Wednesday, September 25, 2013

49ers' Mess--How They Can Clean It Up

Let's ask again. Are the 49ers in trouble?

Last week I said maybe. This week, the answer is yes. There is, Niner fans, cause for concern.

First of all, the offense is mired in mud. It showed flashes of greatness in the opening week Green Bay win, with QB Colin Kaepernick passing for over 400 yards. But it's been downhill ever since, with maulings by Seattle and Indianapolis by an embarrassing total of  56-10. The Niners have scored just one TD in two weeks. Kaepernick's passing totals during this skid--277 yards, one TD, three picks and a 23rd place team-passing ranking.

This is not the same team that rampaged through the last post season, nearly winning the Super Bowl--seemingly ready to dominate the NFC for the next few years. Those steam-rolling offensive and defensive lines were second to none. Nobody pushed them around. But this season, they're not playing with the same focus and fire. The D-line got manhandled Sunday by a patch-work, no-name Colts O-line. The Niners' run defense, shockingly, is one of the worst in the league--ranked 29th.

The main problem, though, is the offense, specifically the woeful wide-receiving corps. Against the Colts, this hapless trio had a grand total of two catches for 12 yards. When Kaepernick,  a battering-ram runner, is at his best, defenses have to worry about him connecting with wide receivers. Lately, though, the deep threat has been MIA, allowing defenses to play close to the line, clogging the lanes, hampering.both the run and the short passing game. Too often recently, Kaepernick has had time to throw but had no open receivers. With no deep threats to worry about, secondaries can target mid-range-receiving expert Anquan Boldin.

One real problem. In the last two weeks, the offense has badly lost the time-of-possession battle, with an endless parade of three-and-outs. Both games were lost by fourth-quarter offensive collapses, which made the defense look worse than it is. When the offense is dragging, this puts pressure on the defense, which has been breaking down late in games.

Last Sunday the Niners sorely missed pass-rusher Aldon Smith. He was there but he really wasn't. His head, clouded by that recent DUI scandal and its looming consequences, was clearly elsewhere..Normally, facing that inferior Colt bunch, he would have been in King-Kong mode and had QB Andrew Luck running for his life. But Luck, all cozy and comfy in the pocket, generally did as he pleased.

The Niners play a division rival, the St. Louis Rams, on Thursday. You can bet the Ram coaches are pouring over films of the last two games, getting tips on how to foil the Niners.

But all is not lost. SF coach Jim Harbaugh is no dummy. He can see what the Niners need. The obvious answer is to return to smash-mouth football, the non-nonsense style he imported from Stanford a few years ago  He installed the flashy, tricky zone-read offensive schemes, suited to Kaepernick's assorted skills, but defenses don't seem to be fooled by them any more.

But this is no time for such trickery. What makes sense is a return to fundamentals. Without deep threats, the Niners have to play for short gains, hope to pile up first downs, maintain ball-control and not put the defense in jeopardy. One bright spot: the running-game did show signs of life against the Colts. The Niners have to go back to being a low-scoring, run-first, murderous-defense unit.

On Thursday, the Niners have to play like their season is on the line--and it really is. The Rams aren't very good but they always play the 49ers tough. This game won't be easy for the Niners because they'll be without at least one key player--pass-rusher Smith--and likely three more--LB Patrick Willis, CB Nnamdi Asomugha  and TE/deep threat Vernon Davis.

A loss Thursday to a so-so team, a three-game losing streak and a 1-3 record trailing red-hot Seattle--this cluster of negatives adds up to a detour down that dreaded lane labeled OUT OF THE PLAYOFFS.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

49ers in Trouble? Maybe

What the hell happened?

That's what San Francisco 49er fans are still muttering in the wake of Sunday night's battering, on national TV, by the Seattle Seahawks, 29-3. After all, the Niners are the favorites to be the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl. They looked like a shoo-in after whipping another NFC power, the Green Bay Packers, the previous week. But after Sunday night? Losing a close game when you play well is one thing, but.losing by nearly four touchdowns, while scorning none yourself, is something else entirely.

Should Niner fans be in panic mode? Maybe, but wait a week or two before pushing that button.

Consider this. The odds were against the Niners winning that game anyway. They were 3-4-point underdogs for good reason. First of all, opponents just don't win in Seattle, which has the loudest fan base in the league, aided by a stadium structured to amplify sound. It's the grandaddy of all hostile environments. No matter how teams prepare for it, they get rattled by the noise, which really has an effect, after the constant assault, later in games. That's partly why the Seahawks didn't lose a home game last year and why the Niners were in a hole before they even started. If the Seahawks ever got home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they'd stroll to the Super Bowl.

