Ronnie Lott once said you didn’t know what kind of team you really had until the tenth game of the season. As it so happens, next Monday’s game against Chicago will be game number ten for the 49ers.
I don’t wish to be alarmist, but it’s quite necessary to win that game. Four of the following five games are on the road and none of those road games will be a gimme. Far from it. Rams, Patriots, Saints, and Seattle.
It’s tough to get a handle on this year’s team. One week, they look like the class of the NFL and the next they look like they’re taking a class on the NFL. It appears as though Jim Harbaugh is finding it tougher to achieve the same level of consistent motivation in his second year of “Who’s got it better than us?”
If this is a problem, it’s one he never had to face while coaching college ball. In college, the turnover from year to year brings a constant supply of newbie eardrums into the locker room that have never heard any of the coach’s rah rah speeches before. In the pros, these rahmanations can get old in as little as two years. We all saw how fast Mike Singletary lost his motivational power in year two of his tenure.
Learning to motivate pro players year after year is probably a skill set Harbaugh has not yet mastered. He should have a few ideas about it, though, since he was in the league as a player for several years, and must have a memory for what did and didn’t get tiresome to hear.
In his favor, he’s a bit of a nutjob, which is always going to be more appealing to young guys than a buttoned-down fellow like, oh say, Mike Nolan. But, in the end, winning games is the only way any coach can retain the attention of his team over the long haul.
The overriding question for today, however, is who the starting QBs will be in next Monday’s game. Both Jay Cutler and Alex Smith were knocked out of Sunday’s games with concussions. We’ll discover sometime this morning whether both or either or neither of the two will be playing next week.
The ESPN announcing team would probably favor Cutler vs 49er backup QB Colin Kaepernick as the ideal pairing. Cutler is always fun to praise and condemn, all in one offensive series sometimes. Plus his personality will have the cameras following his every sideline grimace, sneer, yawn, whatever facial posture. His backup, Jason Campbell, is a bland fellow that even Jon Gruden would have trouble working up any decibels about.
Kaepernick, of course, is seen by many as the eventual successor to Smith’s tenure as 49er QB and that along with Kaepernick’s obvious physical skills would have Jon frothing from both nostrils. Smith is probably as bland as Campbell, though it’s doubtful Campbell ever had a streak like Smith has been on — completing 26 of his last 28 passes, for 307 yards, 4 TDs, 0 ints, and a 151.9 QBR.
One thing ESPN won’t be complaining about is the matchup itself. Both the 49ers and the Bears are leading their divisions and trying to hold off tough challengers — the Seahawks and the Packers. If the Niners lose, they’ll still be clinging to a half-game lead. If the Bears lose, they’ll suddenly be in second place and likely to stay there.
As John Madden might say in describing this game: “This is a FOOTBALL game, folks!”