Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Patriots, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive three-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and PatriotsInsider.com's Jon Scott begin their back-and-forth interaction with 10 questions from Jon to Craig. Is the hot seat burning Mike Nolan yet? How are the Nolan & Mike Martz systems working in SF? How did that swap of 1st-round draft picks with the Pats work out for the 49ers? These Q&As and much more inside.

Jon Scott, PatriotsInsider.com: Rumor has it that Mike Nolan is on the hot seat in San Francisco. How is he doing and are those reports by media legit, or is there more to the story?

Craig Massei, SFIllustrated.com: He's on the hot seat all right. Not many coaches get a fourth season with a NFL team after compiling a 16-32 record during the first three. Structurally, Nolan has done a lot of things right to clean up the mess he inherited when he took over a dysfunctional operation in 2005. The 49ers are on the right track, no doubt about it. But now it's time for results to start showing up on the field. Nolan still seems to struggle as a game-day coach, and there's little question that team ownership and a faithful fan base is getting impatient after a franchise-worst string of five consecutive losing seasons. Nolan needs to win this year to save his job and get a contract extension, because he will either get that extension or be fired at the end of this season. One of those two things will happen, because there is no way he's coming back as a lame-duck coach for the fifth season of the five-year deal he signed in 2005. An 8-8 record while showing legitimate progress might keep Nolan around. At this point, I'm not sure if a 7-9 finish will be good enough to do it. Maybe. But then, maybe not. Anything worse and I can't see any scenario in which Nolan will be able to talk his way into another season as the team's coach.


Jon Scott: Mike Martz is known for having an aggressive offensive scheme. Even though he's struggled elsewhere, is his system effective in San Francisco and why/why not?

Craig Massei: Martz's system is the best thing that has happened to the San Francisco offense in at least five years. The 49ers were horrible offensively last year – historically bad, in fact – while finishing dead last in the NFL rankings for the second time in three seasons. Martz's system has not only breathed new life into that lagging attack, but it has also given the Niners a legitimately dangerous offense right out of the gate. It's a very detailed and precise system and the players have to buy into it and be disciplined, but that seems to be happening. Martz is playing to the strengths of his players, and the 49ers have some pieces that can produce when put into situations where they can thrive. Martz knows what he's doing, that's for sure, and he has had a dramatic impact on an offense that – as the season reaches the quarter pole – so far has been so much better than last season that there simply is no comparison.


Jon Scott: Few people remember that the Patriots traded their "other" first round pick in 2007 to the 49ers which became their only first-round pick this year (after the spygate punishment). How is the player the 49ers picked doing, and what is your opinion of that trade?

Craig Massei: A lot of people think the 49ers got jobbed on that trade because the pick turned out being the No. 7 overall this year. But that simply has not been the case, because the guy the 49ers selected with the late first-rounder they got from the Pats in 2007 is offensive tackle Joe Staley, who now is manning the all-important left tackle position and already is one of San Francisco's best offensive linemen. Staley played every offensive snap last year as a rookie at right tackle, and in the process became the first San Francisco rookie offensive lineman to start 16 games in franchise history. As it turned out, Staley was one of the NFL's top rookie performers last year and played like a top-10 pick. So, while nobody thought the 49ers would be giving up the No. 7 pick when that trade was made, I like the trade – even in retrospect – because the 49ers ended up getting the right player with their pick.


Jon Scott: J.T. O'Sullivan was with the Patriots in 2006, then bounced around a bit before succeeding in San Francisco. Is O'Sullivan legit and what happens to former first-round pick Alex Smith once he's healthy?

Craig Massei: O'Sullivan sure looks legit. He's poised in the pocket, has a confident, edgy demeanor, and most of all, he is producing. He has a quick release, makes good decisions and he's a highly accurate passer who has been doing quite well despite being pressured relentlessly by opposing defenses. O'Sullivan also has surprised somewhat by making plays with his feet. He had his worst game last week against New Orleans, throwing two end-zone interceptions, but he has really moved the offense since the season began – something we haven't seen around here by a quarterback since 2003. Yes, that's a comment on the play of Smith, who was 11-19 in his 30 starts before running into shoulder problems that ended his season last year and put him on injured reserve before the season started this year. I'm not sure if Smith's shoulder will ever be right enough for him to produce in the NFL again – and let's face it, he was struggling to produce with a healthy shoulder. He won't be back with the 49ers next season unless he takes a drastic cut in salary – and that's providing if the team wants him back, or if he even wants to come back. There's a lot of talk around here that it's time for both sides to move on.


