Midseason report card

Handing out grades to the 49ers after a forgettable first half of the 2004 season:

QUARTERBACKS: Take away three game-swaying interceptions, two-and-a-half games missed because of a separated shoulder and another missed because of a forearm injury, and Tim Rattay has been efficient and productive and one of the best things to happen to the Niners this year. Too bad you can't take all of those negative things away. Still, when healthy, Rattay has given the team a legitimate presence at quarterback who can run the offense and make plays under pressure. The same, however, can't be said at this point about backup Ken Dorsey, who displayed great promise after relieving Rattay in the opener and again in his first NFL start a week later. But in his next two starts in place of Rattay, Dorsey clearly regressed, the offense stagnated and questions surfaced regarding whether he can be a viable backup at this level. Grade: C

RUNNING BACKS: Kevan Barlow has reached midseason with 484 yards rushing on 135 carries, an average of 3.6 yards a pop. That calculates to a 968-yard season for a player who came into the year talking about producing in the 1,500-to-1,800-yard range. Barlow's disappointing production is not all his fault, but he must shoulder part of the blame. He has not been able to get in a groove behind fullback Fred Beasley and a patchwork offensive line and has had difficulty finding holes and breaking tackles. Beasley is still a force as a blocker but has not been as effective as last season. Terry Jackson and Jamal Robertson were serviceable backups to Barlow, but Robertson's two lost fumbles were disastrous and they're the reason he's no longer with the team. Grade: D

WIDE RECEIVERS: The 49ers have received about what they expected from Cedrick Wilson, more than they expected from Curtis Conway, and less than they expected from Brandon Lloyd, though he has come on in recent games after returning from a groin injury and has begun to assert himself more as legitimate threat. Arnaz Battle and his 21.2 average on six receptions has been a nice complement to the top trio. The biggest letdown here is that first-round pick Rashaun Woods has not been able to crack the lineup and show what he can do ahead of the group in front of him, which is mediocre at best and has trouble spreading the field in an offense that wants to do exactly that. Grade: C-

TIGHT ENDS: Eric Johnson spent a few weeks as the NFL's leading receiver and still is atop the NFC charts this week with 51 receptions entering. He might have surprised a few opponents early that were attempting to shut down San Francisco's inexperienced receivers on the edges, but he still is getting open even now that opponents have realized he needs extra attention. Johnson has developed an outstanding rapport with Rattay and would have several more catches if Rattay hadn't missed almost half of the season's first half. Still, he's on a pace for more than 100 receptions. Second-year backup Aaron Walker also has played well, though he has been greatly overshadowed by Johnson's emergence as one of the NFL's top pass-catching tight ends. Grade: A-

OFFENSIVE LINE: The line has made do without two-time Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry, and that hasn't been easy for a unit that also lost top performers Ron Stone and Derrick Deese in the offseason. Kwame Harris has struggled with injuries and, when he has played, also has struggled with opponents, which has forced the Niners to move erstwhile starting right guard Kyle Kosier to man the important left tackle position. Kosier has been adequate, but playing him there seems like a stopgap measure. Rookie Justin Smiley has experienced some growing pains in place of Kosier at right guard. Left guard Eric Heitmann and backup center Brock Gutierrez have don't little to distinguish themselves, but they haven't embarrassed themselves, either. Right tackle Scott Gragg, the veteran leader and performer of this unit with Newberry out, has played below his usual standards. Grade: D

DEFENSIVE LINE: John Engelberger has put together a solid season at left end, where he has made his share of plays. He leads the line with three sacks and leads the team with seven quarterback pressures. The rest of the pass rush, however, has been hit hard because of injuries to ends Andre Carter and Brandon Whiting. The Niners have had a revolving door along the line, bringing in and then releasing several players in an attempt to find some depth behind their injured ends and starting tackles Bryant Young and Anthony Adams, who both have played consistently well. Tony Brown has been the gem found amid the rubble of free agents that have spent time on the roster already this year, providing quality minutes at both end and tackle. Young has displayed flashes of his previous dominance, and Adams has come along well in his second season. This unit has had its moments, but it has been worn down a few times and has not provided enough pass rush to make the defense as a whole successful. Grade: C-

