NFL Nation: Garrison Hearst

NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

October, 18, 2011
The last season in which the San Francisco 49ers fielded a playoff team, they peaked at No. 2 in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings.

That was way back in Week 11 of 2002, when Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens and Garrison Hearst defined the 49ers' identity.

The 2011 team is gaining ground quickly. Four consecutive victories, three of them on the road, have vaulted the 49ers of Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis to a 5-1 record and No. 4 standing in our rankings entering Week 7.

That is the 49ers' highest ranking since ranking tied for fourth in Week 12 of the 2002 season. They rose five spots this week, moving past New Orleans, Detroit, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Oakland.

"They are the real deal this year and have won more QUALITY games than any team playing," 81sanfranman wrote.

The 49ers have beaten three teams that currently have winning records (Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Detroit). They also won on the road against preseason NFC favorite Philadelphia.

"There will be some very hard words if the NFC West guy doesn't place the 49ers either No. 2 or No. 3," Hypchucky9 wrote. "We lost to the Cowboys, the Patriots lost to the Bills and the Ravens lost to the Titans. If the rankings are usually about power with regard to talent and efficiency, you would be hard bent to put us lower than No. 3."

The NFC West guy (that would be me) ranked the 49ers fourth. No one else ranked them higher. The Packers are the obvious No. 1 team. New England is more firmly established as a top team, and the Patriots have the better quarterback. Baltimore has won convincingly over teams that have periodically appeared among the top 10 this season (Pittsburgh, Houston and the New York Jets).

The 49ers are on the rise. They opened the regular season at No. 26 and have climbed from 16th to ninth to fourth over the past three weeks. They visit Baltimore in Week 12 and play a Monday night home game against the Steelers in Week 15. They'll have opportunities to move up even more.

Before taking a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 7, I'll pass along comments from our voters covering issues that stood out to me from their ballots.
  • Kuharsky downs San Diego: Paul Kuharsky ranked San Diego only 16th, 10 spots lower than anyone else ranked them. He pointed to the teams the Chargers have beaten while acknowledging San Diego cannot control its schedule. Kuharsky: "San Diego is definitely due for a big jump from me. I had them 12th before the bye and felt I needed to move up Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, the Giants and San Francisco. So, the Chargers suffered for it. Generally, I am reluctant to move a team up off a bye. Tennessee was also off and also suffered -- dropping from 10th to 15th."
  • Walker has Chargers' back: James Walker ranked the Chargers fourth, higher than anyone ranked them. Walker: "The Chargers aren't elite, but they are beating the teams on their schedule. I also like the fact they're starting fast this season, because the Chargers are notoriously slow starters."
  • Clayton on the Bengals: John Clayton, on why he has the Bengals only 21st, nine spots lower than Kuharsky has them: "Even though they are 4-2, the Bengals have won games against teams that are 7-16. They have been helped by the schedule."

OK, here we go ...

Rising (11): San Francisco 49ers (+5), Chicago Bears (+4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+4), New York Giants (+3), Arizona Cardinals (+2), Baltimore Ravens (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), Oakland Raiders (+2), Kansas City Chiefs (+1), New York Jets (+1), Philadelphia Eagles (+1).

Falling (8): Dallas Cowboys (-6), Houston Texans (-5), Washington Redskins (-5), Buffalo Bills (-4), Detroit Lions (-2), Minnesota Vikings (-2), New Orleans Saints (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1).

Unchanged (13): Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans.

Deadlocked: We broke one tie this week. San Diego prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 7 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record.

Like minds: All five voters ranked the Packers first and the Patriots second. Four ranked the Ravens third.

Agree to disagree: Twelve spots separated high and low votes for the Chargers. Five other teams produced high-low disparities of at least eight places. Let's take a look:
  • Chargers (12): Walker ranked them fourth, higher than anyone else ranked them. Kuharsky ranked them 16th, lower than anyone else ranked them.
  • Jets (9): Walker and Fox 13th, Sando 22nd.
  • Bengals (9): Kuharsky 12th, Clayton 21st.
  • Giants (8): Kuharsky eighth, Walker 20th.
  • Bears (8): Sando 10th, Kuharsky 18th.
  • Redskins (8): Fox 12th, Sando 20th.
Power rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC North rank 12.3 on average, ahead of teams from the runner-up AFC North (13.0). The chart below shows how each voter ranked each division on average. Highest votes in red. Lowest votes in blue.

