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NFC West Predictions: Second Edition (San Francisco 49ers)

3rd San Francisco 49ers 7-9 (No Change)

Pythagorean Wins: 5.1 (7-9)

Recent Developments: Injuries. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is the latest. Franklin was lucky to only suffer a knee sprain after having his leg rolled up on in practice. B.J. Tucker and Melvin Oliver are already out for the season. Ray McDonald is Mr. Injury. No wait, that's Jonas Jennings who has already suffered a stinger, and, of course, Gore broke his right hand.

Reasons for Optimism: Well it's always good when Football Outsiders likes you, because Aaron Schatz has proven himself to be the most accurate NFL prognosticator around. The team has a lot of players who can be expected because of their age and experience to improve. A very easy schedule helps as does a defense that was unlucky on third downs last season, +9.9.

Reasons for Pessimism: While I have the utmost respect for the work Football Outsiders does, my gut tells me drop the Niners, drop them below 7-9. I know I may be eating a lot of crow for going out on a limb, but, anyway, here, in brief, is my thinking:

  • Health: Darrell Jackson is nursing turf toe and by all reports is playing tentatively. The injury is clearly not healed and for a slow healer like Jackson, won't likely be healed by the time the season starts. Jackson has had a number of knee injuries that could easily be re-aggravated if he changes his mechanics to compensate for his toe. Larry Allen, legend or not, is overdue for a decline. Jonas Jennings has already suffered a stinger and Frank Gore is making a pretty cogent case that he's injury prone.
  • Alex Smith: Entering his third season and armed with better talent than the previous two, Smith is being counted on to take another step forward, but how about the entirely real possibility that he regresses? Smith was able to look almost competent in 2006, in no small part because Norv Turner put the bumpers on the passing game. Smith threw more than half his passes five yards or less. He also suffered very few dropped passes, something Ashley Lelie and Jackson should make short work of. Oh, and if Arnaz Battle catches 70% of his passes again, after catching just 59% and 53% the two previous seasons, I'll eat my shoe. Further troubling regarding Smith is that not only is he not well projected by David Lewin's system, but his numbers are almost certainly inflated by playing in Urban Meyer's spread offense. An offense that allowed big armed, but not even sniffed at in the draft, Chris Leak attain a 63% completion percentage over the past two seassons.
  • Defense: Is that enough to sabotage San Francisco's season? Well, let's see, the five most important players on the offense are injured, injury prone, ready to decline or Alex Smith. Meanwhile, the defense was ranked 28th last season after a career year by 33 y/o corner Walt Harris. Harris, in fact, outperformed Nate Clements in 2006. Should Harris decline or get injured, that leaves Shawntae Spencer starting--I've made my feelings about Spencer clear before. Michael Lewis was benched in Philly, a team that doesn't make a lot of bad decisions. Bryant Young is 35. Nolan is switching to the 3-4 this season, but hardly seems to have the horses along the line, especially in light of recent injuries.

    It would be astounding if this defense cracked the top 15.

  • Mike Nolan: Finally, the fact remains that I just don't buy into the hype surrounding Mike Nolan. Nolan held four separate defensive coordinator jobs before landing the head coaching position in San Francisco. His most acclaimed stop was in Baltimore, where his defenses ranked 6th, 1st and 2nd during his tenure. Impressive? Kind of. In the two seasons before Nolan landed the job in Baltimore the Raves featured the 1st and 4th ranked defense. In the two years following Nolan leaving, the 5th and 1st ranked defense. Doesn't seem like they missed Nolan much, huh? In fact, Nolan's pinball career makes it seem like no one was particularly determined to retain his services.

    Nolan looks the part with his suave black suit and august scowl, but after getting his start in no small part because of his father's (former Niner HC Dick Nolan) connections, he's bounced around the league nigh twenty years with few accomplishments. If Nolan wasn't the coach of one of the league's greatest franchises, if he didn't bandwagon with the Ravens for three seasons, if he looked like a frumpy walrus instead of a young Tom Landry, would he be considered such an up and coming talent, a great young head coach? I think not.