The Bye Week is normally a drizzly, anguished time where we either say good-Bye to another lost cause 49er season or drastically reduce our expectations for what the team can hope to accomplish with the remaining schedule. This latter occurrence is usually a glass half full or glass half empty split off amongst the assembled blogopiners. The half fullers are hoping for divine intervention and the half emptiers are identifying candidates to place under a steam roller.
This year is a bit different. The half fullers are talking about 2nd Seed in the playoffs and the half emptiers are thinking we might squeak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. The Bar on halfness has been raised. 9-7 is the least a 5-1 team has ever achieved and 14-2 is the most, making 11.5-4.5 the new Maginot Line of the Mythical Blog Glass. This is up from 7-9, by a big ass bit.
After six games, it’s pretty clear Alex Smith is not going to suddenly make Troy Smith seem like an attractive option. Smith is at a new level of performance, as is the entire team. His eye-opening play and leadership was not the only story of the early season. The long dysfunctional offensive line seems to have finally coheezed itself, with RT Anthony Davis arriving as a dominant player and Adam Snyder finally cracking the starting lineup and plugging the RG hole. The right side of the O-line, long a disaster area, is now a strength. Not coincidentally, the running game has exploded since that side settled in and pass protection is no longer amateur hour in the bull ring.
Delanie Walker has emerged as a big time, go-to guy this year. The creative ways he is moved around by Jim Harbaugh and his coaches is causing matchup nightmares for opposing secondaries. Walker is no longer a bit player, but an integral part of the base offense. His ascension to full-time starter has been helped greatly by Moran Norris graciously getting himself injured and unable to waste space in the backfield. Kudos to the big guy!
But the defense has probably been the most surprising development of the early season. The first two games, the secondary was shaky, but since then they have been stellar. Free agents Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner have both performed better than last year’s guys, Tarrell Brown is finally living up to his potential, and 3rd rounder Chris Culliver has worked his way into the nickel package and looks like a rising star. Our best CB from last year, Shawntae Spencer, is now nursing a toe owie on the bench as he slides out of the picture in SF.
The defensive line lost Abrayo Franklin and made two position changes with Isaac Sopoaga moving from LDE to the Nose and Ray McDonald moving from the nickel DT role to the base LDE spot vacated by Sopoaga. Rather than weakening the line, as many feared would happen, the line seems even better.
The line backers have also been better than last year — by a lot. NaVorro Bowman has excelled as Takeo Spikes’ replacement and our OLBs are finally giving us a consistent and respectable pass rush. Rookie first rounder Aldon Smith is proving to be the real deal and might be the best pure pass rusher the team has had since Charles Haley was shipped out of town in 1992.
Special Teams play under new coach Brad Seely has been outstanding. Ted Ginn does not have a lot of fans, but his play as return man for punts and kickoffs has been superb.
The only area of the team that has not been noticeably improved is the WRs. Yet. With Braylon Edwards due back from injury, we should see a jump in WR production quite soon.
All in all, this first six games of the 2011 season have been a stunning success. The new coaching staff has taken pretty much the same personnel as we had last year and turned them into a winning football team. Standing ovation for Jim Harbaugh, his coaches, and GM Trent Baalke. They have stunned the league and stunned 49er fans, too. It’s their prowess that makes this 5-1 record not a fluke and not something that will soon go sour. What we see now is real and will just get better.
May the force be with us in the next ten games!