Jon Scott: Is Mike Nolan's system working in San Francisco, or is it more about personnel than the scheme Nolan brought with him?

Craig Massei: Nolan is more hands-on with the team's defensive system, since that is his specialty and he is now leaving the offense to Martz. I think Nolan's system is working as far as putting the team's best 11 players on each side of the ball on the field and putting his players in the best situations for them to succeed. Nolan is big on his players buying into the system and being where they're supposed to be in the system and staying true to their assignments. When things go right, players always seem to mention how well they were coached up and how the game plan was what made them succeed and all they had to do was follow it. So it seems his system is sound. It's just up to the players to execute it properly for the team to be successful.


Jon Scott: When the 49ers signed Tully Banta-Cain as a possible starter, Pats fans knew that San Francisco may be reaching. How is Banta-Cain doing, and how does he fit into the defense now compared to when he first arrived?

Craig Massei: Tully Banta-Cain absolutely tore it up during his first training camp with the 49ers in 2007 and appeared to be one of the team's best defensive players coming out of that summer. It has been all downhill for him since. Banta-Cain was a huge disappointment last year as an edge rusher in the team's 3-4 base system. He started 10 games at outside linebacker and produced only 3.5 sacks. He was hampered by a leg injury, but simply didn't get the job done. This year, he took a pay cut to remain on the roster at the final cutdown, and he has been beaten out by Parys Haralson and Roderick Green for the role as the team's situational pass rushers. Banta-Cain was inactive for San Francisco's first three games, which means he's now a bottom feeder on the roster who's clinging to his job. But with Manny Lawson out with a leg injury this week, Banta-Cain could be up for the first time. But he's still at the bottom of the depth chart – a long drop from where he was last year at this time.


Jon Scott: The 49ers reportedly paid $80 million to sign cornerback Nate Clements away from Buffalo. Was the deal worthwhile and how good is the 49er secondary with him in it?

Craig Massei: Nobody's worth that kind of money. But that's the going rate now in the NFL for a top cornerback, and in that regard, Clements is paying dividends for the 49ers as one of the team's best players. He has performed at a Pro Bowl level since he arrived in San Francisco – he was named a Pro Bowl alternate last year in his first season with the team – and is an all-around player who is strong against both the run and the pass. The 49ers were playing some of their best pass defense of the past decade to start the season – they ranked seventh in the league in pass defense after three games – but then they were torched last week in New Orleans. So they obviously aren't as good as they looked earlier in September, unless the New Orleans game was just an aberration.


Jon Scott: Patrick Willis was reportedly on the Patriots wish list when he was drafted, but the team couldn't move up far enough to get him. Is he as good as the hype he's getting in the media?

Craig Massei: He might be even better. The guy is awesome. He has it all – speed, instincts, savvy, intensity, great technique and just enough ferociousness in his demeanor to be a complete inside linebacker. He's a rangy, sideline-to-sideline player who makes plays all over the field. The one thing missing from his repertoire last year was producing takeaways and game-changing plays, but he's already recorded an 86-yard interception return for a touchdown this year – the longest by a linebacker in team history. So, Willis just keeps getting better. He's finding the going a little tougher now with opponents focusing on him more now, but he's a special player who has Hall of Fame potential if he can keep it up and avoid injury.


Jon Scott: What's the biggest weakness in this 49ers team?

Craig Massei: The 49ers still seem to be lacking consistency in the trenches. I would say both of their lines still are a work in progress. There's three new starters along the front four on the defensive line, and on the offensive line there are four faces in new places compared to the team's regular starting five from last year. So, while there's some talent on both sides, the team is still developing continuity and cohesion in these areas. O'Sullivan has been sacked more than any other NFL quarterback to this point, so obviously some of that is on the offensive line. And while the D-line has had its moments, there also have been times when it was gouged in the run and failed to get much pressure on passing downs. Both units need to be more consistent to take the 49ers to the next level.


Jon Scott: Who has been the biggest surprise on the team so far this year?

Craig Massei: That one's easy. If you would have told me back in July that O'Sullivan would be San Francisco's starting quarterback and one of the NFL's top-rated passers entering October, I would have told you you're delusional. O'Sullivan hasn't just been a surprise. He's been a revelation. Which means he's gone well beyond the point of surprise. Nobody around here is surprised anymore by what he can do. The issue now is how far he can take the team, especially now that his film is getting around the league. But the guy can play and play well, and I don't think anybody really expected that.

Part II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and PatriotsInsider.com as Craig and Jon continue their back-and-forth interaction with Jon answering 10 questions from Craig.



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