Commentary

49ers determined to reach goals

Donte Whitner & Co. believe they can live up to high expectations

Originally Published: September 7, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Call it karma or a coincidence. Donte Whitner doesn't really care. The day he was going to tell his coach, Jim Harbaugh, about his idea to order 90 copies of a motivational book called "The Law of Attraction: The Basics of the Teachings of Abraham," Harbaugh held a team meeting and talked about goals.

Goals are important to Harbaugh. A few days ago, he handed each San Francisco 49ers player a packet that contained a list of goals, some specifically geared to him and others for the entire roster. He showed the team the goals Bo Schembechler had set for him at Michigan and talked about a Harvard study that concluded people who wrote down their goals were significantly more likely to be successful than people who didn't.

The 49ers' goal this season is simple: win the Super Bowl. Every team says it, although reality and rosters being what they are, not every team means it.

San Francisco and Harbaugh mean it.

For the Niners, the goal of winning the Super Bowl would have sounded ridiculous a year ago, when conventional wisdom expected a rookie NFL head coach to be more adversely affected by the lockout than a veteran coach whose program already was in place.

Some wisdom.

Early last season, San Francisco evolved from being a team that hoped it could win into a team that knew it could win. It had talent, a good coach and a stellar defense. It went on to a 13-3 regular-season record. Harbaugh won coach of the year honors, and the Niners earned a first-round bye.

They came within one win of the Super Bowl but ended the season sitting in a silent locker room at Candlestick Park while the New York Giants euphorically celebrated their NFC championship on the other side of a wall.

[+] EnlargeWilliams
AP Photo/Paul SakumaThe 49ers don't want to feel the disappointment of an NFC title game loss again this season.

"They didn't mean to do it," Whitner said, "but it was like they were celebrating in our faces."

None of the Niners have forgotten.

Certainly not Whitner, one of the leaders of a defense that last season ranked No. 1 against the run, tied for No. 1 in takeaways, No. 2 in points allowed and No. 2 in interceptions. The 27-year-old Whitner, in his second year with San Francisco after playing his first five NFL seasons in Buffalo, acknowledged that the Niners are more hunted than hunter this season. Their reputation has been established.

"I believe everybody recognizes who we are now," he said. "I think they recognize we have a good coaching staff and good players in position, and [Harbaugh] puts us in position to make plays. We're going to play hard and be physical. I think they recognize we're going to make plays. We're not going to sneak up on anybody. We're going to get everybody's best shot."

That doesn't faze him or his teammates.

"We expect to win," Whitner said. "We expect to compete on every play. We hold each other accountable to compete on each and every snap. If you drop a ball, or whatever, as long as you compete and go full speed, that's what we expect. People expect you to win. That's tradition. That's what the old '80s and '90s 49ers were about, expecting to win and winning championships. That's what we want."

It will be challenging for the Niners to replicate their 2011 season. The other teams in the NFC West have improved on defense and narrowed the gap. San Francisco opens the season at Green Bay. Later this season, it travels to New Orleans and New England. The 49ers also get the Giants and Bears at home. After facing the Packers on Sunday and playing host to Detroit in Week 2, they'll likely have a pretty good idea of where they stand.

By then, the 49ers should have had time to digest part of the book Whitner plans to distribute next week. He wants teammates to envision winning a Super Bowl, to set the goal, to funnel their energy into positive thinking, to will it to happen.

Harbaugh approved. It fit his message: Set a goal and strive to achieve it. For San Francisco, the goal is simple, realistic and attainable, even if there is conventional wisdom to the contrary.

Inside slant

Just a few weeks ago, I stood in Art Modell's massive office at the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mill, Md. The lights were off and Modell wasn't there, but it stood as a firm reminder of how Maryland has an NFL franchise and why pro football is our nation's most popular sport.

[+] EnlargeArt Modell
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty ImagesArt Modell had a profound impact on the Ravens' Ray Lewis -- and the rest of the NFL.

Modell died Thursday morning. He was beloved in Baltimore and reviled in Cleveland, as polarizing an owner as there may have ever been in the NFL. When longtime Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis found out Modell was ailing, he went to visit him Wednesday.

"Anytime I saw him, he would always make me smile," Lewis said. "He always had a joke to lighten your mood or some sort of wisdom to impart to make you a better man. … When I found out he wasn't doing well, I knew immediately I had to see him. When I was with him, I prayed with him and shared with him things that a son would say to a father. Even though he has left us, he is going to a place that one day we all want to be. I am truly blessed to have had Art in my life."

It was one of many tributes to the 87-year-old Modell. For a man who spent his life in football, is credited with helping to launch "Monday Night Football" and chaired the NFL's television committee for 31 years, there will be many more.

