Mailbag: 49ers' talent vastly overrated?

Marc from Arizona writes: This is what we have heard all season, that the 49ers have a lot of talent, but they keep shooting themselves in the foot. I would like to know what they mean by this. What talent are they talking about and how is it recognized? And, I suppose, what is the NFL's definition of talent? Because most talented people I know don't shoot themselves in the foot. They have actual results that make me recognize and go, "Hmmm that person is talented."

Mike Sando: Fair question. Talent alone doesn't win games. Teams still need maturity, seasoning, smarts, coordination, coaching, etc. And any team with unsteady quarterback play will have a hard time realizing its potential.

The 49ers have had enough talent to amass more than 400 yards against New Orleans. They had enough talent to lead the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome in the final minutes. They had enough talent to pick off Matt Ryan late in that game. Largely the same team had enough talent to be leading a very good Minnesota team in the final seconds at the Metrodome last season. Largely the same team had enough talent to be leading the eventual AFC champion Indianapolis Colts in the fourth quarter last season.

I don't think anyone would say the 49ers accomplished those things by outcoaching their opponents or playing over their heads. Their players tend to possess quite a few of the "measurables" scouts value. Those attributes can put teams in position to win, but it takes more than that to win consistently.

For the sake of comparison and because you're from Arizona, go through the Cardinals' roster and tell me how many of their players would definitely start for the 49ers, position by position, based on talent. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Deuce Lutui would start for the 49ers based on talent, in my view. Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and possibly Kerry Rhodes would start for the 49ers based on talent. How many others? There might be a few, but I think the 49ers' raw talent would hold up OK in most cases, and even better when held up against talent from other teams in this division.

Darryl from Ft. Riley, Kan., writes: If A.J. Green or Jonathan Baldwin were available, would you agree with the Rams taking a wide receiver is the first round? I would think that they would do it seeing that we need a true No. 1 receiver. However, I just can't see the Rams taking one of these guys. Right now, I think we should draft based on best player available. Besides, we can get a receiver further on in the draft.

Mike Sando: It's critical for the Rams to invest in weapons for Bradford. I'd be fine with them drafting a receiver or running back early. Coaches such as Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid have also demonstrated that offenses put together in the Rams' mold can succeed without top-tier talent at receiver. That is fine, but we also know top-tier talent beats lesser talent. The more talent they can put around Bradford, the better chance Bradford will have to make the Rams a championship contender.

Take a look at the Colts' draft strategy since selecting Peyton Manning first overall. Indy could have focused on building its defense, figuring Manning would make the offense better without significant reinforcements. Instead, the Colts have drafted three running backs, two wide receivers and a tight end with the 10 first-round choices they've used since the Manning selection. They drafted Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez and Donald Brown even though their defense needed more help most of those years. They also selected Dwight Freeney, and the Rams will need to add that type of pass-rush talent if the opportunity presents itself. Overall, though, they're wise if they build up the offense around Bradford.

Mister2 from San Jose writes: Why are people going so crazy about the Niners' issues? They very easily could be 3-2 (like the Colts, Giants, Packers) with correction of only one thing -- turnovers. Not talent, not QB skill, not playmakers, not coaching -- just holding on to the ball. Isn't there any way to call out the media crazies that want to blame one person, or one coach without really giving the issues any thought? Can't we all just be a little more mature?

Mike Sando: Turnovers have played a large role. Do they happen independent of other factors? Are they random? Or do teams with, say, protection issues tend to throw interceptions against pressure? It's a combination of factors. Throw in a tough early schedule, volatile and inexperienced leadership, issues getting plays into the huddle, etc., and bad things are going to happen.

Tres from Washington, D.C., writes: Sando, come on, man. The end of your article on the Seahawks' offensive line is over-the-top petty. I understand the media has a job to do, and the Alex Gibbs-taught silence is kind of sophomoric, but really? You'd alluded to feeling jilted by them in an earlier blog post, but I let it pass; those last comments are just trifling. How much did you have to dig til you found the magic post-2002 holding call numbers? The work you do is good, and I understand why you need to skew toward the rest of the NFC West after covering the Seahawks for so long, but sometimes it comes across as just bitter.I wish you all the best, but that was just uncalled for.

Mike Sando: The piece sought to make two points. One, perspectives from offensive linemen enrich the game. Two, if players as accomplished as Steve Hutchinson can follow NFL rules for media cooperation, other players shouldn't have any trouble doing so. In hindsight, the piece might have been better had the final sentence simply read, "Hey, if an all-time great such as Hutchinson can follow the rules, what makes these guys any different?" or something to that effect. I purposely included that penalty information at the end, not earlier, because I didn't want it to be the thrust of the piece. For some, though, it didn't matter.

This issue was different than most I cover because I have an obvious vested interest in the matter (I am treasurer of the Professional Football Writers of America, which has worked with the league to shape the media policy). I was sensitive to how people might react based on the self-serving nature of my viewpoint, but perhaps I was not sensitive enough. It's a discussion worth having and one I engaged through the comments section of that item. I'm the first to admit I can improve.

As far as the penalty information, that took five minutes of my time.

