One year ago this week, I wrote about the San Francisco 49ers being a hot mess with Mike Singletary as the head coach. The team entered 2010 as the favorites to win the NFC West, in what we knew was a weak division. They continually did everything they could to just lose it, and started last year 0-5. They finished with the best point differential in the division (hardly a big accomplishment) but because of close losses and the bad start, were a game behind the Seahawks and Rams.
Fast forward to this year, where they hired Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to much fanfare. Still, the lockout shortened preparation time, Harbaugh cleaned house with some roster moves, and the offense looked shaky in the preseason. Though hope for the long term existed, not much was expected immediately.
Now, this team is 4-1 after destroying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday, 48-3 (they lost 21-0 at home to this team last year). San Francisco just went on the road and won at Philadelphia, a week after winning on the road at Cincinnati. The only loss was in overtime to Dallas. Next up: the undefeated Detroit Lions on the road, in another game where they will be an underdog, but I think we’ve seen that you cannot underestimate this team.
What is the difference? All the little stuff that can sometimes be random from game to game, but we can probably attribute to the difference in coaching this year, for one. This team is not turning the ball over, limited team’s chances, and creating turnovers. Some of that will regress, but I think it’s also part of the change in environment from the harried approach of Mike Singletary to the cool approach of Jim Harbaugh.
We always knew the defense had talent, particularly with inside linebacker Patrick Willis, the best in the game. They are controlling team’s from running with their running backs, as Philadelphia was the only team to get over 100 yards rushing, but 75 of that was Michael Vick. If we take out QB scrambles and wide receiver reverses, opposing backs are averaging 3.1 yards per carry so far. The 49ers pass defense just throttled Josh Freeman, and now has more interceptions than touchdowns allowed on the season. The offense got off to a slow start, finding its way with a new coach, but over the last two games, they’ve used a balanced approach while Alex Smith has had consecutive big games passing. Smith was taking sacks at a high rate, but even that improved, as he was not sacked once in the Tampa Bay game.
This team has a chance to run away with the NFC West. Seattle is the closest at 2-3, while Arizona and St. Louis are a combined 1-7 and looking hopeless. If the 49ers continue to improve their offensive play while the defense stays strong, this team isn’t going to be just a contender to get the #4 seed in the NFC to face the runner up in the NFC North.
[photo via Getty]