• • •

Jim Core and his crew of rookie replacement officials called 19 penalties in Wednesday's season opener between Dallas and New York, 15 against the Cowboys (two of which were declined) and four against the Giants. Of the 17 accepted penalties, six were false starts, two were delays of game, two were holding, one was a horse-collar tackle, and another was roughing the passer. Basic, easy stuff.

In speaking with players around the league, this is pretty much what they expect to see from the replacements. They will make the obvious, simple, hard-to-debate calls.

The gray area will be on trickier calls, particularly pass interference and illegal contact. Was Orlando Scandrick guilty of holding Victor Cruz at the goal line on a play that could have given the Giants a 7-0 lead? It looked like it, but there was no call.

Determining whether a defensive back makes contact with a receiver beyond the permitted five yards from scrimmage will be another thing to watch. If the league's lockout of the regular officials continues, it will be interesting to track pass interference and illegal contact penalties and see whether they are up or down from recent years.

"With these guys not being trained as long, you can get away with stuff," said one veteran defensive back. "Nothing dirty, but the other refs, maybe they give you six yards. I don't believe these refs are trained as well, so maybe we'll get seven or eight yards. It's a big difference. We've been at a disadvantage for so long, given all the rules, maybe this gives us some of the advantage back, a little bit, a tiny piece. We'll take it."

• • •

How indicative of typical Week 1 scores was the 24-17 final between the Cowboys and Giants on Wednesday night? Just about spot on.

Discounting 2011, when Week 1 scores spiked because of the lockout-shortened preseason, the average score of Week 1 games from 2007 through 2010 was 24.9-13.4. In Week 1, offenses aren't typically running smoothly yet. Defenses play downhill and usually have the advantage.

Don't expect ridiculously high scores in Week 1.

• • •

Rex Ryan doesn't think he will be fired if the Jets have another bad season. Earlier this week on "The Michael Kay Show" on ESPN NY 98.7, Ryan said he doesn't "see it as a possibility." Sounds blasphemous, right?

Not really.

Look at the coaching class of 2009. Eleven teams changed head coaches after the 2008 season, including the Jets, which replaced Eric Mangini with Ryan, the brash, boisterous Ravens defensive coordinator. Of that class, only two men remain: Ryan and Detroit's Jim Schwartz. Of the nine who have since been fired, only Jim Caldwell was fired with a winning record. (Caldwell had a 26-22 regular-season record, but the team collapsed without Peyton Manning in 2011.) Of the nine, only Caldwell and Todd Haley guided their teams to the playoffs. Caldwell was 2-2 in the postseason. Haley was 0-1.

Schwartz has remained because he has overseen a reconstruction from the 0-16 season of 2008. And Ryan? He has produced a 28-20 regular-season record and is 4-2 in the postseason, including two appearances in the AFC title game.

Think Kansas City, Oakland, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis and Seattle wouldn't have taken those results since 2008? You bet. Woody Johnson has a good coach. He'd be foolish to go fishing again.

• • •

It is a formula, Aaron Kromer repeatedly said after assuming control of the New Orleans Saints as the interim-interim head coach. The formula was set by Sean Payton, followed by Joe Vitt and now followed by Kromer, the offensive line coach who is in charge for the next seven weeks until Vitt returns from his six-game suspension.

We'll see how the formula holds up over the course of the season. The Saints open at home with Washington on Sunday, then play at Carolina, home to Kansas City, at Green Bay, home to San Diego and at Tampa Bay before Vitt returns at Denver on Oct. 28. It was smart to leave offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in their positions. Limit the disruption. Follow the script.

Payton spoke to the New Orleans Times-Picayune earlier this week in one of his only interviews since the league suspended him for allegedly overseeing a widespread bounty program.

"I think the stability aspect of the program is so strong," Payton told writer Mike Triplett. "There's so many players and coaches that are there now that have been involved since '06. I think it'd be much more difficult if this was early in our tenure here."

Still, it will be difficult. Impossible? No, but it will be uncharted territory for sure.

• • •

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Richard LipskiRedskins QB Robert Griffin III has his work cut out for him.

Despite how easy the Indianapolis Colts have made it look, drafting a franchise quarterback who takes root and lasts is one of the most difficult tricks in the NFL. Look at the Washington Redskins.

Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft who will make his debut Sunday at New Orleans, is the fourth quarterback the Redskins have selected in the first round since 1994. Heath Shuler (1994), Patrick Ramsey (2002) and Jason Campbell (2005) combined to go 34-55 for the Redskins and never started a playoff game.

Griffin will be Washington's fourth starting quarterback under coach Mike Shanahan, who was hired in 2010. Campbell, Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman combined to throw 43 interceptions, the second-most of any team in the NFL during that span, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.

