I recently talked with lead blogger Fooch from Niners Nation, who was able to answer five questions I had for him about the Cardinals match up with the 49ers tonight on Monday night football. Thank you to Fooch for taking the time and delivering some detailed answers.
1. RotB: The 49ers looked to be the team that would challenge the Cardinals for the division this year, especially after starting 3-1. Up until last week, many 49er fans thought the team had a chance and this Monday would've been for the division. Obviously that didn't happen so what's the biggest reason for the fall of the 49ers this year and how have they managed to lose 7 games?
NN: There are a variety of reasons for the 49ers mid-season stumble. The offensive line has been rather abysmal at times, although it's shown some signs of righting the ship recently. The defense for the most part has been a bit inconsistent, particularly in the pass rush and the secondary. However, the biggest reason is the play-calling and/or execution of the offense. The play-calling is an issue because the team has struggled to find its identity. They were going to be a smash-mouth team, but now they're going with a lot of shotgun offense.
While I don't blame Jimmy Raye for everything, his biggest problem has been his use of extremes. First the team was running 3 plays and a cloud of dust. Then the team was running 80% of its plays out of the shotgun. The team has needed to figure out a way to pass the ball and run the ball with consistency, even if it won't be a 50/50 split.
2. RotB: What's going on with Frank Gore? It seems he's been under-utilized the past few games and I sense a general feeling that Gore doesn't fit with what the 49ers are doing on offense. What do you see as the future with Gore and are the 49ers actually considering trading him next year?
NN: At this point I don't think the 49ers are going to trade Frank Gore. Any discussion of a trade is coming from the fans. He's definitely struggled with the switch in offensive philosophies, but I still think he can be properly utilized. Other teams have run shotgun-based offenses and been able to run with great success out of it. Given the small sample size, and the sometimes inept nature of the offensive line, I think it's way too soon to declare Frank Gore a bad fit for the 49ers offense. In reality, the 49ers are still trying to figure out what that offense is. If the team sticks with Jimmy Raye, Alex Smith, and Frank Gore heading into 2010, I think this off season will be huge for getting things figured out. The team will be adding personnel (hopefully a top young offensive lineman), and will also have a full year-plus with the same offensive coordinator for the first time since before Alex Smith was drafted.
3. RotB: After Alex Smith took over midway through the season there was a considerable difference on offense - the 49ers put more points on the board. Obviously adding Michael Crabtree and an improved Vernon Davis has helped but what do you credit to Smith's success and is he finally your quarterback of the future?
NN: I don't know if Alex Smith is the QB of the long-term future, but he's at least the quarterback of next year, at least in my opinion. There are still four games left and a lot could happen, but barring a dramatic collapse, I think Smith will go into 2010 training camp as the #1 guy. As for the success he's shown this season, I think the reasons have changed over the course of the season. In that first game against Houston, there was absolutely no pressure on him and the team was down big, so he could just fling the ball around without many worries. However, the team has altered their offense over the course of the season and it's getting into Smith's proverbial wheelhouse. He played in a shotgun spread offense under Urban Meyer at Utah. While the 49ers offense is not the same thing as that, there are enough similarities that Smith might finally be getting comfortable. Also, Jimmy Raye utilizes some similar principles to Norv Turner, who was OC when Smith last had success in San Francisco.
If Smith is going to take the next step and become some kind of "franchise QB" or at least a long-term option, this upcoming off season will be key. Smith has had a new OC every year he's been in the NFL. A guy like Peyton Manning (who probably would have been a success no matter what) has had the same OC and QB coach since his first year in the league. If Jimmy Raye and Mike Johnson stick around, it'll be 2 straight off seasons with the same OC and QB coach. I think folks outside of SF underestimate what that could mean for Smith's development.
4. RotB: It may be difficult since we play each other a lot but name one player on the 49ers that Cardinals fans may never heard of and what we should look for.
NN: I'd say at this point, given all the games they've played that's a rather tough question. I'll take a different look at this. Josh Morgan is a guy Cardinals fans probably have some idea about. He's in his second year as a wide receiver with the 49ers and is still trying to figure out how to be a quality wide receiver in the NFL. However, since the Cardinals last played the 49ers, Morgan has taken over much of the kick return duties, and has shown a nice little flair for it. He hasn't broken any for touchdowns yet, but he's been rather solid for the 49ers. It's still early, but I'm hoping the 49ers have found a long term solution for their kick return woes.
5. RotB: Write a headline for the Arizona Republic after the game on Monday? Why do you believe this headline will hold true?
NN: "Cardinals stumble on road to division title." Although the 49ers do have a very small window to win the NFC West, I'm not holding my breath. However, I do think they can spring the upset this Monday against the Cardinals. Every year since 2004 one team has swept the series, so I'm certainly hoping the pattern holds. For the most part the games have all been tough battles. Even when the Cardinals won by 10 in last year's opener, it was not an easy victory by any means.