Former 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer still keeps up with the game he loves by providing analysis and color commentary to the KNBR game day broadcast. All season long, Plummer provided an online column related to each game, but now that the 49ers are gearing up for the start of free agency and the draft, Plummer recaps 2007 and talks about what needs to happen in 2008.**
I think the absolute season high has to be Patrick Willis. To not only make the Pro Bowl team as a rookie, but also the All-Pro team is just amazing. That's the kind of guy you can build an entire defense around. Comparisons have been made to Ray Lewis and I think it's a great one, but Patrick Willis is faster than Ray Lewis ever was, and Lewis did not make the All-Pro team as a rookie. One of the best examples Patrick has set all year was running 62 yards downfield to catch Sean Morey, a pretty fast wide receiver from the Arizona Cardinals. Patrick is definitely the highlight of the year.
Willis is my season MVP, but Nate Clements wasn't that far behind. It was great to see Nate volunteer to return punts, which a quality you want to see in a leader. The veracity that was shown by Clements on defense all season was huge. He wasn't just a typical cover corner. Deion Sanders was a guy who was a cover corner. Clements is a football player who happens to play the corner position. He's going to come up and hit you in the mouth, and do whatever it takes to help you win. I have the greatest admiration for Sanders as a cover man, but he wasn't going to tackle anybody in run support.
Between Nate and Michael Lewis, they put fear in some of those receivers that would roam around back there. That seemed to translate to Mark Roman, who also made bigger hits this year than I had ever seen.
Another highlight on defense was Marques Douglas. Here is a guy who is going to be undersized his whole career, but was second in the NFL for tackles for a loss. I don't know of a better defensive end against the run. He was very impressive.
Seeing Bryant Young play at the level that he did in his 14th year will have benefits even in the next season and for years to come. Although BY is retiring, he set an example for all of the current roster on how to approach the game and I think guys will continue to emulate that, long after he's gone.
Another big plus in my eyes was the great job that defensive coordinator Greg Manusky did. This was a defense that was on the field longer than any other team in the NFL, and I really appreciated the way he utilized both Jeff Ulbrich and Parys Haralson in the defense this season.
Other highlights included the play of the special teams. The only two field goals that Joe Nedney missed on the year were both over 50 yards, while punter Andy Lee had an outstanding year on his way to his first Pro Bowl. The coverage teams, both punt and kickoff, even with a poor last game ended up in the top ten in the league for both categories.
Offensively Frank Gore led the team in receiving and rushing, which made him the first 49ers player to do so since Roger Craig. To me that says a lot about Frank because Craig is one of the best to ever have played the game.
One of the guys who wasn't talked about too much was David Baas. That is a good thing for an offensive lineman, because if you aren't talking about him, he is probably doing a pretty good job. He allowed the fewest sacks on the entire team and granted he only started half of the games, but he became the player the 49ers wanted when they drafted him. That was a big step up for him.
Joe Staley is a guy you hate to even qualify as a rookie. I think offensive tackle, cornerback, and quarterback are the hardest positions to play as a rookie, and I think he held his own and progressively got better. With an entire offseason of not having to worry about school, he is going to be able to dedicate himself to the weight room and get bigger and stronger. He has the frame to put on weight, and with his speed and athleticism, the sky is the limit for him. He will benefit tremendously from the OTA's. His job will be to eat, work out, get faster and be more agile on the field, and to get smarter and understand all those blitzes, stunts, and twists that were thrown at him this year. He will continually be seeing things on tape all offseason – things he did wrong and then also a study of some of the other top left tackles like Walter Jones and Orlando Pace ti see what they do right.
The biggest disappointment of 2007 was the fact that most people in the building as well as people outside believed that it was a forgone conclusion that the 49ers were going to win the NFC West. To me, what went wrong goes back to last offseason. I don't think enough people understood how hard it is to go from 7-9 to 10-6. Going from four wins to seven wins and then to what it would have taken to win the NFC West at ten wins, is not an incremental increase, but an exponential one. You aren't sneaking up on anybody. No one worries about a 4-12 team. Teams start worrying about a team that is 7-9 heading into the offseason. To go from 7-9 to 10-6, you aren't surprising anyone and teams are getting up for you each and every week, so it's a lot easier said than done.
There are plenty of guys who do realize what it takes, but you have to have everyone on the same page to get there. One or two guys you can drag along, but 10 or 20 guys who don't get it will drag you down.
