Tough NFC West lessons, except for 49ers

October, 2, 2011
10/02/11
11:00
PM ET
Kevin KolbChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesKevin Kolb has not been able to come through in the clutch for Arizona this season.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Jim Harbaugh and Kevin Kolb arrived, Matt Hasselbeck departed, and the NFC West team with the highest hopes at quarterback largely stood pat at wide receiver.

The moves that defined the NFC West offseason are defining the regular season, too.

Early advantage, San Francisco 49ers.

"I just knew coming into this situation San Fran was the team to win this division," veteran safety Deon Grant said after his New York Giants shocked Kolb's Cardinals 31-27 at University of Phoenix Stadium. "They got a great linebacker corps, a good D-line, the running back, [Michael] Crabtree and the boys, then they got Braylon Edwards."

Grant knows the division from his time with the Seattle Seahawks. He'll be facing Tarvaris Jackson, not the suddenly rejuvenated Hasselbeck, when 1-3 Seattle visits MetLife Stadium in Week 5. But to his points on the 49ers: They've been strong on paper before, only to stumble time and again. Harbaugh has to be the difference between 0-5 last season and 3-1 now, between Alex Smith the goat and Alex Smith the game manager.

One need not be a former NFC West safety to get the right early read on the division one-fourth of the way through the season. The responses piled up when I threw open the subject for discussion Sunday night.

"It is eerie how those four moves sum up everything," Levin Black wrote.

"Harbaugh is the hire of the year, Kolb is the biggest overspend of the year, the Rams not getting Sidney Rice is the blown chance of the year and Seattle is just no good," Richard Godin surmised.

That would be oversimplifying things a bit only four games into a season, but not by much.

This was a wild Sunday featuring the 49ers overcoming a 23-3 deficit to beat Philadelphia, Arizona blowing a 10-point lead in the final 4 minutes, Seattle falling just short against Atlanta and the St. Louis Rams dropping to 0-4. Let's make sense of the madness. A few of my thoughts:

Kolb does not look good. The Cardinals have lost their last three games by a combined eight points despite having the ball in their hands with a chance to win each time. That reflects poorly on any quarterback and particularly on one with a five-year, $63 million contract.

Kolb took four sacks, lost a fumble, threw an interception, and had no touchdown passes against the Giants. Beanie Wells rushed for 138 yards and three touchdowns. The Cardinals' defense produced two turnovers. And still Arizona lost.

Kolb has demonstrated questionable instincts to this point in the season. He hasn't sensed pressure well enough to know when and how to bail on plays.

"Today I really wanted to focus on managing the game," he said. "Know every situation, keep growing as a quarterback."

The incomplete pass Kolb threw on third-and-1 with 46 seconds on the clock gave the Giants time to kick a field goal before halftime. Lawrence Tynes' 30-yarder stretched the Giants' lead to 10-6. That was one situation, among several, the Cardinals seemed to mismanage.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Howard Smith/US PresswireJim Harbaugh's 49ers are now 3-1 and have a solid lead in the NFC West.
Harbaugh handled the lockout best. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt blamed the lockout for preventing his team from preparing adequately for specific situations. He pointed to Eli Manning's 2-yard scoring pass to tight end Jake Ballard with 3:44 remaining as one such situation. He said the Cardinals should have known the Giants, down 27-17 before that play, would pass the ball on first-and-goal from the 2 because they needed to save time.

"There are a lot of those types of situations where we don't get a chance to cover them because we did not have an offseason that you talk about them," Whisenhunt said. "It's easy to talk about them, but until you have opportunities to go through them and rep them, it's a painful process."

The opposite message resonated from Harbaugh during my visit to 49ers training camp, as outlined in our Camp Confidential report.

"Harbaugh strongly emphasizes practicing within the context of situations, more so than I would have expected during the early stages of installing the playbook, " I wrote at the time.

Fans attending one 49ers camp practice laughed when punter Andy Lee took a snap from center and spiked the ball to stop the clock on a third-down play, but was this one example of Harbaugh drilling the 49ers on a specific game situation during camp -- all while San Francisco installed new systems on offense, defense and special teams.

The 49ers have handled situations well enough to claim hard-fought, narrow road victories in back-to-back weeks. Their implosion against Dallas in Week 2 had everything to do with blown coverages, not mismanaged situations.

Yes, the Rams needed Rice. Rice has 11 receptions for 198 yards and a touchdown in his first two games with the Seahawks. He's looking like the difference-maker Seattle envisioned adding to its offense. I thought St. Louis had the more immediate need on the theory that acquiring weapons for Sam Bradford should have been an urgent priority, but the Rams sounded confident they would be fine without him.

Time to reassess.

Bradford completed none of his 10 attempts Sunday when the Washington Redskins put him under duress, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has now completed 11 percent of his 37 attempts in these situations this season. He was under duress or sacked on 32 percent of dropbacks during the Rams' 17-10 home defeat.

Spending on a receiver in free agency would hardly fix all that ails the Rams right now. But the injury situation at the position was dire enough to warrant a more aggressive approach to the position. Life for Bradford will improve when Danny Amendola returns following the bye. Adding Mark Clayton after the sixth game could help as well. But with Rice making big plays in Seattle without a big-play quarterback, it's easy to say the Rams should have done more to give their young quarterback a chance.

That Hasselbeck guy looks OK. Let's not pretend Hasselbeck would be completing 67 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and a 104.7 rating had he remained with the Seahawks instead of signing with Tennessee. But with Hasselbeck's Titans and Harbaugh's 49ers going 3-1 despite sweeping changes during a lockout-shortened offseason, we're justified in posing tough questions to teams struggling to handle similar situations.

"This is three games in a row when we had the ball in our hand at the end with a chance to do something, and we haven't been able to do it," Whisenhunt lamented. "We have to continue to work and push past this. It's tough lessons, but that's what the NFL is all about."

Unless you're the 49ers on the first weekend of October.

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