Even though they went 13-3 in the regular season last year and nearly beat the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers still don’t get the respect they deserve from the national media.
The whole offseason we saw stories that essentially said the 49ers’ previous season was a fluke, that they wouldn’t be able to go through a season with so few injuries, that they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on teams this season.
And, oh yes, that quarterback Alex Smith was only average, a mere “game manager.” USA Today had him as 17th among NFL quarterbacks.
And then, the 49ers opened in Green Bay and dominated the Packers, who have been the usual pick for the NFC team in the next Super Bowl. It was the first time the 49ers had won there since 1990.
Smith? All he’s done is throw 185 straight passes in the regular season without an interception. That’s broken a team record set by Steve Young, who broke Joe Montana’s earlier record. Not bad company. And the team has gone six straight regular-season games without a turnover. Only the 2010 New England Patriots, with seven straight games without a turnover are better in NFL history. The 49ers have a chance to tie that record in Sunday night’s game against the Detroit Lions at Candlestick.
This is no accident. Coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff have worked to get the takeover/turnover ratio — the leading factor in NFL games — in their favor. In practice, the defense tries to force turnovers, and the offense works to avoid them.
For his part, Smith has learned the Harbaugh/Greg Roman offense thoroughly, so he knows where to go with the ball on every play. Now that the Niners have added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and with Michael Crabtree healthy, he has a diversity of targets. Green Bay defensive backs were so worried that Moss would streak by them that he was wide open for a touchdown on a shorter route, and Vernon Davis was also left alone in the end zone for another easy touchdown.
When a future opponent, perhaps even Detroit, tries to tighten up coverage on Moss, you can expect him to streak down the sidelines and catch a pass from Smith for a big gain, even a touchdown.
Even with their success last year, the 49ers had some serious problems. One was their failure to score touchdowns in the red zone, which gave David Akers a chance to set an NFL record for field goals.
So, converting in the red zone has been a priority for Harbaugh and Roman in practice. Against the Packers, the 49ers had the ball inside the 20 twice and scored two touchdowns. After going three-and-out on their first offensive series, they had five straight scoring drives, with two touchdowns and three field goals.
This is a very good 49ers team. The defense is as strong and opportunistic as ever, and the offense is much more diversified because of the addition of quality receivers.
I don’t expect the national media to understand this, though. I’m sure there will still be naysayers even as Harbaugh lifts the Lombardi Trophy.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.