A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last week:
  • Sando: Redskins (-8), Giants (+5), 49ers (+5), Bucs (+7).
  • Clayton: Redskins (-5), Giants (+5).
  • Kuharsky: Texans (-6), Titans (-5), Bengals (+6), Giants (+7), 49ers (+8).
  • Walker: Texans (-7), Redskins (-7), 49ers (+5), Bucs (+7).
  • Fox: Texans (-7).
For download: An Excel file -- available here -- showing how each voter voted this week and in past weeks.

The file includes a "powerflaws" sheet pointing out potential flaws in voters' thinking by showing how many higher-ranked opponents each team defeated this season. None of the top nine teams this week has defeated a team ranked higher in the standings. Buffalo, ranked No. 10, has defeated two teams ranked higher, New England and Oakland.

A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet:
  • Column Y features team rankings.
  • Column Z shows how many times a team has defeated higher-ranked teams.
  • Change the rankings in Column Y as you see fit.
  • Re-sort Column Y in ascending order (1 to 32) using the standard Excel pull-down menu atop the column.
  • The information in Column Z, which reflects potential ranking errors, will change (with the adjusted total highlighted in yellow atop the column).
  • The lower the figure in that yellow box, the fewer conflicts.
Tiki Barber's comeback hopes at age 35 cannot touch the time Jim Brown threatened to come back in his late 40s, when an aging Franco Harris was challenging his rushing record.

Brown was 29 when he played his final snap, then retired while still dominant. He had the right idea.

Very few backs have remained productive into their 30s. The chart below shows running backs from current NFC West franchises who carried at least 50 times in a season past age 31, according to Pro Football Reference. I limited the search to the past 35 seasons (the newest current NFC West franchise, Seattle, entered the NFL in 1976).

It's a short list featuring seven players, including three legends finishing their careers wearing unfamiliar uniforms (Emmitt Smith in Arizona, O.J. Simpson in San Francisco and Franco Harris in Seattle).

None gained 1,000 yards in a season even though all played in the 16-game schedule era -- an era Brown ridiculed for this marvelous 1983 Sports Illustrated piece discussing his comeback threat. In it, Brown said Harris might break his record if he kept running out of bounds frequently enough to prolong his career. The best quote from Brown, by far, makes me wonder what Brown must think of the current NFL game:
"Where has the danger in the game gone? I can't accept quarterbacks sliding and running backs running out of bounds. Ever since the merger in 1966 and the creation of the Super Bowl, the owners have been more concerned with ratings than the level of the game. Coaches put up with players waving into TV cameras, giving high fives and spiking the ball. That sells. The Monday Night Football broadcasters have become bigger than the game. Who is kidding whom? Who's to say a 47-year-old can't do it? I'm not talking about being Jim Brown of 1965. I'm talking about being Jim Brown of 1984. If Franco Harris is gonna creep to my record, I might as well come back and creep, too."

Barber, for the record, ranks 22nd on the NFL's all-time rushing list. He's within 200 yards of passing Watters for the 20th spot. Watters rushed for 1,242 yards at age 31 and still appeared to have quite a bit left, but the Seahawks had drafted Shaun Alexander and Watters wasn't interested in a situational role.

Wrap-up: 49ers 28, Rams 6

January, 3, 2010
The 49ers got what they needed Sunday: a victory to finish 8-8 and a reminder that there's still much room for improvement.

Finishing with a non-losing record was important for San Francisco because it showed progress in the big picture. The 49ers had posted losing records every season since the 2002 team went 10-6 with Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Terrell Owens.

They are not losers any longer. The culture has officially changed.

Still, this game against the now 1-15 Rams was a struggle offensively for much of the game. Alex Smith passed for 23 yards in the first half and the 49ers had some problems in protection. They broke open the game late -- almost an inevitability given the state of the Rams -- but there should have been enough rough edges to get the 49ers' attention.

That can be a good thing for the 49ers. They do need to improve across the board on offense. That was clear in the first half Sunday and previously this season.

The Rams, meanwhile, can finally move past this season. They were ascending through the season's first half until injuries destroyed their already tenuous depth. They generally played hard and fought through the season's second half, but there wasn't much left to give. They'll have the No. 1 overall choice in the 2010 draft. They'll need to decide how to find their next quarterback. Will they take one first overall? Might they find a reasonably priced veteran stopgap?

It's tough to envision Marc Bulger returning under a contract scheduled to pay him $8.5 million.

The team must figure out a plan at quarterback while focusing on adding playmakers at wide receiver and even tight end. They also need help on every level of the defense.