LINEBACKERS: Julian Peterson was playing at his typical All-Pro level before his season-ending torn Achilles tendon in Week 5, a devastating injury to the entire team. Derek Smith also missed two games with a damaged ankle, but he returned from the injury after the bye playing as well as he did before he was hurt. Jeff Ulbrich has been a stalwart and leads the team with 74 tackles at midseason. Peterson's injury allowed Jamie Winborn to assume a full-time role, and he has emerged as a playmaker who leads the team with 4.5 sacks and also shares the team lead with one forced fumble and one interception. This unit has provided much of the occasional pressure the Niners have put on opposing quarterbacks, accounting for 9.5 of the team's 18 sacks. Injuries also have given Brandon Moore an opportunity and he has made some plays. As expected, this has been the team's strongest unit, but it has experienced the occasional problems in stopping the run and also dropping into coverage for a pass defense that really could use the help. Grade: C+

SECONDARY: The lone bright spot here has been rookie Shawntae Spencer, who has stepped into the starting lineup out of necessity and become the team's best player in coverage so far this year. That's good news for Spencer – who has been beaten for a few big plays, but not many – but it's bad news for the rest of a secondary that has been ravaged by injury and poor performance by its top players. Right cornerback Mike Rumph was lost for the season with a broken right arm after playing only parts of two games. Left cornerback Ahmed Plummer, after signing a $25 million free-agent deal in March, performed below his usual standards before missing two games with a bulging disk in his neck, an injury that will keep him out into the season's second half. Opponents have challenged Plummer and he has been beaten as often as he makes plays. Safety Tony Parrish, the NFL leader in interceptions last year, has zero picks at midseason and has made very few plays on the ball. He also hasn't been the rugged force against the run he was the previous two seasons. Free safety Ronnie Heard doesn't make plays, and cornerback Jimmy Williams – forced into the starting lineup because of injuries – gives up big plays galore. Youngster Joselio Hanson has stepped in and given a respectable effort, but when he's your third cornerback, you know you're having problems. And this secondary definitely had plenty of those during a forgettable first half. Grade: F

SPECIAL TEAMS: Versatile Arnaz Battle has been one of the bright spots on the entire team. His 71-yard punt return for a touchdown was one of the key plays in San Francisco's lone victory, and he ranks third in the NFC and seventh in the NFL with a 9.8 average on punt returns. He also has 11 tackles and one fumble recovery on these units. Punter Andy Lee has had some rookie struggles but he's an improvement over what the Niners had at the position in recent years. Kicker Todd Peterson has been dependable, with his only two field-goal misses coming from 46 and 50 yards. Except for a breakdown against Chicago, the coverage units have been solid and have been getting consistent efforts from several players. Grade: C+

COACHING: The coaches get high marks for keeping the 49ers playing hard through the adversity of numbing injuries and weekly losing. But the game plans often have been inadequate, and sometimes it's difficult to tell if that's only because the team doesn't have the talent to execute those plans successfully. There have been several times that the Niners have been put in a position to win only to see their players fail in crucial situations that decide outcomes. The coaches shouldn't shoulder the blame for that. This team has no margin for error, and the gravitation toward conservative tendencies in recent weeks probably has been the right move for a team that has shown the ability to implode when it tries anything risky. Still, the coaching has been as inconsistent as the rest of the team, and some of those horrid performances on both sides of the ball are difficult to ignore, particularly if you consider it the coaches' job to adjust and make sure those kind of things don't happen so regularly. Grade: D+

OVERALL: Injuries certainly have destroyed this team, but they are a fact of life in the NFL, and other teams have the same problems. But not many other teams are 1-7. That record says a lot about the 49ers, and it easily could be 0-8 if not for a miraculous comeback victory in overtime against Arizona. The Niners have displayed a few stretches of solid play, but they rarely can sustain them over the course of a game, and it has been seldom the team plays well on both sides of the ball at the same time. That's a losing formula, and try as they might, the Niners have been unable to change it. With the NFL's 18th-ranked offense and 15th-ranked defense, the 49ers have played collectively as a team worse than the sum of many of their individual parts. The second half shapes up as eight weeks of survival for San Francisco, and the 49ers find themselves fighting the rest of the season to avoid distinction as the NFL's worst team. It's certainly a label many observers are placing on them at midseason. Grade: D-


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