The early injury to Alex Smith was another thing that threw off the season. Smith had played good, winning football the first two weeks. He was 2-1 before getting hurt in week four, and if you extrapolate that over an entire season, you end up at 10-6. Who knows what would have happened if Alex had been in there the entire season. But it didn't work out, and it's something that happens every year in the NFL. Not only do you have to work hard, you have to stay healthy. That's why when you see teams now, like the New England Patriots, being as good as they are year after year after year, it makes it even more amazing. Everyone can point to the free agent acquisitions they made this year, but if you look at their three Super Bowl winning teams, they are almost all completely different teams. They are good because their guys have expectations and work hard all offseason, and they take it to another level. Everyone is expected to know the intricacies of the offense and defense inside out, almost as well as the coaches, which is why they have been so successful with older players.
Finishing 5-11 should tell everyone in that building that you can't just work as hard in the 2007 offseason as you did in 2006 to reach your goals. You should have worked harder. Some guys did, I'm sure, but not enough did. The message is clear - everyone is going to have to work harder in 2008 starting with the OTA's and continuing through training camp and the season if they want to reach that goal of winning the NFC West.
One of the players I would have liked to have seen more in 2007 was linebacker Brandon Moore. He showed in 2006 when he led the team in tackles and sacks that he can get it done. He might not be a numbers guy where he's got all the height, weight, speed combo you look for, but he does produce. I'd like to see more of him in the upcoming year.
I also expect to see more out of Aubrayo Franklin and Tully Banta-Cain in the upcoming season.
After seeing Banta-Cain in the preseason, I think everyone, himself included, thought he would be a double digit sack guy. To end up with the three and a half sacks was obviously disappointing. I know he had an ankle injury he had to deal with that affected him for about four games. This was also the first time in his career he became a full time starter, and that's so much different than being a back up because it's extremely taxing on the body. It's hard to heal when you are playing every snap and working as a starter. This offseason will give him an opportunity to prepare better and to know what it takes to make it through an entire season as a starter so I expect him to make a leap.
I think Aubrayo is in the same boat as Banta-Cain having never been a full time starter before. It was a little more than he expected. Obviously he was hurt a little bit, and that's easier to overcome when you are just going in for a series now and then. But when you are expected to be that guy who goes in down after down after down, it takes a toll both physically and mentally. I would expect he and Tully, having now experienced being a full time starter, to prepare themselves much better in the offseason and for that to translate into the regular season.
On offense, one of my disappointments was the performances of Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie. You could see there was frustration with the wide receiver corps because of the inability of the quarterbacks to get the ball to them and the inability of the offensive line to protect the quarterback. You kept hearing about those things but you also have to take some of the blame yourself. Arnaz Battle did not drop a ball in 2006 and dropped seven or so balls this year. You can't have that. That's the reason Arnaz is a starter, because he can catch the ball and block. When you start dropping balls, it shows a lack of concentration and intensity. When you get a guy like Darrell who comes in with 10 touchdowns from last year, it's a tremendous disappointment when he only ends up with three. I know it was a combination of things going wrong in the passing game, but these guys will have to be more productive. Jackson came on at the end of the year, and hopefully he starts off in 2008 on that same note.
Vernon Davis became a more productive football player this year, but one thing that has been promised about him for two years is that his speed would electrify people. I've seen it at practice, and once or twice in a game, but not enough to say that his 4.4 40-yard dash speed has translated onto the field. I compare him to a guy like Jerry Rice, who people always said was slow, but trust me, nobody ever caught Jerry from behind. There are certain guys who have game speed and certain guys who have track speed. Vernon has track speed, but I'd like to see that translated to game speed. Vernon and Delanie Walker, between the two of them, had about 20 offensive penalties, which is ridiculous for one position. Delanie could thrive in Martz's offense, being a receiving tight end, but he is going to have to immerse himself in the offense and be a permanent fixture at the 49ers facility in the offseason in order to pick up that offense.
The expectations now will depend on how the 49ers do in the draft and the free agent moves they make. Mike Martz can improve offenses dramatically, but he can't work miracles. I know Martz said he can win with the personnel he has now, but some of those guys might not even be there. Larry Allen could be retiring, Justin Smiley might not be back. What is going to happen with Moran Norris at the fullback position in Martz's offense? There are a lot of questions to be answered, and I think you'll start to see those being answered in free agency and the draft.