It’s that time of year again folks… time to break out the jerseys, hats and in some cases your significant others 49er thong. Time to hit the blogs and message boards looking for any kind of news you can get your hands on. Looking for something, anything to kill the undying thirst that has gone unquenched for six months as you toiled in a life devoid of football. 49ers football to be exact.
Now I can say unequivocally and without hesitation that another season of the red and gold is slowly creeping up on us. As training camp enters its twelfth day and we can start to see inklings of how this team is going to shape up one significant question looms. How will the 2008 San Francisco 49ers fare over the course of the coming 16 week season?
First and foremost I should set one glaring issue straight… there are no expectations from the media this season. No predictions of this team being a dark horse or Cinderella that will ultimately find itself being fitted for a playoff glass slipper when the regular season ends. For the coaches and players this fact sits just fine and some see it as a chance to surprise the masses with stellar play on the field. For fans, many of whom would never concede a season that hasn’t even begun it means that the team is off the national radar, which again is something that is not only expected at this juncture but also welcomed. You would be hard pressed to find any 49er fan who takes issue with the team’s lack of notoriety.
For a team with so many question marks supporters see publicity and hype as a negative entering a season rather then a positive. Look to last year at this time with so many national publications picking the 49ers to make the playoffs as a wildcard entry.
What happened? Well as we all know the team finished 5-11 en route to another losing season. Will the same fate befall the franchise for a sixth consecutive season or will the new additions and returning veterans draw a line in the sand and dare the other 13 teams they will face to cross it?
Today we take a look at the first four games the 49ers will play, beginning with the home and season opener on September 7th against the Arizona Cardinals. This is the first in a four part series leading up to the regular season.Sept. 7, 2008 – vs. Arizona
The ever enigmatic Cardinals under head coach Ken Whisenhunt are a question mark entering the season as well. There is no way to tell how this team is going to perform from year to year. They too have carried the label of “trendy pick” to make the playoffs as early as two seasons ago; this season however presents a different look.
Whisenhunt is in his second campaign with the team and has firmly placed his grasp on the franchise. After a good draft which saw them select athletic cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie out of Tennessee State to solidify their nickel package and wideout Early Doucet from LSU to be the potential replacement for the departed Bryant Johnson, the Cards could be creeping ever so slowly to respectability. Matt Leinart however is once again the teams biggest unknown entering 2008 as the team will look to him for the leadership and presence that he has failed to deliver thus far in his career.
Look for 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to blitz the point of attack and try to rattle the third year QB early in this one with the offense going to running back Frank Gore to establish the tempo of the game. Truth be told the 49ers have won the last four meetings of the two teams however they have hardly owned the Cards. I look for this second consecutive opening week match-up to be a close battle again with the 49ers utilizing home field advantage for the close win. 49ers 20 Cardinals 17Sept. 14, 2008 – @ Seattle
If the 49ers have had a nemesis the last five seasons it has been the Seattle Seahawks. There is no need to rehash the accolades of guys like Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander and Darrell Jackson (yes he was good at one time) but those three names have been synonymous with losses by the Bay. There has seemingly been little hope of beating this team, save for 2006 when the 49er offense truly showed signs of improving under then offensive coordinator Norv Turner and took both games against their neighbors to the north.
Seattle is sporting a bit of a new look this season as they are sans Alexander and of course Jackson who is now in Denver following his release from San Francisco at the end of last year.
Seattle has brought in two backs to fill the hole left in the backfield in Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett with hopes that the two can platoon and give the offense some much needed production. They drafted DE Lawrence Jackson out of USC and hope that the 6’5” 265 lb stalwart can provide a pass rush alongside Rocky Bernard and Patrick Kerney. With linebackers Julian Peterson and Lofa Tatupu returning the Seahawks defense looks to continue building on a defense that ranked twelfth against the rush last season.
I’m not sure if the 49ers have what it takes to upset Seattle in week two of this season… allow me to clarify. I believe they have the talent on both sides of the ball but one question will remain until game time. Will San Francisco have it all put together in Mike Martz’s newly installed offense? If Alex Smith or Shaun Hill can direct a good attack, Gore can achieve success on the ground and save the defense from spending three quarters of the game on the field I believe that Patrick Willis and company can contain the much heralded Seattle attack. I don’t see this happening however as Seattle takes the teams’ first contest of 2008. Seattle 28 49ers 17Sept. 21, 2008 – vs. Detroit
The last time the 49ers played the Lions, the year was 2006 and they were in Detroit with the game hanging in the balance towards the end. San Francisco was riding the wave left by Frank Gore as he amassed 159 yards rushing with a long of 61 yards that resulted in the games first touchdown. Mike Martz was the offensive coordinator in Detroit at the time and this game will mark a reunion of sorts with his former team as the Lions come to Candlestick for a week three match-up.
Detroit has not made any significant addition on either side of the ball nor have they lost any of their playmakers, most notably on offense. QB John Kitna returns with receivers Roy Williams and second year man Calvin Johnson to target on passing downs. Johnson displayed good vision and the ability to get open for his quarterback as he amassed 48 catches for 756 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2007 in his rookie effort; the Lions expect even greater things from him this season. Without a true threat at running back however this team will only go as far as the arm of Kitna will take them and if the past is any indication of the future that should end up being out of the playoff race. Couple that with the team having to learn a new offense under newly appointed coordinator Jim Colletto and the Lions should finish somewhere around the 6-10 or 7-9 range.
The 49ers will no doubt be ready to play, back at home and fresh off a loss to Seattle I see the defense being extra hungry here as they attack Kitna with multiple blitz schemes in an attempt to rattle him. Don’t expect veteran Tatum Bell or newly drafted rookie Kevin Smith to muster much on the ground against the 49er defense as the front seven will do their job in shutting down the run game. I see San Francisco taking this one, making it two straight wins against the hapless Lions. 49ers 34 Detroit 21Sept. 28, 2008 – @ New Orleans
New Orleans had a major letdown last season as they followed up their 10-6 record and NFC Championship appearance in 2006 with a lackluster 7-9 campaign. Head coach Sean Payton was on the hot seat at times last year (something 49er fans should know a lot about) but ultimately retained his job as the Saints look for improved production from their offense this season.
Running back Deuce McAllister makes his return after suffering a torn ACL after only three games and there are lingering doubts as to his durability as he turns 30 at the end of this season. With Reggie Bush, Drew Brees, receivers Robert Meachem and David Patten back in the fold one would think that the Saints can only improve on last season. The problems facing this team though are not of the offensive variety, at least on paper, as they focused on bolstering their defense when they selected DT Sedrick Ellis from USC in the first round of last Aprils draft and completed a trade which brought them LB Jonathan Vilma from the New York Jets.
Many pundits are labeling the Saints as the team to beat in the NFC this season, even over the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. Much of this will hinge on the Saints ability to find whatever it was that ailed their offense last season and fix it immediately.
The 49ers have not fared well at all against New Orleans, losing their last two meetings by a combined score of 65-20, hardly a number that would instill confidence in the red and gold backers heading into week four. Saints 28 49ers 21
Record after Week 4: 2-2
Tune in next week when we cover games 5-8 of the 2008 season.