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2 posts from December 8, 2012

December 08, 2012

Why Ireland's 49ers dream hasn't happened; UM/NCAA news; Fins, Heat Marlins chatter

SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN

Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland was sitting in the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., in January, after a Senior Bowl practice, when he spoke admiringly about how the 49ers transformed from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 and within minutes of a Super Bowl last season.

“They’re an inspiration,” Ireland said. “They’ve got a good defense, a really good offensive line. They’ve got a new leader [Jim Harbaugh]. They needed new leadership and a new inspiration. That’s what you aspire to be. That’s what we would like to be next year.”

Eleven months later, as the Dolphins visit San Francisco on Sunday, the 49ers are serious Super Bowl contenders, and Miami (5-7) remains a lot closer to 6-10 than 13-3. So why hasn’t Ireland’s 49ers vision materialized, at least not yet?

Comparing their rebuilding projects and lessons to be learned:

### High picks: The 49ers were worse than Miami for a longer stretch: 46-82 between 2003 and 2010. That’s significant, because the 49ers got more high first-round picks than Miami -- six in the top 11 since 2005, compared with Miami’s four (Jake Long, Ronnie Brown, Ted Ginn Jr., Ryan Tannehill).

And though the 49ers erred by taking Alex Smith first in 2005 (Aaron Rodgers went 24th), they generally procured more impact players in the first round, when they often – but not always – picked higher than Miami.

The 49ers drafted elite tight end Vernon Davis sixth in 2006 (Miami took Jason Allen 10 picks later); All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith – who has 31.5 sacks in his first 27 games, most in NFL history - at No. 7 in 2011 (Pouncey went eight picks later); receiver Michael Crabtree 10th in 2009 (Miami took Vontae Davis 15 picks later); and right tackle Anthony Davis 11th in 2010.

Then there was the draft of 2007, when then-Dolphins GM Randy Mueller took Ginn at No. 9, and the 49ers followed with five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis at No. 11 and Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley 28th.

Staley is rated the second-best left tackle by Pro Football Focus, compared with 46th for Long.

The irony is that the Dolphins dealt Ginn to the 49ers for a fifth-rounder (cornerback Nolan Carroll) in 2010. Ginn has been pretty good on returns but has just two catches for one yard in 2012.

And the jury is out on whether Tannehill (picked eighth in 2012) will be better than the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick (36th in 2011).

### Picks in the third round and lower: Both teams have done a good job with some of them. Miami plucked Paul Soliai, Reshad Jones, Brian Hartline and undrafted Davone Bess, among others. Soliai has been a Pro Bowler and Jones might be one soon.

But the 49ers found four Pro Bowlers in those rounds: linebacker NaVorro Bowman (selected 18 spots after Miami took John Jerry), safety Dashon Goldson (drafted long after Miami took John Beck, Lorenzo Booker and others), punter Andy Lee, and Frank Gore (65th), who proved far better than Ronnie Brown, taken second overall by Nick Saban that year (2005).

By the way, the 49ers’ fifth-round starting cornerback (Tarell Brown) has played much better than Miami’s (Carroll).

Also, in 2011, the 49ers took Kendall Hunter 115th, long after Miami took Daniel Thomas 62nd. Miami wanted a bigger back – and Thomas is much bigger than Hunter – so the move made sense. But Hunter has been the better pro, averaging 5.7 yards per carry before a season-ending injury; Thomas is at 3.6.

### Free agent pickups: Both teams made several good one between 2008 and 2010, including Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks for the 49ers; and Cam Wake, Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby for the Dolphins. But the 49ers acquired more contributing players in 2011 and 2012 --- cornerback Carlos Rogers (a Pro Bowler last year), safety Donte Whitner, receiver Mario Manningham (41 catches, 449 yards) and Jonathan Goodwin (ranked seventh among all centers). Randy Moss (19 catches, 296 yards) has more touchdowns (two) than any Miami receiver.

