherited a 2-14 team from Dennis Erickson, I wrote that it would take three good drafts for the 49ers to become competitive. They’ve had what appears to be two good drafts since. They also lost two good players, Julian Peterson and Andre Carter, as free agents before this season started. Peterson has helped Seattle because the Seahawks are at the top of the NFC West. He wouldn’t have been as significant a factor for the 49ers, and they were right to pass on his big contract. Carter, from everything I’ve heard, just wanted out, because he didn’t like Nolan’s coaching approach.

Forty-Niner fans were spoiled by Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, who took the Niners from 2-14 to the first of five Super Bowl championships in just three seasons.

Nolan is not Walsh and Alex Smith is not Montana, but the only comparable coach/quarterback duo in the league now is in New England, with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady – and they’ve even had some problems this season.

From what I’ve observed of Nolan, he’s not at the level of coaches like Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren, both former 49er offensive coordinators, but he may be the second-best coach in the NFC West.

On the plus side, he’s been able to hold his team together. That was most obvious at the end of last season when the 49ers seemed to be beat down but rallied for a couple of wins at the end. This year, he seemed to take more charge of the defense after it went through a terrible early stretch, and the defense keyed that three-game win streak by holding the opposition to just 30 points in those games. Since then, the defense has gone backwards, but that’s largely due to injuries.

The negative on Nolan is that he’s too conservative and totally inflexible. The loss to the Rams, when he chose not to go for it on fourth and inches, still rankles, because that was a game the 49ers could have and should have won. (They still could have won it if they hadn’t played that damnable “prevent defense”, which too often only prevents a team from winning.)

Nolan is so confident that his way is the right way that he never seems to look at what other coaches are doing, which means he’ll never get any better. What you see now is what you’ll always get, good and bad.

I’m more optimistic about Smith’s future. He’s still learning, not nearly fast enough to suit the more impatient 49er fans, but he’s got the ability to be very good. Not as good as Montana, but Montana was the best of his era. There’s a lot of room below that level for Smith to be successful.

Brett Favre said kind words to and about Smith after last Sunday’s game which was significant because Favre is a very plain-spoken man. He doesn’t say things just for effect. Trent Dilfer, now No. 2 for the Niners, said he thinks Smith has more potential than Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselback, though Dilfer and Hasselback are good friends. Dilfer also played behind Hasselback, so he has a good basis for comparison.

Montana had some advantages when he came to the 49ers that Smith lacks, including four years in a pro-type offense and Walsh as a coach here. Smith had only two years of college ball and in a spread formation. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been a big help to him this year, but Turner’s influence is somewhat diluted by Nolan’s conservative tendencies.

The bottom line is that the 49ers still need more playmakers, especially on defense. With another good draft and possibly some good moves in free agency, because they’ve got plenty of room under the cap, the 49ers could be serious contenders next season.

But, they’re not there yet.

IT’S AMUSING to see the Giants trying to make excuses for overpaying Barry Bonds.

First, they let it out that some of Bonds’ salary would be deferred to next season, so they’d have money left to sign more players. Then, senior executive Larry Baer said the Giants didn’t want to “insult” Bonds with a lowball offer, which they certainly didn’t. Finally, GM Brian Sabean said there was another team in the bidding and that, if the Giants hadn’t signed him, Bonds would have been playing for another team. C’mon, Brian, how stupid do you think we are? The Giants were always the only team that was going to sign Bonds.

The truth is, the Giants were desperate. They had an absolute hole in the middle of their lineup and a dreadful team. Bonds won’t make them a winner – this team has the unmistakeable odor of a last-place team – but at least he will provide a little excitement. It wouldn’t do to have fans falling asleep at PacBell.

And, I have to admit it’s been fun to watch Chronicle columnists wailing about the Bonds’ return. They were so certain managing general partner Peter Magowan would take their advice and cut the team’s ties to Bonds. Beats me why they’d think that Magowan would listen this time, when he never has before.

WHERE’S THE MONEY? Frank Thomas gets the credit for the latest stupid athlete quote when he said he had to take Toronto’s offer because “I have to think of my family.” The Toronto offer was potentially twice what the A’s offered, but the Oakland offer was for $15 million. Thomas’s family must have very expensive tastes if they can’t live on $15 million.

Thomas will have a lot of time to count his money, while he’s on the disabled list. The A’s were very cautious about playing Thomas when they were visiting a park with an artificial surface, but the Blue Jays’ field is the fake stuff. Thomas’s legs will never hold up.

RAIDERS OWNERSHIP: There has been some misinformation, some of it in this space, unfortunately, about Al Davis’s attempt to sell of 31 per cent of the team.

The Raiders are a limited partnership operation. Davis is the only general partner. By definition, a limited partner has no say in the operation, so the fact that this share of the club does not give a buyer any voice in the club operation is only normal procedure. But however you figure it, buying into this dysfunctional organization is not an inviting proposition.


LETTERS: I updated this section with seven new posts today (Wednesday).

TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS!

Tickets are available for the Holiday Bowl and other bowl games on this link, as well as tickets for the 49ers, Raiders, Warriors and Sharks games.

Tickets are available for Jersey Boys, which just opened in San Francisco and runs through Feb. 11, and for Dancing With the Stars, Dec. 27.

During the holiday season, tickets will be available for Radio City Christmas and Wicked. Tickets are also available for the Bill Cosby concert in Phoenix on January 13.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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