2006 49ers - Better Than Expected
by Trevor Whenham - 09/27/2006
For a few years now, at least since Steve Mariucci left and probably earlier, it has been very easy to handicap the San Francisco 49ers. They have been a bad team for a long time, they have struggled to match up to almost anyone well and they were really easy to fade. They are still a long way from being a contender, but the Niners are a rapidly improving team. They deserve a real look when you are making your picks. They are just 1-2, but they are 2-1 against the spread, and the future looks brighter for the team. Here are six reasons that you need to keep an eye on the 2006 49ers:
1) Their performance against Philly - Sure, they lost 38-24, and for a while it was not nearly that close, but you have to look below the surface to find some positive aspects of this performance. Running back Frank Gore fumbled the ball on the two-yard line and the Philly defense ran it back 98 yards for a touchdown to go up 31-3 early in the third quarter. You could have expected them to punch it in without the fumble (they did it twice later on), so that fumble represented a 14-point swing in the game. The Eagles won by 14. Philly was still the best team by quite a bit and probably would have found a way to win, but a Niners cover was potentially within reach without that mistake. Last year, a lesser Eagles team crushed the Niners, 42-3, so this is definitely progress.
2) The defense against Philly - The Niners defense will not be mistaken for the Ravens or Bears any time soon. In the first half against the Eagles they looked absolutely terrible - allowing 337 yards and 24 points in the first half. After regrouping at the half they held Philly to just 79 yards and one offensive touchdown in the second half. That ability to adjust and lock down is promising, even if the first half wasn't.
3) Alex Smith - Last year, the No. 1 draft pick was absolutely terrible and the name Ryan Leaf came to mind when thinking about him. He threw just one TD with 11 picks, and only completed half of his passes. This year he is starting to show why he was drafted so highly. His completion percentage is up six percent, he's averaging 2.2 yards per pass more, and he has three touchdowns and no interceptions. More importantly, he looks mature and comfortable - like he knows what he is doing.
Urban Meyer, who was his coach at Utah, said it took Smith longer than some to grasp an offense because he needed to understand every element of it before he was comfortable, but once he got it figured out, he was deadly. It looks like Smith is starting to figure out what the Niners are trying to do. There are concerns still, like two fumbles -- including one he lost -- against Philly, but he'll get better every week. If he continues avoiding a lot of mistakes then the Niners are on the right path.
4) Tight ends - Vernon Davis was drafted with all the splash and attention, but he has had no impact on the offense thus far and now he is likely out for a while with a leg injury. That doesn't matter, because Eric Johnson is perhaps the most underrated TE in the league. After missing all season last year with an injury, he is gelling well with Smith and put up great numbers - 87 yards and a TD against Philadelphia - in his first real action. His presence helps Smith a lot, and eventually Davis, an athletic freak, will be back to compliment him. The tight end position is so important these days, and the Niners have a set with as much potential as tandem in the league.
5) Bad starts - It is fairly simple to isolate the single biggest problem that the Niners currently face - they are terrible in the first half. Whether it is nerves, immaturity or something else, the team has dug a big hole in each of their three games so far. They have been outscored 58-20 in the first half. That's a big problem, and you can bet that coach Mike Nolan is working on it constantly. What gives the team hope, however, is that they have outscored the opposition 51-27 in the second half. If they can fill some holes and get the first half under control a bit then they will be much more competitive.
6) Michael Robinson - You can't watch a Jacksonville game for more than 30 seconds without hearing about how Matt Jones is moving from college QB to pro WR. Michael Robinson was arguably a better QB than Jones at Penn State, but his move to running back at the pro level is getting no attention. It should. In limited action against Philly, Robinson carried five times for 29 yards, including two scores from one yard out. Frank Gore may miss a game or more with an injury, giving Robinson the chance to show what he can do. If Robinson's early performance is any indicator, the solid but fumble-prone Gore may not be missed that much.
The Niners are a long way from the playoffs, and they won't scare some of the top teams like Seattle and San Diego, which are on their schedule, but they are a better team than the betting public may give them credit for. That could provide some great betting opportunities as the season progresses.