|By Dave Cokin|
Winning within an organization starts at the top. Drafting, scouting, free agency, bringing in high quality characters all are essential to winning even before the first kickoff of the season. As we reach the halfway point of the NFL season, it’s interesting to take a look back at what happened over the summer with teams trying to improve.
Many publications had two teams as the biggest winners in the offseason, the 49ers and Patriots, in that order. The 49ers had been building through the draft the last few years, stockpiling young talent like LB Manny Lawson, RB Frank Gore, TE Vernon Davis and QB Alex Smith (No. 1 overall pick).
They figured they were a handful of players away from taking the next step up in a weak division, so they went wild in the offseason, signing free agent cornerback Nate Clements, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, WR Ashley Lelie and safety Michael Lewis. San Francisco also felt they needed one more piece on the offensive line, so they pulled the trigger on draft day, giving up next year’s No. 1 pick to draft Central Michigan OT Joe Staley.
Well you don’t win on paper, you win on the field, and the 49ers don’t look very good on the field. The 49ers just lost their fifth straight game Sunday, 31-10 at home to the Saints. They are 2-5 SU/ATS, but should be 0-7, as they were totally outplayed in the first two games but escaped with lucky wins against Arizona and St. Louis. Lelie was run out of Denver and Atlanta for having a big head and a me-attitude, and LB Banta-Cain was a marginal backup for the Patriots last season, even though he was projected as a starter in San Fran.
San Francisco's first-year offensive coordinator Jim Hostler is under fire, and should be, with the offense ranked last in the league while averaging 12.6 ppg. They’ve averaged less than 9 ppg the last four games, making last year’s Oakland Raiders offense look like a juggernaut.
Virtually the same group of offensive players finished the 2006 season ranked No. 6 in the league in rushing offense, but have fallen to 26th in the same category this season, leaving people dumbfounded. Under OC Norv Turner in 2006, the 49ers averaged 303.8 yards and 18.8 points per game. Under Hostler through six games, those figures are 213.8 and 13.0. Hosler started out with Kansas City (7-9) in 2000, went to New Orleans (16-16) in 2001-02 and spent 2003-04 with the (17-17) New York Jets before coming to the 49ers (4-12) with coach Mike Nolan in 2005, not exactly a winning resume.
I mentioned that the 49ers traded away next year’s No. 1 pick: to the Patriots. This reminds me of the fleecing Red Auerbach regularly used to do. The Patriots also had an impressive offseason, but this organization has far more capable evaluators in place than the 49ers.
They identified their weaknesses from 2006, then went out and addressed them with LB Adalius Thomas, halfback Sammy Morris, TE Kyle Brady, and WRs Stallworth, Moss and Welker. The Pats were criticized for overpaying for Wes Welker, giving up their second-and seventh-round picks to Miami. Is there any doubt now those critics were mistaken? Welker has been a huge addition, a quick slot receiver and an outstanding kick returner. He’s also tough, a hard worker and a team-oriented guy.
The Patriots just slaughtered the Redskins, 52-7. Washington is not that bad a team, but they have been poor in drafting over much of the last seven years while signing too many free agent busts. The real substance of team-building is done in the later round when you find reliable players, good spare parts, and even some gems. In one recent draft the Skins took fullback Manuel White of UCLA, fourth round; LB Robert McCune of Louisville, fifth round; LB Jared Newberry, Stanford, sixth round; Fullback Nehemiah Broughton, The Citadel, seventh round.
In 2003, they gave away most of their picks in order to sign restricted free agents. In 2004, they drafted Sean Taylor with the fifth overall pick, gave up a second-round pick for Clinton Portis and traded a third-rounder for benched quarterback Mark Brunell. The Pats, on the other hand, have found outstanding value with late round picks, and even some stars with QB Tom Brady (fifth round), CB Asante Samuel and LB Tedy Bruschi.
And now for the kicker: one preseason report had the Miami Dolphins as having a great offseason, adding LB Joey Porter to Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas. They are off a 13-10 loss Sunday to the Giants, the team's eighth loss of the season and its franchise-worst 11th consecutive defeat, dating to last season. “Even though our guys didn't win the football game,” new coach Cam Cameron said, “it's something our guys will always remember.” If I were Cam and the Fins, I’d rather forget everything about this season.