Despite the score, Sunday night's game was close for nearly three quarters. Then the Seahawks pulled away, thanks to the Niners turning into knuckleheads and gift-wrapping TDs. Stupid, untimely penalties and silly turnovers undid the 49ers. Make no mistake, Seattle is a very good team, but that score is misleading. The Seahawks piled up points on short-field TDs following turnovers. Whenever the 49er offense looked like it was set to shift into third gear, it would grind to a halt due to a dumb penalty.

The stats tell the story. Seattle gained only 290 yards of total offense. That hardly spells rout. QB Russell Wilson was an unimpressive 8 for19 for 118 yards. Seattle smartly fed off Niner errors and cruised to victory.

The Niners, however, do have a potential problem--the running game. It's slowed to a crawl, at just 95 yards a game, this season.The foremost ball-carrier, Frank Gore, has gained a measly 60 yards in 30 attempts in two games--a pitiful two yards per carry. In Seattle he was buried, netting just 16 yards in 9 tries. Embarrassing results for a team boasting an offensive line that's among the top five in the NFL.

What gives?

Normally the Niners, No.4 last season, are among the league's best rushing teams. The ground game is really the heart of the offense. Opponents' fear of the run propels the Niner passing game. Green Bay focused on stopping the 49er' running and did slow it down. But Niner QB Colin Kaepernick had a career day, helped by 13 catches by Anquan Boldin.

But it was different in Seattle. The Seahawks but a safety on the line to help bottle up the running game. But they have such excellent cornerbacks, they're OK with a short-handed secondary. Boldin, with one catch for seven yards, was a non-factor. So was Kaepernick, with a 20.1 passer rating for the game, the worst of his career.

If the 49er run game returns to normal, the Seattle loss is no cause for alarm. But it's up to the O-line and, most of all, Gore. Is he just off to a slow start because he didn't get much work in the pre-season or is he on a sudden downhill slide due to wear-and-tear?

Sunday's home game against the Indianapolis Colts is important. A playoff team, featuring QB Andrew Luck and brand-new addition, tough RB Trent Richardson, the Colts are no pushovers. But they do have one of the worst run defenses in the league. If the Niners, 101/2-point favorites, win, most likely the run game finally awakened, and 49er fans can relax.

But if they lose, against a bad rushing defense, and the run game is still stuck in the mud?

Then, Niner fans, feel free to panic.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Saban vs. Manziel--Edge to Saban

Saturday's must-see match between No.1 Alabama and No.6  Texas A&M, on the Aggies home field in College Station, can be narrowed down to this: Bama coach Nick Saban vs. A&M's Heisman-Trophy winning QB Johnny Manziel, alias Johnny Football.

Here's the key question: Can Manziel beat Saban two years in a row? The answer is no, but a very shaky no. Most bettors don't think so either. That's why the Tide is favored by 7 1/2.

Insiders close to Saban say losing last November to Texas A&M, 29-24, a win engineered by Manziel, has gnawed at Saban like no other loss. Not only did the Aggies whip Bama in Tuscaloosa, but it was the lone blemish on the 13-1 season. Being beaten by a swaggering, rowdy rebel like Manziel, who tramples on the traditions Saban savors, makes that loss sting even worse.

To stop Manziel, you need a lightening quick, high-powered defense, one with speed on the ends, plenty of athleticism at the linebacker positions and skilled cover-men in the secondary. Bama certainly has that. As usual, its defense is one of  the best in college football. Of course Bama had a superb defense last year too but it was putty in the hands of master Manziel.

What's likely to happen Saturday is that Bama will control the game via running. The key stat is that A&M is ranked near the bottom nationally in rushing defense, giving up 273 yards per game. What really makes Bama salivate is that all these yards were run up by patsies--Rice and Sam Houston State. A nobody SH State back named Timothy Flanders rushed for 170 yards in 19 carries. If lower-tier runners can trash the A&M defense, Bama's T.J. Weldon,  the best RB in the SEC, should run wild. Bama's offensive line, which lost three All-Americans, isn't the steamroller it was last year but, featuring NFL-ready Cyrus Kouandjio, it's still an elite outfit. This O line figure to flatten the A&M defense, which has looked shoddy so far against two weak teams..