The Dolphins added Kevin Burnett and Matt Moore in 2011 but nothing of value beyond Marcus Thigpen and injured Richard Marshall this year. In March, they passed on Manningham, who got a reasonable two-year, $7.4 million deal and would have given Miami a better top-three receiver group.

### Coaching: Players think highly of Joe Philbin, but he isn’t Coach of the Year in his first season, as previous Dolphins target Harbaugh was in 2011.

### Among lessons to be learned here: Miami cannot afford a second consecutive year of securing little from free agency, despite Philbin’s reluctance to dabble much. The league is too good, and the Dolphins have too many holes, to fix every need in the draft, where their record is spotty. The 49ers demonstrate how to supplement the roster selectively but effectively. The 49ers' depth is so strong that they haven't needed to use their 2012 draft class at all this season (until Sunday's game).

CHATTER

### Tannehill has only seven touchdown passes (on pace for 9.3), and for some historical perspective on how bad that is, consider: Elias tells us that since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only two quarterbacks have started all 16 games and thrown fewer than 10 touchdowns: Trent Dilfer (four in 1995) and David Carr (nine in 2002).

The fewest by a Dolphins quarterback (minimum 12 starts)? Bob Griese in 1970, with 12 in 14 games.

### A bad sign, with Aldon Smith awaiting: Nate Garner has allowed four sacks in his two most recent games playing tackle. And the 49ers don’t seem overly impressed with Jonathan Martin; Justin Smith calls him merely “serviceable.”

### Former Canes great Alonzo Highsmith says the NCAA is out to get UM. You certainly have to wonder from some of its actions recently, not only that threatening letter to former players, but also the fact they’re going on a fishing expedition by asking people – during interviews - whether UM followed rules regarding practice hours and whether staff volunteers violated rules by doing any coaching. What’s the justification for looking into that?

The NCAA essentially has used Nevin Shapiro’s claims as an excuse to investigate every aspect of the football and basketball programs. It even has asked people about Shapiro’s involvement with baseball (there’s no indication of any). By the way, the NCAA has not responded to a local attorney who told the NCAA that his former players would not speak to the NCAA but would not be admitting guilt by their silence.

### A person involved with FSU program confirms that Randy Shannon's name has been tossed around internally - along with others - for the Seminoles' vacant defensive coordinator. Shannon, the former UM coach, is TCU's linebackers coach..... As reported by CBS' Bruce Feldman, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins (Mississippi State) and Manny Diaz (Texas) are on FIU's radar for its head coaching job, unless Butch Davis suddenly decides to take the gig. Collins was formerly FIU's d-coordinator; Diaz is son of the former Miami mayor.

### Telling about the Heat’s defense: According to synergysports.com, the only Heat rotation player who is holding players he’s guarding to a lower shooting percentage than last year is Shane Battier. LeBron James is the same.

Players guarded by Udonis Haslem (who is playing more center this year) are shooting 54 percent, compared with 36 last year. With Chris Bosh (now exclusively at center), it’s 51 percent, compared with 36 last year. Mario Chalmers (victimized by repeated blow-bys) has jumped from 38 to 47, Ray Allen 33 to 47.

“Numbers wise, we have never had a defensive team this low,” said Haslem, who as team captain, said Friday he plans to gather players – without coaches – to discuss it.

He wonders whether exterior motivation is needed to snap them out of this. “This team performs best when people are not rooting for us," Haslem said. 'Maybe we can get back to being the most hated team in the world.”

### The Marlins, turned down by Jeff Keppinger, now will have to settle for a journeyman third baseman such as Ryan Raburn or Matt Downs or try to trade for one.

 

Dolphins-49ers preview: Where will the points come from?

We'll post the Sunday buzz here later this evening. In the meantime, here's my newspaper advance for Sunday's game, which we'll leave posted here for a few hours:

#   #  #

The Dolphins take their sputtering offense into San Francisco on Sunday, and this question is difficult to avoid for even the most optimistic of Dolfans:

Where are the points going to come from against a 49ers defense that allows the league’s fewest?

