Niners at the bye: The best and worst

As the 49ers returned to practice Monday after their bye week, the first step in the remaining 10 weeks of their 2006 season, here's a look back at the best and worst - among other impressions - from the first stage of the team's season.

Best game: 49ers 20, Rams 13 in Week 2: The score really shouldn't have been as close in a victory over a St. Louis team that would go on to win its first four games not played against the 49ers. This was by far San Francisco's best defensive performance so far this season, and it also offered confirmation that the offensive sparks the 49ers displayed in their season opener weren't just a passing fancy.

Best new development: The 49ers had just three touchdown passes in their final 13 games last season, but quarterback Alex Smith matched that total in one Week 5 game and had nearly tripled it as the 49ers headed into their bye week. After two years of sorry performance by San Francisco quarterbacks and the team's passing offense, the 49ers have a legitimate passing game again that can make putting the football into the end zone through the air not seem like an extraordinary feat.

Worst play: The 49ers were a play away from getting back in the game when they went knocking on the goal line midway through the third period in Week 3 against Philadelphia. And just like that, on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, San Francisco's season went spinning in the opposite direction. Frank Gore was stuck by safety Brian Dawkins, losing a pivotal fumble for the third week in a row, and Philly defensive tackle Mike Patterson picked it up and lumbered 98 yards for a touchdown, producing a 14-point swing in a game the 49ers lost by 14 points.

Best voting: We can't see much wrong with the final tabulation among San Francisco players that left Alex Smith, Jonas Jennings, Bryant Young, Walt Harris and Keith Lewis as the 49ers' team captains for the remainder of the season.

Best play: Alex Smith's 72-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Bryant in Week 2 was not only the play that put the 49ers ahead to stay in their victory over St. Louis, it also told us several things about two of San Francisco's top offensive weapons. First, it showed Smith has the presence to deftly step away from pressure while remaining patient in the pocket, then showed his ability to find an open receiver amid those circumstances, then showed he has the arm and accuracy to fire a strike down the sideline. Secondly, it fully illuminated Bryant's home-run potential, and showed that nobody's going to catch the volatile receiver from behind.

Worst game: Kansas City 41, 49ers 0 in Week 4: It doesn't get much worse than the worst shutout loss in the 61-year history of the franchise, although San Diego 48, 49ers 19 in Week 6 was ugly enough to at least merit some dishonorable mention.

Offensive MVP: It comes down to two emerging second-year players, quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore. The nod goes to Gore, who entered the bye week third in the NFL in both rushing and total yards from scrimmage. Take away his four lost fumbles - of course, that's sort of difficult to do - and Gore has been as good as gold for the 49ers, producing good things and positive yards practically every time he touches the football. It's a close call to pick Gore over Smith, who has made less critical errors while progressing and producing steadily, but Gore is the biggest reason the offense is clicking as the team's leading rusher and also as its leading receiver.

Worst new development: Stopping the run has remained the strength of San Francisco's struggling defense, except that when you look at the numbers, the 49ers really aren't stopping the run. After finishing 18th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and 11th in average yards allowed per rush in 2005, the 49ers have slipped noticeably in both categories, even though their pass defense remains among the NFL's worst.

Best comeback: After missing the entire 2005 season with a foot injury, tight end Eric Johnson has 17 receptions through six games - matching the entire total of receptions recorded by San Francisco tight ends last season.

Biggest failure: The attempt to start out in a 3-4 defense this year with the personnel the 49ers have on hand. The team had to switch to a regular 4-3 set by the end of the preseason or else get mauled against the run, and the attempt to switch back and forth between the two schemes has left the defense in further disarray as the season has progressed. Inside linebackers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich have not played well in the 4-3, and the entire defense has suffered.

Defensive MVP: It's 11th-year veteran cornerback Walt Harris, and the disturbing thing is that he doesn't have much competition for the honor. Besides providing top-quality performance at right cornerback, Harris has been a steadying influence in several other ways as both a leader and playmaker. Only 13th-year defensive tackle Bryant Young can challenge him in those areas, indeed a sad statement for the defense.

Coach on the hot seat: Defensive coordinator Billy Davis needs to take a firmer grip of the defensive controls, even if head coach Mike Nolan steps in occasionally to grab them from him. To be sure, Nolan will be watching over Davis' shoulders the remainder of the season, and Davis must turn things around on a unit that has regressed instead or progressed since the season began. There have been just too many times already this season when San Francisco defenders were in the wrong places, doing the wrong things and making mistakes that have opponents high-tailing it in the opposite direction.

Coach on the king seat: Offensive coordinator Norv Turner deserves kudos and thumbs-up praise for the impact he has had on an offense that finished a distant last in the NFL rankings last season. Sure, with improved personnel, there was nowhere to go but up for the San Francisco offense after last year's dismal showing, but Turner has both nurtured the team's young talent and put it in a position to be successful.

Worst comeback: He certainly has put in the work and commitment to make it happen, but Tony Parrish just isn't the same player since he returned from a broken leg that ended his season in Week 11 last year.

Best rookie: Manny Lawson has held his own at outside linebacker and flashed some playmaking potential, with the only real letdown being that he hasn't provided more impact as a pass rusher. Vernon Davis, the 49ers' other first-round pick, was making as much impact with his blocking as his receiving before he broke his leg in Week 3, and he ostensibly would have challenged Lawson for this honor had he remained healthy.

Worst trend: San Francisco opponents scoring points in bunches. Through the first six weeks, the 49ers allowed an average of 32.3 points per game, including games of 34, 38, 41 and 48 points surrendered. If this keeps up, the 49ers will shatter the team record for most points allowed in a season with a few games still remaining on their 2006 schedule.

Biggest surprise: Melvin Oliver was drafted in the sixth round to be a backup this year, not a rookie whose emergence would force him onto the field as one of San Francisco's best 11 defenders and force the 49ers to tweak their defensive scheme and philosophy to keep him there.

Biggest disappointment: The inability to develop continuity on the left side of the offensive line, thought to be one of the team's biggest strengths entering the season. Left guard Larry Allen went down with a MCL sprain on the sixth play of the season opener, then didn't play again before the bye. Left tackle Jonas Jennings' inability to stay on the field has been just as troublesome. After missing 13 games in his debut season with the 49ers last year, Jennings missed two of his first six games - and significant parts of two others - with unrelated injuries this season. Jennings now has missed at least one game to injury in each of his six NFL seasons, four or more in three of those seasons (with 10 games remaining to reach that total this year), and 27 in all. That means Jennings has missed 31 percent of his team's games since he entered the NFL. With the 49ers, it has jumped to 68 percent.

Most improved: Let's just say it's pretty reasonable to suggest at this point that Alex Smith isn't going to be the top-pick bust that some already were making him out to be at the end of last season.

Best trend: Mike Nolan is 3-0 against NFC West rival St. Louis since his arrival. In his first 18 games with the 49ers, Nolan already had beaten the Rams more times than his father Dick ever did as head coach of the 49ers from 1968-1975.


Niners Digest Top Stories