In its 35-10 win over Va Tech,  Alabama hardly looked like a No.1 team. Gaining only 206 yards, the Tide offense stumbled and Yeldon, with just 75 yards in 17 carries, was largely contained. Bama's defense, however, was in top form. That unit will have to be in full butt-kicking mode to mow down Manziel.

An Aggie upset wouldn't be a surprise. The Aggies have a killer offense--high-scoring, quick, versatile, with remarkable talent at the skill positions and an unstoppable force in Manziel, who's actually improved a notch or two in key areas like footwork,  reading defenses, accuracy and decision-making. And just as important, as a team leader, he has no peer in college ball..

But in college football coaching, Saban has no peer. This game is a battle between these two giants.
The biggest advantage Alabama has is that it's powered by the iron will of Saban. Losing twice in a row to Manziel would be, to Saban, the low point of his career.. It would haunt him forever, eating away at his ego.. His players, who are dedicated to him, know that too. They'll funnel everything they have into beating A&M. On the other side, though, Manziel's effort will be just as ferocious.

But it probably won't be enough.


Friday, September 6, 2013

A Case For Johnny Manziel

Hurrah for Johnny Manziel!

Turns out that the Texas A&M QB, who looked like he was going to be another angelic, goody-goody when he defied the odds and won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman last year, is really an lovable outlaw. Good for him.

In that coveted Heisman-winner position, did we really need another respectable, God-fearing gentleman, the kind that avoids night clubs and bars, the kind that's buried in books and football and never has any fun? We've had too many of them already.

What we have in Manziel is a bar-hopping, skirt-chasing rogue with crazy-frat-boy instincts, a high-spirited kid who's getting in touch with his inner wild-child while adjusting to sudden fame. He's a real rebel, a guy who plays by his own rules, who's full of swagger, who treats his opponents with disdain. He's better than other players and he knows it, and acts like it.

The key ingredient is swagger. All the greats have it, lots of it. Manziel oozes swagger. He has enough to full a dozen star players. It's what separates him from the pack, what makes him Johnny Football.

Since he won the Heisman, Manziel has been working overtime to tarnish his image.Here's the list of charges against him. It ain't pretty. Yes, at times he's acted like an out-of-control frat boy. Yes, he's been boozing too hard and running around with too many women and doing way too much bar-hopping. Yes, he got kicked out of a football camp for misbehaving Yes, in last Saturday's Rice rout, he was penalized for taunting, for engaging in a trash-talking war with a couple of surly Owls. Yes, he got kicked out of the game and didn't take kindly to be chewed out by his coach, Kevin Sumlin..

Oh yes, there's that accusation of signing autographs for money. Man guilty. According to underground sources, he's been paid under the table for signing autographs, earning, some speculate, six figures. So what.  Big-time college players break this rule all the time, making cash under the table, trying to get a piece of the pie they helped bake. There's a thriving autograph business going on right under the NCAA's nose and they're too stupid to see it. Word in the underground is that Manziel was caught because he got into a beef with an autograph-peddler, who leaked details the OB's signing-for-pay to the media.

This is hardly a major crime. Even the NCAA, generally a bone-headed organization, knows it. They thought so little of this violation that they just slapped Manziel on the wrist--suspending him for the first half of the season opener against crappy Rice. The NCAA wanted to bury that mess as quickly as possible and let Manziel get ready for next week's A&M-Alabama match, one of the year's top games.

What counts is what Manziel does on the field. He's a gifted player, a skilled passer, a daredevil scrambler and a superb leader. Sources inside the Aggies camp report that the players love Manziel, that he's a fine teammate.That's what really matters. Remember, this is the guy who, as a freshman, stormed into Tuscaloosa last November and took down No.1 Alabama. You know what that took.

Manziel is a collegiate version of Broadway Joe Namath, the masterful, ground-breaking, 1960s New York Jets QB who played hard and partied harder. Manziel is Namath Jr. In the reckless style of Broadway Joe, Manziel will be in the headlines--some good some bad--for years to come..

Manziel is like a kid with a sweet-tooth who's been turned loose in a candy store. Let him have his fun..So he's not role-model material. Who cares? As long his playing skills aren't effected, there's really no harm done. One thing you can be sure of--Manziel loves football too much to let his off-field antics.keep him from bringing his A-game to every game.

 He may be a rebel and, at times, too wild, but he's no dummy.