It’s hard to judge how well a team is playing during the exhibition season because starters depart quickly, second-stringers are going against rookies and free agents trying to make the roster and coaches don’t want their teams to show anything special.
It’s often just an exercise in getting exercise … and not much else.
Yet after two exhibition games, there are some positive vibes emanating from the San Francisco 49ers offense.
First, of course, is the fact running backs Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, who were taken off the field in the Niners’ loss to the Houston Texans Saturday night, are not seriously injured. Jacobs, who took a direct hit on his left knee, should be fine for the regular-season opener against Green Bay, head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters. And James, who sprained his ankle, should be back to full speed quickly.
Second, running back Frank Gore already looks ready for that season opener. Though Gore rarely plays in the preseason, the 49ers’ No. 1 back – who rushed for 1,211 yards last season – made his summer debut vs. the Texans Saturday night. He played just four snaps and had two carries, including one for a 14-yard gain.
Gore then sat out the rest of the game, even though he was eager to play more.
“When I got out there against the Houston Texans, I wanted to keep going,” Gore told Alex Espinoza of 49ers.com. “I got that first carry and it was a pretty good run, so I wanted to get that rhythm and keep going. But I’ve got to listen to coach. He knows what’s best for me.”
Harbaugh, who wants to make sure Gore escapes the exhibition games injury-free, says Gore is looking fresh, fit and fast, “like a young buck.”
A third indication of how well the first-team offense is progressing comes from quarterback Alex Smith.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle notes Smith has directed the first-team offense on just three drives this preseason, with the drives averaging 11.3 plays. Smith is 8-of-12 for 65 yards and a TD with a quarterback rating of 108.0 and the drives have resulted in one touchdown, one field goal and one failed fourth-and-1 dive on the Texans’ 20-yard line Saturday night.
Smith had four incompletions vs. Houston, notes Branch, but wrote “he didn’t throw a bad pass all night.” One pass was thrown away to avoid a sack, two were dropped and the fourth was purposely thrown up for grabs because Smith believed the officials would be calling pass interference against the Houston defender (they didn’t).
It’s possible we may see more of the first-team offense this Sunday in Denver against the Broncos in the third exhibition game, traditionally the one preseason game in which starters play a bit longer. If Smith & Co. again look efficient, that could be an excellent sign going into the regular season.
To Gore, the improvements on offense this summer are noticeable. Last season, under a new coaching staff and with a new playbook, players were tentative and a bit lost. Now, he says, the unit is clicking much more efficiently.
“Everybody was learning last year,” Gore told Branch. “So there was a lot of thinking. But now we know what we’ve got to do. We know the looks and we can just play football. I think that’s why we look so much better this year.”