All-22

Next week, when there is regular-season tape to evaluate, we will break down a player or personnel group that performed particularly well or poorly and look ahead to the next week. Before NFL.com made the all-22 tape available online to anyone willing to pay for it, end zone game film and sideline views were available to only a select few in the media, such as the talented folks at NFL Films.

The all-22 tape, in which all offensive and defensive players are visible on the field from two angles, will be an invaluable and fun tool for fans who want to play amateur coach. Technology continues to rapidly change and affect fans, and players, in positive ways.

When I saw Michael Vick earlier this week, he was loving his new team-issued iPad that provided him access to all of the film available at the Eagles' practice facility. Thirty minutes after practice, he could watch tape of his performance on his iPad. He had cutups of the Browns' defense and the Eagles' offense.

"It's like having a film room at your house," Vick said. "It's sweet. Best thing they could've ever done. It's a great way to keep in tune with what we're trying to do and accomplish."

The Eagles aren't alone in using iPads and the iCloud technology to provide players with film. Some teams, such as the Dolphins, use iPads for their playbooks too.

Stats & Info

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
David Butler II/US PresswireThe Patriots' heavy reliance on tight ends explains their aggressive re-signing of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

Want to know why New England was so aggressive about re-signing tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez two years before their rookie contracts were set to expire? Sure, in their two seasons together, the pair has combined for 256 catches and 40 touchdowns, 17 by Gronkowski last season alone.

But consider this, courtesy of ESPN's Stats & Info: Last season, the Patriots ran nearly 80 percent of their offensive plays with at least two tight ends on the field. The next-closest teams to use their tight ends as aggressively in the passing game: San Francisco (58.7 percent), Houston (57 percent) and Dallas (55.2 percent). And Tom Brady targeted his tight ends a league-high 235 times, 63 more than the closest quarterback in that category.

The NFL is a game of matchups and figuring out ways to exploit mismatches. Bill Belichick obviously believes that using a pair of tight ends who are big and strong in the open field is advantageous. Until someone grows a linebacker or safety who can cover the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski or the 6-1, 245-pound Hernandez, both of whom also can split out wide, the Patriots will keep winning the matchups.

#theytweetedit


Pick 'em

All games Sunday unless otherwise noted

Indianapolis at Chicago, 1 p.m.: Welcome to the big league, kid. Andrew Luck, meet Julius Peppers. Bears 27, Colts 10.

Philadelphia at Cleveland, 1 p.m.: Michael Vick is rested and fresh -- for now. The injury watch begins. Eagles 35, Browns 13.

St. Louis at Detroit, 1 p.m.: See Calvin Johnson run. See Calvin Johnson catch. See Calvin Johnson jump. See Calvin Johnson score. Lions 27, Rams 9.

Miami at Houston, 1 p.m.: "Hard Knocks" is over. Now the real knocks begin. Texans 21, Dolphins 6.

Atlanta at Kansas City, 1 p.m.: An intriguing interconference matchup between what should be a potent offense versus a stingy defense. Falcons 23, Chiefs 20.

Jacksonville at Minnesota, 1 p.m.: A tough one to call, given the availability questions around Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew. Vikings 13, Jaguars 10.

Washington at New Orleans, 1 p.m.: After the most arduous of offseasons, Saints fans will be lathered up for this one. The Superdome will be rocking. Saints 27, Redskins 17.

Buffalo at New York Jets, 1 p.m.: Total toss-up. Bills have a revamped defense. Jets have … what, exactly? The Tebow package? Jets 17, Bills 14.

New England at Tennessee, 1 p.m.: The Patriots' attempt to slaughter the NFL's offensive record book begins. Patriots 38, Titans 10.

Seattle at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.: So John Skelton is the guy for the Cardinals. When is Arizona going to get Larry Fitzgerald a real quarterback? Seahawks 17, Cardinals 7.

San Francisco at Green Bay, 4:25 p.m.: The Packers have won 19 of their past 20 games at Lambeau Field. Make it 20 of 21. Packers 27, 49ers 17.

Carolina at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m.: Cam Newton 2.0 will scare people. Panthers 24, Buccaneers 14.

Pittsburgh at Denver, 8:20 p.m.: This should be an intriguing matchup, with Peyton Manning and Todd Haley each making his debut with a new team. Broncos 24, Steelers 21.

Cincinnati at Baltimore, 7 p.m. Monday: The Ravens haven't lost an AFC North or home game in more than a year, and John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco are 4-0 in season openers. Ravens 24, Bengals 17.

San Diego at Oakland, 10:15 p.m. Monday: Can either of these teams challenge the Broncos or Chiefs? Raiders 17, Chargers 14.

ALSO SEE