Every week I do an item on penalties in the division. ESPN Stats & Information has made available a file with every penalty called in every game since 2001. Some of the information from 2001 is incomplete, so I often sort the file to exclude that year. Also, Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts made their NFL debuts in 2002. Back to the penalty file. I've set up pivot tables making it easy to filter penalties by team, position, penalty type, etc. I filter them in those ways every week. Offensive holding is a penalty I follow because the league has changed how it calls those penalties and that can affect scoring. I was surprised to see Hamilton and Pitts rank among the top two for most holding penalties since 2002, but I knew Hutchinson almost never incurred penalties. The goal was to illustrate contrast.

The NFL and the Seahawks stand firmly behind the policy these players were violating. Player contracts include clauses requiring compliance. I'm happy to see coach Pete Carroll enforce the rules.

Josh from El Paso, Ill., writes: Hi Mike, I have Justin Forsett on my fantasy football team, and I'm debating two things: One, do I start Forsett, and two, should I start anybody against the Bears' defense? With Marshawn Lynch coming aboard, I'm almost certain that Lynch will get carries, thus hurting Forsett's value, but what are your thoughts? Thanks!

Mike Sando: I would steer away from starting Seattle players at this point. If you are a Seattle fan, you'll be thrilled if they produce at a high level and that will offset any disappointment you might have from not having them in your lineup. But if you start them and the Seahawks' offense continues to struggle on the road, you might be kicking yourself.

Andy from Auckland, New Zealand writes: Hi Mike, longtime reader, first-time questioner. How much difference do you think Donovan McNabb would have made to this 49ers team and how much of their problems be down to Alex Smith? Would Mcnabb have had the same troubles with communication to the sidelines that Smith has or thrown giveaway INTs? I think there's an argument to be made that despite all of the well-documented issues that Smith has had to face, he should now be showing much more than he is.

Mike Sando: McNabb is better than Smith, which means the 49ers would be better with him at quarterback, in my view. I don't think we need to complicate the analysis much. Now, would McNabb struggle with some of the issues that have hurt Smith? Sure, but I think he would be better equipped to overcome them.

Garrett from Junction City, Kan., writes: Hey Mike, Seattle seems like it's one of those cities that has a hard time bringing in "big" free-agent players for whatever reasons -- being a smaller media market or location. I have two questions. First, do you agree with that assesment? Second, do you think with Pete Carroll there, that might increase their chances in the future to get some "big" name guys in? I do know that some of it depends on if he has success at this level, but I would like your opinion because you're the expert and I like your blog. I read it every day. You're fair and look at things from all sides. Well, thanks!

Mike Sando: Thanks, Garrett. I believe money ultimately talks in a high percent of these situations, but geography plays a role when other factors are relatively equal. There's no question in my mind the head coach can help to attract or repel marquee free agents. Everything I've learned about Carroll tells me he's the type of coach veteran players would appreciate. He believes in positive thinking, so he is not a screamer. He structures training camp in a way that prevents players from burning out. He's a laid-back guy. Those things have to appeal when veteran players seek new homes. Every case will be different, though, and some players will not want to move so far away from families on the East Coast or in the South.

Ron from Oklahoma City writes: Don't you think it's a little unfair that Sam Bradford is getting criticism for his performance Sunday? Every throw was into an incredibly tight window, and made while under pressure. When watching the Rams, you never see receivers running wide open in the middle of the field like you do for, say, Dallas.

Mike Sando: It could be unfair. It also probably reflects the respect Bradford has earned. People are already holding him to a high standard. The interceptions he threw came relatively late in the game. Bradford did drive the Rams down the field earlier. It's not his fault Mark Clayton got hurt and Danny Amendola fumbled inside the 10 when the game was still close.

Mike from Costa Mesa, Calif., writes: Sando, admit it, if it had been known before the season started that Matt Leinart would be replaced as starter after the second exhibition game, that his replacement would only last four regular-season games and that an undrafted rookie would be the Cardinals' starting quarterback in Week 5, no way would you have guessed that Arizona's record going into the bye week would be 3-2. They may be doing it with mirrors, but somehow Ken Whisenhunt has gotten his team still believing and somehow pulling off what seems to me to be one of the most under-reported stories of this NFL season. Given all the challenges due to retirements, free-agent losses, etc., do you agree that if the Cardinals end up winning their division this year and getting into the playoffs for the third straight season, Whisenhunt is the hands-down coach of the year?

Mike Sando: At 6-10? At 7-9? No on both fronts. If the Cardinals have a winning record, the case becomes a lot stronger. Either way, the weakness of this division will give people an out when deciding how much praise to throw Whisenhunt's way.

We should also realize that Arizona is a 32-yard Sebastian Janikowski field goal away from being 2-3. The victory over New Orleans was impressive even though there wasn't much sustainable about becoming the second team in NFL history to score 30-plus points without a rushing or passing touchdown.

Whisenhunt becomes coach-of-the-year material if Max Hall develops into a promising starter this season while leading the Cardinals to 9-7 or better. I feel safer framing it that way than using what the Cardinals have accomplished to this point as the basis for his candidacy.