SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- On his way out the door as general manager, Scot McCloughan predicted greatness for the 49ers. "Players I brought in will win division for next couple of years," he said in a text message to this paper.
The bold forecasts kept rolling in, even when the victories didn't.
"We're going to win the division," team president Jed York wrote to ESPN after the 49ers fell to 0-5.
"I still believe we can go to the playoffs," coach Mike Singletary said after the 49ers fell to 1-6.
"Absolutely (the 49ers will make the postseason). Can a woodchuck chuck wood?" linebacker Takeo Spikes said after the 49ers finished the first half at 2-6.
The laughable thing is--the predictions aren't so laughable. Yes, the 49ers face an unprecedented climb. But they also play in a weak division with no team above .500.
The NFC West is so full of cupcakes it ought to be sponsored by Hostess. Every division team has been outscored this season, including the first-place Seattle Seahawks (who are 4-3 despite giving up 140 points and scoring 123).
The 49ers played only one division foe in the first half, which has bought time for them to right their ship. Five of their final eight games are against NFC West opponents
"We could be better as far as record, but we still have a tremendous opportunity," linebacker Patrick Willis said.
Can they do it? At the 49ers' midway point, let's look at the case for and against.
Issue: The 49ers still have the most talent in the division.
Half-full: It was a claim made by just about every magazine, TV analyst and football guru last summer. The 49ers returned all five Pro Bowl players from last season and expected breakthroughs in 2010 from receiver Michael Crabtree, free safety Dashon Goldson and guard Chilo Rachal.
Half-empty: That "best-talent" tag looks vastly overrated. No 49ers player made Sports Illustrated's all-midseason team, not even Willis, who is having the quietest season of his young career. Opponents have neutralized the Pro Bowl linebacker because they don't fear the 49ers' other defenders. Goldson, for example, has yet to record an interception, a sack or a forced fumble. (Last year, he was one of four NFL players to register three interceptions, three forced fumbles and a sack). Crabtree has topped 60 receiving yards in a game only once. And the only offensive lineman having a strong year is center David Baas, who is playing only because of an injury to Eric Heitmann.
Issue: Troy Smith could be the answer at quarterback.
Half-full: Filling in for injured starter Alex Smith last week, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner shook off rust to throw for a touchdown and run for another in a 24-16 victory over the Denver Broncos. He completed 12 of 19 passes in a turnover-free performance, and his 115.2 passer rating was the 49ers' best of the season. Singletary is mum about which Smith will start against the Rams on Nov. 14, but he praised Troy for his calming presence on offense. 49ers passers have a 75.3 rating this season compared with 90.2 by their opponents; maybe Troy Smith can reverse those fortunes.
Half-empty: Smith had a nice first game, but there is no need to get carried away. He had just 37 passing yards at halftime. And his best play of the day--a game-turning 38-yard completion to Delanie Walker--looked suspiciously like a stroke of luck as it wobbled its way over double coverage. The real test will come on a day when Frank Gore is not racking up 118 yards against the NFL's 30th-ranked rushing defense, as he did against Denver.
Issue: The offensive line is growing up.
Half-full: The 49ers recognized they were taking a gamble by inserting rookies Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati into the lineup for Week 1. But the long-term approach could be paying off. As the false starts and missed assignments fade, the 49ers played a sack-free game last week against Denver. "You have to know that there are certain setbacks that are going to happen," Singletary said. "But overall in the past few weeks, those guys have continued to show strides of being a solid group and a very effective group. And as they continue to grow and mature, that gives the entire team the confidence that we need going into the second half of the season to battle for the division title."
Half-empty: Davis started the year as one of only two 20-year-olds in the NFL, and it showed. His play has been inconsistent at best, and a few breakdowns can be enough to swing a game. According to NFL.com's offensive-line stats, the 49ers have surrendered 50 quarterback hits--tied with Washington for second-worst total in the league. (Chicago Bears, 53). By comparison, New York Jets quarterbacks have been hit only 15 times.
Issue: Singletary can regain his mojo.
Half-full: Singletary is 15-18 since taking over midway through 2008. It only feels like worse because of his erratic behavior in the face of defeat. But he deserves some credit for making necessary changes: He fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye to make way for the more aggressive Mike Johnson, he took the bold step of benching David Carr after 13 passes to promote Troy Smith, and he was smart enough to take the 49ers to London for long enough to get acclimated (three late touchdowns suggested he made the right call).
Half-empty: Singletary has done little to dispel the notion that he is just a motivational speaker with a whistle. His often loutish behavior on the sidelines might explain why his team also comes unhinged at crunchtime. Singletary could take a lesson from one of his Bay Area brethren, World Series-winning manager Bruce Bochy, whose even keel kept the Giants together during rough patches.
Issue: The 49ers are a break or two away from a better record.
Half-full: The 49ers lost four games in the first half by a field goal or less, including a 16-14 heartbreaker in Atlanta when Nate Clements fumbled back what could have been the game-clinching interception. The 49ers also went toe-to-toe with the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles, which suggests that even a mild improvement--and a few breaks--will have them rolling in the second half.
Half-empty: The 49ers get suckered into this thinking every year. But as Bill Parcells is fond of saying, you are what your record says you are. Good teams find away to win close games, and bad teams find a way to lose them. Last year, the 49ers pointed to heartbreakers against Minnesota and Indianapolis as evidence of an imminent breakthrough.