Tuesday, November 4, 2014

49er Fans, Don't Give Up Yet

San Francisco 49er fans, drop those crying towels. And those of you who programmed "Taps" as your ringtone, cut it out. Yes, it looks bleak but it's not over just yet.

You're still reeling from that shocking play in the Rams game Sunday, where butter-fingered QB Colin Kaepernick fumbled the ball at the goal line, turning an apparent victory into a crushing 13-10 defeat. What really lost the game, however, was the horrible play of the offensive line throughout.

It all started two weeks ago, when center Daniel Kilgore broke his leg in the Denver massacre. That meant untested rookie Marcus Martin inherited the position, which is a critical one because the center is the QB of the offense line, the one who calls the blocking schemes. He's also a force on inside run plays and the guardian against pass rushes through his area. In the Rams game, with inexperienced Martin at center, that became a disaster area. The Rams controlled it, constantly steamrolling the befuddled rookie. That had a domino effect on the line, which played miserably. Consequently, so did QB Kaepernick, who had no time to throw and no where to run. Coming into the game, the Rams had a season total of six sacks. At half-time they had five. In the second half they picked up three more. It was the Niner O-line's worst game of the year.

The most idiotic call of the game was sending Kaepernick on that QB sneak, with just seconds left, over center, the weak spot in the line. With the ball just a few yards from the goal line, coaches would normally call on RB Frank Gore. But they ignored him on those plays this time, showing little confidence in the run-blocking. Yet, on the most critical play, they gambled, trying to sneak Kaepernick into the end zone through the line's soft spot--and lost. The coaches' options were limited but putting the game on the shoulders of a struggling rookie center wasn't smart.

Now what?

Sunday's game is crucial. If they lose to the Saints, they're 4-5, and in a deep hole, riding a three-game losing streak. That won't be an easy game. It's in New Orleans, where the Saints, on that fast indoor track, are tough to beat. The odds-makers think so too, establishing the Niners as a 4.5 point underdog. At 4-4, the Saints have been having an up-and-down year. They're certainly beatable. The Niners, though, will have to solve their offensive line problems and get a stellar effort from center Martin..

If you Niner fans want to look on the bright side, focus on the defense. It's still one of the best in the league. Against Denver it collapsed because the linebacking unit was wounded and couldn't cope with those talented Bronco receivers. In the Rams game, the offense may have been wobbly, but the defense was solid, holding St. Louis to 196 yards. But the Saints, who have a much better offense, will be a stiffer challenge.

The remaining Niner schedule is a bit scary. The only game you could chalk up in the win column is the one against the Raiders. Any of the others, including those against the Giants, Redskins, Chargers, Cardinals and two against the Seahawks, could easily be losses. Realistically, the Niners have to be shooting for wild card spots, with the division lead, currently held by Arizona, out of reach. It would help the Niners if some of their competitors stumbled, which is possible.

The Niners are missing three star defenders--Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Narvorro Bowman. They will all trickle back in the next few weeks, making a good defense even better. If this unit is completely healthy, that should take some of the pressure off the offense, which can get by scoring fewer points.

If the Niners lose Sunday they will be in big trouble. But, if they top the Giants the following week, which is quite likely since New York isn't playing well, the Niners will be 5-5. Then a 11-5 or 10-6 season is still possible. With either record, the Niners could sneak into the playoffs.

So Niner fans, don't panic just yet. Wait and see how these next two weeks play out. And remember, when you have a strong defense, there's always  hope.