Special teams: When a team's offense and defense have been as disappointing as the 49ers' have been, stating that they have an excellent special teams is like consoling a lonely friend by telling her she's got a good personality. But in the 49ers' case, it's no hollow compliment.
Joe Nedney is reliable and Andy Lee has been good at getting the team out of poor field position. Both promise to be relied upon more heavily in the manage-the-game type of philosophy the 49ers will utilize over the second half of the season. The coverage units also are good, especially Michael Robinson, who has a unique blend of speed and power, and Jeff Ulbrich, who is the consummate pro.
Return man Allen Rossum hasn't ended up in the end zone like he did last year. But only one other player, Washington's Santana Moss, has a higher punt-return average, and Moss has exactly one return - it happened to be for a TD - on the season. Rossum also has a respectable 26-yards-per-attempt average on kick returns.
The only downside is Rossum's age. He was injured in one game with a groin pull and missed part of another with a hamstring strain. At 33, he seems like another stop-gap solution, just as Michael "Beer Man" Lewis was last year. Why, after four drafts, don't the 49ers have a young, special-teams speedster somewhere on the roster? The answer is part of the team's overall problem - the powers that be seem to have an aversion against playmakers and an over-reliance on low-risk, lunch pail guys. Grade: A
Overall: I recently sat down with Jed York. One of the things that the young owner talked about was how much better Mike Nolan left the team versus how he found it in 2005. Really? Sure, the salary-cap situation is infinitely better than it used to be. But that's due in large part to the Draconian cuts Terry Donahue made late in his tenure as general manager that ultimately cost him his job. The cap also has been managed well by the man every 49ers fan loves to hate, Paraag Marathe.
The attitude in the locker room - what Nolan called "the smell in the room" - also is better. Nolan got rid of several high-profile complainers and malingerers, including Kevan Barlow, Ahmed Plummer and Rashaun Woods. But he hasn't been immune to bringing in high-priced players who never play (Jonas Jennings) and recent national stories have been full of unnamed players sniping about their superiors.
The quarterback situation also is no closer to be solved now than it was prior to 2005, and as stated earlier, the 49ers' still have no defensive identity. They also have said goodbye to two defensive playmakers in Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. Keep those players and suddenly the 49ers have a formidable 4-3 defense.
The bottom line is that the 49ers could be looking for another coach at the end of the season. And even if Mike Singletary somehow salvages the season, his style already seems to be at odds with that of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. There's a very good chance that in 2009 the 49ers will be on their seventh offensive coordinator in seven years. The team can talk about building upon a solid foundation all it wants. The reality is that they'll largely be starting over - again -- next season. Grade: D.
-- Matt Barrows