Though David and I talked live yesterday, we were in the midst of exchanging some questions via email ahead of Sunday's Rams-Niners rematch.
So, we have to start with Kaepernick. With two and a half games under his belt, what's the consensus? Is the starting nod more a compliment to what he's shown or a knock on Alex Smith?
I think it's a combination of both (thus begins the fence-sitting!). On the one hand, he is playing strong football and has earned a job. He played lights out against the Bears, and solidly against the Saints. He is a "hot hand", to use Jim Harbaugh's preferred term. He will face many challenges this season as an inexperienced quarterback, but his upside is tremendous.
On the other hand, some would argue Alex Smith had not done anything to lose the job other than suffer a concussion. Smith's numbers were strong leading up to the Rams game, and in fact, he had just been named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. At the same time, Kaepernick was Harbaugh's draft pick, while Smith was a guy he inherited. Smith did a great job with what Harbaugh wanted from him, but there was always the sense of certain limitations in the offense with Smith. I think Smith's high sack totals spoke to that to a certain extent as Smith was less inclined to run around extending plays too much, and would rather take a sack than make a bad throw. That is a perfectly reasonable course of action, but it also brings inherent limitations. Kaepernick's style is potentially more aggressive, and thus maybe more prone to some mistakes, but the upside is pretty incredibly at times.
So the week after the tie, the Rams and 49ers had opposite reactions. The Rams go out and get blasted at home by the Jets of all teams, while you guys smacked the Bears around in San Fran. Is there something unique about this team's personality in how they respond to defeat or setbacks that makes them more prepared for just that? You look at the Minnesota loss and the tie against the Rams - you could argue the Niners played their best football after those games. Is there a commonality there? (And no, I won't note how so far your season is comprised of four two-win pairings, meaning this week...)
It is certainly an interesting characteristic of the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh, dating back to last season. The cliched response would be that Coach Harbaugh gets the team up a bit more, or gets them more focused or something along those lines, but as I said, that's pretty cliched. It's one thing I have yet to really figure out. All I know is, if they do lose or tie this one and continue that run of two wins followed by a loss or tie, that would be kind of eery. And I hate you guys (and the 49ers) for making me have to include "or tie" in that sentence.
With their 24, he Rams scored more points on the 49ers than any other team this season (Three more horseman of the apocalypse left...). In fact, the 49ers had only given up more than 6 points once in the five games prior. The real swing in the game was the Rams' 1st quarter and your fourth quarter. Is there any chance either of us repeat those outputs? What do you think happened? (No, I'm really asking. What the hell happened last time?)
While I don't generally like cliches, I think in this case you could argue there is some truth to the 49ers coming out flat on defense. I don't want to denigrate what the Rams coaching staff did, but it really did seem like the 49ers defense was sleep-walking through the first quarter.
I do think one key to the Rams stretches of success was their use of Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson. The 49ers are a team that likes to "punch people in the mouths" and build around their physical rush offense and their physical defense. The Rams offense showed physicality that maybe caught the 49ers off guard. Steven Jackson's numbers weren't exceptional, but the combination of Jackson and Daryl Richardson was pretty impressive. Jackson seemed to soften up the defense and Richardson then sliced through them. I am curious to see how 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio adjusts his game-plan (if at all) to reflect that.
Of course, the potential absence of Danny Amendola could change this whole thing anyway. Chris Givens has looked sharp, but Amendola tore up the 49ers defense. The absence of Amendola would go a long towards helping the 49ers defense. Maybe you can put in a good word given Amendola's doubtful status?
Who's been your MVP this season? Would it have to come from the defensive side? Does Aldon Smith do enough beyond the sacks to qualify? Is Navorro Bowman influential enough in all phases?
Aldon Smith has been the closer to a certain extent in his ability to get the sacks and put the opposing offenses in poor field position. Justin Smith might take away some of the Aldon Smith votes because of some of the double-teams he commands. I think Aldon does fine on his own in one-on-one battles, but they've developed almost a dual identity. NaVorro Bowman is a playmaker alongside Patrick Willis, but it's hard to really separate those two out.
If I were to think a little outside the box, I'd argue Dashon Goldson might deserve some consideration. He's always been a big hitter, but sometimes he has been inconsistent in pass coverage. It's hard to name one MVP of this unit because of how well they work together as a team, but Goldson's play might deserve the extra notice. His big hits have made plenty of wide receivers wary of going over the middle, which I think is an underappreciated skills in this day and age of crackdowns on big hits. His ability to make big hits that still fall within the rules is a huge skill to have. Additionally, his help over the top in coverage is one reason the secondary is having a solid year. I think that helps open the door for these other areas of the defense that are performing well, and thus might be enough of an overall impact.
Since this is our last meeting until next season (no, I'm not riding the Rams' thin playoff hopes this year...yet...), give me the lowdown on the 2013 NFL Draft and your offseason. Where do you guys have needs? Any contract concerns that might leave you guys thin?
Potential 49ers-Rams NFC Championship Game matchup aside, the 49ers have plenty of work to look forward to this offseason. They just signed NaVorro Bowman to a contract extension, which locks up the entire linebacker corps with Aldon Smith signed through 2014, Patrick Willis through 2016, Ahmad Brooks through 2017 and Bowman through 2018. While some argue against spending that kind of cap space on one unit, when you can develop it into this kind of elite group, I can live with it.
Heading into the offseason, there are no significant holes, but there are plenty of areas where work will need to be done. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and NT/DE Ricky Jean Francois are both free agents. I suspect the team will bring back RJF and let Sopoaga walk. They can get RJF for less and he should be able to combine with second year NT Ian Williams to cover that role.
Dashon Goldson is the big question mark on the defensive side of the ball. He is playing under the franchise tag, and it remains to be seen if he will work out a long-term deal with the 49ers in the offseason, or if the 49ers will try and franchise him a second time, or if they'll simply let him walk. I'd imagine it will be one of the first two options, but it's really hard to tell at this point. It will come down to how far apart they are in terms of what Goldson thinks his value is and how the 49ers value him.
The big question on offense will likely be Alex Smith. If Colin Kaepernick finishes the season strong, the odds are very slim that Alex is back next year. He is due a $1 million roster bonus in March and then his $7.5 million 2013 salary becomes guaranteed if he's on the roster April 1. That 2013 salary includes $1M in guaranteed money so no matter what they're looking at a $1M cap hit.
From a draft perspective, the 49ers have sat their 2012 class for the most part, and they have 11 draft picks in 2013, with the potential for that to rise to 13 with compensatory picks. I think they'll package a lot of those in trades throughout the draft, but they will have to in fact draft players (I realize that's a shocking revelation). I could see them looking at the secondary and defensive line with some of their picks. Given Kendall Hunter's Achilles injury, I could see a running back pick mixed in there as well.
Thanks again to David for taking the time to answer these.
Get some St. Louis Rams tickets and get your butt to the Dome to make it a noisy place to play!