The Dolphins are 27th in scoring and have topped 20 points only once in their past five games. Oddly, during that stretch, Miami generated its highest point total (24) against Seattle’s fourth-rated defense.

The Dolphins mustered just 14 points against the Bills’ defense (ranked 24th), 16 against the Patriots defense (ranked 26th) and three against a Titans defense ranked 27th.

“They’re the best [defense] we’ll go against all year,” center Mike Pouncey said of the 49ers.

Coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill both made the point last week: Teams aren’t going to win a lot scoring 19 points per game, which is the Dolphins’ average and better than only St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Arizona.

And the challenge this week looks especially daunting:

### The 49ers are No. 1 in the league in yards allowed per play. The Dolphins are 25th offensively in yards per play.

### The 49ers have allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per attempt. The Dolphins are averaging more yards per rush than only 11 teams.

### The 49ers have allowed the second-fewest passing yards. The Dolphins are 23rd in passing yardage.

Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman have tinkered a bit in recent weeks – such as using tight end Anthony Fasano several snaps at fullback, running a reverse to Marcus Thigpen last Sunday, targeting Charles Clay far more than usual against Seattle and incorporating receiver Rishard Matthews into the offense the past three weeks after he wasn’t used at all the first nine.

But nothing has mattered in the big picture. Miami still struggles to sustain drives. Third downs have become a disaster area, with Tannehill posting the league’s lowest passer rating (60.1) and tossing six interceptions compared with just one touchdown.

And the Dolphins have been in too many third-and-longs because of an inability to crank out yardage consistently on first and second down.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” running back Reggie Bush said. “It’s red zone, it’s third down. We haven’t hit a consistent stride at any point in the season. We’ve been up. We’ve been down. We’ve been here. We’ve been there. Some games, we’re running well and not throwing it well. Some games, we’re throwing it well and not running it well.”

Here’s what’s a bit disconcerting: Whereas the league’s other rookie quarterbacks have raised their play, Tannehill has had only one clearly above average game in the past month -- the sterling performance in the comeback victory against Seattle.

“I have to get the pass game going early on in games and be consistent throughout games,” he said. “Third down is an area we’re really focusing on right. We haven’t been good the past two weeks. We’re putting our defense back in tough situations.”

Tannehill’s completion percentage (57.9) has fallen to 27th in the league, and he was exasperated after misfiring on two potential touchdown passes to Brian Hartline last week.

“It’s tough when you miss throws you make 99 times out of 100 in practice and even in games,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but you can’t do anything about it except move on. I was definitely frustrated when I watched that film, but I’m over it now.”

For the first time as a pro, Tannehill will be starting a game without Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long blocking for him. That’s a concern, because the 49ers feature Aldon Smith, the league leader in sacks with 17.5.

Jonathan Martin, who is moving from right to left tackle to replace the injured Long, said he expects to be matched up with Smith much of the afternoon. But the Dolphins also expect the 49ers to use Smith some on Nate Garner’s side, too, trying to take advantage of that matchup.

“Aldon is a big, talented, athletic kid, but the guy who really makes that defense go is Justin Smith,” Dolphins left guard Richie Incognito said. “He frees up a lot of lanes for Aldon Smith to come running through.”

The 49ers might have the league’s best quartet of linebackers in Smith, NaVorro Bowman (whose 108 tackles rank fifth in the league), Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks. “Willis might be the best linebacker in the game,” Bush said.

The defensive line – Ray McDonald, Isaac Sapoaga and Justin Smith – is very good.

“They stop the run extremely well, they play physical up front, they’re sure tacklers,” Incognito said. “They’re the best tackling bunch I’ve seen on film in a long time. And they get after the passer. They do everything the right way.”

The secondary has two players coming off Pro Bowl appearances: cornerback Carlos Rodgers and safety Dashon Goldson, plus two others playing well: safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Terrell Brown.

“This is probably going to be the most physical game we’ve played all year to date,” Bush said.

### The Dolphins listed Jimmy Wilson (hip) as questionable. 49ers receiver Mario Manningham (shoulder) is doubtful.