Liotta: Niners can’t get caught in a game of keep away

With one in the wrong column already, the 49ers wake up this morning needing to play a different brand of football than they did in their first game of 2008. In fact, any brand of football would be preferable to what became the season’s opening game of keep away — which they lost in excruciating fashion.

Anything would be preferable to watching the other team run 48 plays to their 16 over the final 31:52, like what happened last week. Or having another team — thanks to a pair of 49ers fumbles — control the football for 21 of 25 minutes after halftime.

By my watch, it basically took the 49ers an hour — in real time — to get their hands on the football. From the beginning of halftime until four minutes remained in the third quarter, about 60 minutes elapsed.

I don’t think NFL coaching staffs approach improving their defense in these terms, but I think it would be appropriate with this team: “Guys, we have to get the ball back sometime before 4 o’clock this afternoon. That’s when the clock operator is going to make us leave the field.”

Getting the football wasn’t supposed to be the problem for the 49ers. The problem was supposed to be what to do with it once the offense got it. Surprisingly, the offense did not embarrass itself in Week 1 — other than the fact that it did appear the unit wanted to incorporate dribbling the football into the first week’s game plan.

No team in the NFL can win when committing five turnovers. The New England Patriots can’t do it. The Dallas Cowboys can’t do it. The 49ers can’t do it. The difference between the 49ers and the Cowboys or Patriots is that the Cowboys and Patriots don’t commit five turnovers in a game, while the 49ers apparently find themselves already well-skilled in that department.

J.T. O’Sullivan, the man nobody knew could start at quarterback in the NFL, did just fine — other than the turnovers. The 49ers really only got nine tries with the football — two of their 11 possessions ended with time running out — and O’Sullivan showed he could move it.

Completing 14 of 20 passes for 195 yards was better than anybody expected from O’Sullivan. Unfortunately, the fumbles and the interception were expected.

“It’s about winning and we didn’t win,” 49ers coach Mike Nolan said this week. “That’s where the focus needs to stay. So with a quarterback, I’ve always said, ‘Your stats are one thing, but us winning is really the objective of the game.’”

Unfortunately, the 49ers have no time to work their way up to winning. It could be argued they have the toughest schedule in the league over the next seven weeks.

So, in Week 2, they find themselves in a position where they must jump directly from losing a game of keep away to winning a game of football.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at tliotta@sfexaminer.com.

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