Question: Hi Matt. I have reservations about whether the Niners are headed in the right direction. As someone who covers the team, can you comment on whether you think the team is taking the steps necessary to become respectable again? For instance, why won't York hire a GM and do you think, like I do, that they need more "football guys" in the front office? What do you think of Nolan's personnel decisions and gametime coaching decisions? Do you have the confidence in Alex Smith? If you were a betting man, when can we expect to see postseason play?
-- Steve, Melbourne, Australia
Answer: G'day, Steve! If I were a betting man, I'd say the 49ers will go 6-10 next season, 8-8 in 2008 and then flirt with the playoffs the year after that. Why? Because the offensive line will have been mostly in tact for four years and the team's young playmakers (including Smith) will be in their play-making prime. Of course, this is contingent on the defense not allowing 41 points a game and not getting shredded by the likes of Damon Freakin' Huard. After virtually ignoring the D last season, Nolan et alia certainly will concentrate on it over the next two offseasons.
Do I think the team is going in the right direction? Yes, although it's difficult to be optimistic after the worst shutout loss in franchise history. The 49ers have gotten rid of nearly all the dead weight (Woods, Rumph, etc.) they've had in recent years and replaced them with promising young talent. They do have football guys in the front office in Scot McCloughan and Lal Heneghan who are held in high esteem by their NFL cohorts.
Nolan's game management? Yes, it needs work, but he's only four games into his second year as a head coach. He should be getting help in that area, at least on the offensive side of the ball, from Norv Turner.
Let's not forget that two years ago the 49ers were at expansion-team levels as far as pure awfulness. In fact, you could argue that they were worse than an expansion team because at least an expansion team has young, raw talent and unlimited salary-cap space.
What you saw in the Kansas City game were the after-effects of several years of gross mismanagement. To put it another way, the 49ers had to climb out of a much deeper hole than most bad teams. They're not out of it yet, but they're certainly closer to the top than they were a year ago.
-- Matt Barrows
Question: What are your thoughts on the Niners offensive line? In the preseason, coach Nolan exuded confidence in their quality and depth. In the last two games, the offensive line looks like a weaknesses instead of a strength. Nolan is pondering a shuffle but says he has no depth to do so? What happened? Four of five starters are still playing with Snyder (who is apparently worthy of a mulit-year deal?) backing up Allen. What happened to the "quality and depth" Nolan talked about in August? What do you see from your vantage point?
-- Steve, Sacramento
Answer: I think a lot of the O-line's recent struggles are a result of how quickly the team has fallen behind in the last two games. The 49ers' philosophy for winning games is this: Keep the game close and eventually wear down the opposing defense with the running game. That's impossible when you're trailing 24-0 at halftime. Defensive ends, like rookie Tamba Hali on Sunday, simply pin their ears back and rush upfield on every down. If the 49ers run a draw and gain seven yards, who cares? In close games, the O-line has allowed one sack; in blowouts they've allowed eight. It's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, but their performance often is contingent on how well the 49ers' defense is playing...
As far as Snyder, I'm as bewildered as you are. He did very well as a rookie at left tackle a year ago and obviously is a coaches' favorite. And yet Nolan said Monday that he will continue to be a "swing" player, that is, the guy who becomes johnny on the spot when another o-lineman goes down with an injury. Is that a valuable role? Definitely. But you would think a starting job, say right tackle, is even more valuable. I'll put Nolan to the fire on this one on Wednesday.
-- Matt Barrows