Reasons to be Cheerful: The San Francisco 49ers

“Let’s all dance on the 49ers’ grave.” It’s a headline that has stuck with me throughout this past off-season.


I, like all 49ers fans, endured one of the most bizarre close seasons in living memory as a relentless stream of footballing talent left my beloved team’s facility in Santa Clara over the course of the Summer. From Head Coach to punter, it seemed no one was a banker for being around to suit up against the Vikings on the first Monday Night Football of the season.


Many, including the certain individual referenced above, saw it as the death of a franchise that had made three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game before a somewhat disappointing 8-8 finish to last season. A team set to be the whipping boys in the powerhouse NFC West and destined to fail in every phase this year.

So, when the disastrous off season was finally behind us and a less than encouraging pre-season had been watched (largely through my fingers it has to be said), it was widely expected that the Vikings would be the team getting their campaign off to a winning start Monday night.


The 49ers, however, had other ideas.


You see, whilst the column space and headlines had been almost exclusively devoted to the starters that had left over those dark months, very few took the time to take a look at what was left behind to see that the 49ers roster was still rife with talent. Talent that was further added to through this year’s draft as well as a certain acquisition from the rugby world.


Most of the concern heading in to Monday night surrounded the defense and how they would fare having to replace so many big names from front to back. The reality was that they hardly missed a step.


Buoyed by the return of All-Pro NaVorro Bowman to the middle of the linebacking corps, Eric Mangini’s defensive unit proved to have the measure once again of the big-name returnee on the Vikings offense, Adrian Peterson, holding him to just 31 yards on 10 carries. In fact, the Vikings offense as a whole were held to just 71 yards rushing on the night as Bowman’s compatriots Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch reminded the doubters that they were more than capable.


The secondary played their part too, with some excellent coverage which seemed to cause confusion for Teddy Bridgewater at times, and forced him to hold on to the ball allowing the front seven sufficient time to chase him down and record 5 sacks on the night. One of those, for a loss of 14 yards on the play, came courtesy of a player secured in this year’s draft that I think has a huge future ahead of him – Jaquiski Tartt. He’s a big powerful safety with speed to spare and, as the blitz that lead to the sack showed, is more than capable of getting to the Quarterback when called upon.


The Vikings much anticipated but ultimately ineffective running game was in stark contrast to that of the 49ers as Frank Gore’s heir apparent Carlos Hyde emerged from the shadows and put in a monster performance, rushing for 168 yards and 2 TDs, including a frankly obscene spin move straight out of Madden that left Vikings DE Everson Griffen asking for directions from bystanders for the second.


Those of you who follow me on Twitter will likely already know of Hyde’s existence. I was a big advocate of his potential throughout last year during his limited outings as the back up to Gore. He’s an old-school running back who isn’t afraid to lower his head and take on defenders head on, but still has the speed and agility to perform moves such as the video game spin move last night. In much the same way Gore did before, Hyde’s powerful running and willingness to take the fight to the opposition sets the tone for the 49ers’ physical style.


That was further emphasized last night for me by some of Geep Chryst’s play calling, as the 49ers lined up with a three Tight End set more times in this game than we did for the entirety of last season. It’s a sign that Chryst wants this offense to play to its strengths and isn’t afraid to give opposing defenses a big physical offense to have to contend with. It bodes well for Vernon Davis and a return to his form of 2013. It also helps bolster the offensive line whilst they try to gel as a unit and the somewhat suspect right side of the line looked a lot more secure against the Vikings pass rush and gave an indication that they are getting better. The same 5 man front played every offensive snap and that will have gone a long way to helping the cohesiveness of the line moving forwards.


I think another benefit of the multiple Tight End set is that it also gives Colin Kaepernick plenty of options as he continues to work on his progressions and pocket presence. Whilst he didn’t have a headline evening on Monday (Hyde ran for more yards than Kaepernick threw), he is clearly getting better on both counts.


Having spent a considerable part of the off season in Arizona working with two-time MVP Kurt Warner and coaches Mike Giovando and Dennis Gile, Kaepernick showed signs that his fight or flight instincts were beginning to sway more toward fight, climbing in to the pocket on a number of plays that would have seen him try and take off last year, and instead working through his progressions before taking the option of a short to mid-range pass and securing a first down.


I still have some concerns over his accuracy, particularly over the longer distances, and we didn’t really get to see him hook up with free agent Torrey Smith to try and take the top off the defense, but they were encouraging signs that Kaepernick is correcting the issues that had many questioning whether he even had a future under center. As it is, he looks like he’s enjoying the game again, and I think that can be accredited to the man who I believe is the biggest factor of all being discounted for the 49ers this season – Jim Tomsula.


He may not have the Head Coaching credentials of many in the NFL or even of many of his predecessors, but he has the team playing with a new tempo and energy that I haven’t seen from the 49ers for some time and I think he has that certain something that means players will run through walls for him. He clearly cares for the players and them for him, and that’s the sort of thing that can carry a team a long way when the going gets tough toward the end of the season. Players will give you everything they have when they respect and believe what you are trying to achieve, and I think Tomsula has that in spades. The fact he was awarded the game ball by the players after the game tells you all you need to know.


It wasn’t all gold starts however. As was often the case last year, the Special Teams didn’t quite complete the set in terms of impressive showings. Phil Dawson saw his 28 yard field goal attempt blocked to stall an impressive opening drive, courtesy of some suspect protection on the right side of the line.


Former NRL star Jarryd Hayne suited up as the designated punt returner but didn’t get off to the best of starts, fumbling his first attempted return as the Santa Clara wind caught him on his heels. Rather than drop his head and call it a night however, Hayne showed some of the determination that got him to this point and saw some snaps on offense, including a reception on which he made a defender miss with a nice sidestep for a solid gain.


The Special Teams unit did manage an 85-yard return for a TD courtesy of Bruce Ellington but, in true 49ers style, it was called back for an illegal block, leaving them with little to show on the evening. I’m in no doubt Hayne will have better nights as he gets accustomed to full paced football however, and between him and Ellington the 49ers have legitimate return threats.


I’m not getting carried away just yet however. It was only Week 1 and the Vikings weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders themselves – we did much the same to the Cowboys to open our 2014 campaign after all – but the performances across (the majority of) the board are clear indications that things are considerably better in Santa Clara than many of the neighsayers would have you believe.


If you’ll allow me to misquote Mark Twain, I believe the reports of the 49ers death have been greatly exaggerated.


Agree that the Niners aren’t done just yet? Think they should have ordered the wreath already? Come and let me know your thoughts on Twitter @headedforhades.