I peppered David Fucillo at Niners Nation with some old fashioned East Coast hospitality. I have nothing against Fooch, who has been nothing but welcome in all our exchanges, but, you know, the Hawks and Niners are rivals. I figure it's better to be picked on than pitied.
FG: Alex Smith sure has sucked for the last three seasons, complete bust or just near complete bust? He's now suffered an injury that mars the remainder of this season, and has excuses pouring from both ends, but you can't just let the guy off the hook. His only legitimate excuse, as I see it, is his age. Should the Niners be looking for a franchise quarterback in the offseason? Is it time to cut bait, or are the Niners stuck with whatever Smith can give them for the next few seasons?
NN: I think it's worth giving Smith some more time in part because they're not in a good position to just cut bait and in part because he does have the physical talent to win ball games for this team, as he proved in Week 1 against the Cardinals and as he proved Week 15 last year up in Seattle. On any pass over 15 yards he really can't seem to hit the broad side of the barn so it's simply a matter of our genius offensive coordinator coming up with a game plan that plays to his strengths. Last week against the Falcons the team used roll outs and short passes on the opening touchdown drive and then abandoned that play-calling for about 90% of the rest of the game. I ran a poll on Smith as the future and 52% voted that they weren't sure but to give him more time. Not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence, but I think a good chunk of 49ers fans simply aren't sure what exactly is up with the situation for now.
FG: Mike Nolan has about expended his goodwill, after a free agent spending spree and draft that had some thinking the Niners were contenders, should this year's ruinous implosion finally cue fans to question his job security? The offensive playbook is bland and predictable, the defense too centered on playmakers and too lax on creating a legitimate line. Is this season a product of poor talent evaluation by Lal Heneghan (perhaps valuing toolsiness over actual production) or is this a combination of injuries, age and unrealistic expectations catching up San Francisco?
NN: I would strongly disagree that Nolan has used up his good will. Considering where this team was under Dennis Erickson, things could be a lot worse. I do have my issues with Nolan in regards to game management but he was brought in under a 5-year plan and I expect him to get all 5-years. I would disagree that there has been a problem with talent evaluation overall. There have been some issues but considering the 49ers were pretty much a taxi-squad 2 years ago, there is considerably more depth now. The defensive line is an issue that I fully expect will be addressed this offseason. While Nate Clements isn't the best corner in the league, he's been a great cover corner for most of this season. Losing Manny Lawson worsened matters considerably for the run defense, as having two beasts like Lawson and Willis would have made things considerably different.
As far as the offensive play-calling, like I said above, there have been times where the play-calling has been excellent and made things happen. The problem is that this quality play-calling lasts for one or two drives each game and is quickly abandoned for no apparent reason. One would think that if you are successful with something you'd use it again, and yet the 49ers haven't done that. I'm just confused and really don't know who is worth blaming on that.
FG: Early first round picks are overvalued, but when a team badly needs defensive line help and when the impending draft promises some of the best D-line talent in recent memory, how bad does it burn to know that the cheating Pats will inherit a likely top 10 pick from your team?
NN: It sucks to lose the likely quality draft pick, but considering we got an offensive lineman we can use as an anchor for the next 7-10 years, it could be a lot worse. Staley has given up the most sacks on the line this year, but he has also usually been matched up with the other team's best pass-rushing defensive lineman or a close proximity to that. The 49ers hit a home run in the first round last year with the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year in Willis and a strongly developing o-lineman in Staley. They'll just have to figure out a way to do something with the Colts pick that they have. But obviously that makes it sting a whole lot more.
FG: Larry Allen is possibly the best guard or even offensive lineman of his generation, great talent is a treat to watch on even the worst teams, what was it like to watch Larry Allen when he was still good?
NN: Every player eventually reaches a point where it's time to call it a career and unfortunately it's that time for Larry Allen. Last season he was an absolute beast as the offensive line was a considerable strength for this team. The plus is that he's around to work with the younger guys. There is a lot of change on the o-line as injuries have occurred and the 49ers will now plug in David Baas at right guard and Adam Snyder at left tackle. You hate to see guys get hurt, but sometimes that's what it takes to get some changes in a struggling unit. I'm honestly not sure what to expect from the current unit against a quality pass rush like the Seahawks.
FG: What positives can be taken from this squad? Healthy, and following a good draft, could the Niners return next season and make good on some of the more outlandish predictions that preceded them this season?
NN: The 49ers obviously have issues, but there are several positives going forward. Patrick Willis is legit and is likely going to lead the NFL in tackles this season and possibly make the Pro Bowl. Now neither one of those measures tells the tale of a man, but he is going to be a stud in this league. A full season of Willis and Lawson is something I'm excited about going forward. On the offensive side of the ball, Vernon Davis might finally be starting to emerge as the threat the 49ers were hoping for when they drafted him. If he can consistently make plays the rest of the season I'll feel good about his emergence.
The 49ers have done a pretty decent job in the draft since Nolan and Scot McCloughan took over the player personnel side of things. While obviously not a homerun, they've brought in plenty of impact players. With a late first rounder and high second rounder I think they can make some things happen. The primary areas of concern are the offensive and defensive lines. If they can shore the lines up I think the team would be able to take a big step forward next year from the regression of this season. In my early previews while I thought the team could go 9-7, I also said that this team could be 7-9 once again even as an improved squad. Considering the regression, if they even approached 7-9 I'd be ecstatic. But I think they just need to show some improvement and gain some confidence finishing out the year. At the very least, we don't need the likely Super Bowl champs drafting in the top 10 of the 2008 draft. Anybody who dislikes the 49ers can at least give me that much.