The Illusion of Overnight NFL Success

Everyone wants to point to won/loss records in the NFL and say that a team was an overnight success.  It is true that Jim Harbaugh has provided something to this 49ers team in the way of leadership and organization that was lacking a year ago, but let’s not pretend this was an overnight process.  The San Francisco 49ers have a lot of players who have been with the team awhile.  Frank Gore and Alex Smith have been in San Francisco since 2005.    Vernon Davis is in his sixth season.  This is linebacker Patrick Willis’ fifth year.  Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is playing in his eighth season for the 49ers.  There are plenty more.

So let’s go back to 2005.  The 49ers won four games.  They won seven in 2006.  Five in 2007.  Seven in 2008.  Eight in 2009.  Six in 2010.  Remember though.  Most predicted the 49ers to win their division and make the playoffs in 2010.  And now in 2011 they are 6-1 after handling the Browns on Sunday.

So, yeah it looks like an overnight turnaround for the 49ers, I guess.  But when a team was supposed to be playoff caliber and failed to live up to it and then changes coaches and proves to be better, is that really over night?  Do you think it feels like that to the 49ers fanbase?  I am sure they are elated that Jim Harbaugh was able to come in and give order to this team and turn them into winners, but they were supposed to challenge for the playoffs last year.  Let’s compare it with the Browns a little bit.

Owen Marecic, Jason Pinkston, Dimitri Patterson, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are in their first seasons with the team.  Colt McCoy, Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong, Shawn Lauvao, Ben Watson, Sheldon Brown, Joe Haden, T.J. Ward and Peyton Hillis are in their second years with the team.  Alex Mack, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Brian Robiskie are in their third seasons with the team.  Ahtyba Rubin is in his fourth.  Joe Thomas is in his fifth full season with the Browns.  I don’t believe there is anyone on the roster that has been with the team exactly six seasons.  This is Josh Cribbs’ seventh season.  Ryan Pontbriand’s ninth and Phil Dawson’s twelfth.  Meanwhile, when was the last time the Cleveland Browns were predicted to go 0.500 let alone make the playoffs?  Maybe 2008, but that was two coaches ago when Romeo Crennel was still here.

My point is that what appears to be “overnight” from the outside is far from it.  The fans of the 49ers were probably frustrated because they knew they should be better with an offense led by Frank Gore and a defense led by Patrick Willis.  They watched Vernon Davis and the rest develop over time and are finally seeing their team play up to (or over?) the kind of potential that they thought they had.

Maybe Jim Harbaugh would be doing better in Cleveland than Pat Shurmur.  I will buy that and say it is probably even likely because I like Jim Harbaugh.  But, given the state of development of the Browns’ roster, I am quite sure we would only see a marginal improvement over the stats and won / loss record that we see right now.

I’ve stated over and over again that I have criticisms of the Browns, their coaching, management and roster.  Without going 16-0 every season it isn’t possible for any organization to be perfect.  Just another example that while you don’t need to accept losing and poor football, you have to be reasonable in your expectations and criticism.

With that in mind, I am critical of the Browns for losing to the Bengals to open the season.  I am critical that the offense hasn’t looked better even as they’ve lost games that I expected them to lose.  On the other hand, I can’t possibly compare the Browns with the “overnight” success of teams like the 49ers and be disappointed with a straight face.  Two years from now, the Browns’ roster should be at least comparable to the 49ers if not better.  The loading of draft picks in this year’s draft makes it even more likely that the Browns could be on a faster track.  Obviously they have to pick the right guys, but it is still probably a two year journey.

Sorry to have to say it, but it is the truth.

And remember, I never said criticism wasn’t allowed or even appropriate.  It is and it is.

  • stin4u

    Again, well put. The 49ers are a team with solid talent that have underachieved.

    Also, for all the praise being heaped upon Alex Smith, if you looked at his numbers coming into yesterday’s game they were pretty close to Colt as far as comp%/TD/Int.

  • Tim

    Craig, I think few people really expect a drastic turnaround. The reason many fans are so upset and critical is not just a lack of a drastic turnaround. It’s inept coaching and a regression on offense. It is clear to many that Shurmur is over matched and in over his head. That can change but it is frustrating to watch teams that are well coached and have an offense that resembles a real NFL offense.

  • oribiasi

    Just another example that while you don’t need to accept losing and poor football, you have to be reasonable in your expectations and criticism.

    Please tell me what my reasonable expectation should be? Or, better yet, is it reasonable to think a team will do better they did last year? Or, best yet, is it reasonable to think the Browns would look better this year than last year?

    I really like your article here on the 49ers, although I am interested why you didn’t pick a team like the Bills or the Bengals. The Bengals especially, with a rookie QB, etc. Excellent example of what can be done in a bad situation with average talent at skill positions, save AJ Green…another rookie.

    Maybe Jim Harbaugh would be doing better in Cleveland than Pat Shurmur. I will buy that and say it is probably even likely because I like Jim Harbaugh. But, given the state of development of the Browns’ roster, I am quite sure we would only see a marginal improvement over the stats and won / loss record that we see right now.

    I think it is a certainty that Harbaugh would do more with what we have in Cleveland than Shurmur is doing. Would we be 3-4? Nah, I’d say we would be 5-2. And, we wouldn’t have had that boneheaded game against Cincy that started the whole season off. Agreed?

  • stin4u

    Oribiasi > Ms. Cleo. Hands down.

  • oribiasi

    @ stin4u: I’d prefer the Dave Chappelle one. At least it makes me laugh more.

    I’ll put you down for an “I told you so” when Shurmur’s behind is kicked to the curb.

  • stin4u

    Sure thing. I’ll put you down for a plate of crow when they get some offensive players and turn it around. Done and done.

  • J2theB

    I didn’t realize that rabbits and squirrels were adversaries…

  • J2theB

    …or is that a cat, Stin?

  • Keith

    I would think (I am not trying to speak for Craig) that the reason the Bills and Bengals are not mentioned is the fact that they both don’t have first year (rookie) head coaches as thus the Browns and 49ers do.

  • stin4u

    @J2theB – That would be gatling kitty. He has no adversary.

  • oribiasi

    @ J2theB: It’s a cat who drank too much Believeland Kool-Aid.

    As an aside, I will be the happiest crow-eating person alive if the Browns turn it around. I just don’t see it happening with someone who thinks we only need to score 4 points if our opponent scores 3, etc.

  • stin4u

    @11 – So if we won 16 games every year 4-3 you wouldn’t be satisfied?

  • oribiasi

    @ stin4u: I honestly cannot determine what you are asking. If you are asking “if we won 16 games each year, would you be happy?” I would say “Of course.”

    If you’re asking “If we won 16 games every 4-3 years” would you be happy? Then, of course, NO.

    Can you re-phrase that question?

  • stin4u

    @13 – If the Cleveland Browns scored 4 points in every single game while their opponent scored only 3 points. Would this dissatisfy you? This would result in a perfect season.

    I’m struggling with why you have a problem with that statement made by Shurmur. It wouldn’t be the most exciting football to watch but if the Browns made the playoffs and won a Super Bowl 4-3 (the score), I’d be ecstatic.

  • oribiasi

    @ stin4u: Please tell me you’re kidding.

    It is lunacy to suggest that any defense, no matter how powerful, could hold a modern NFL team (save perhaps the Browns, oddly enough) to 3 points every week. Never going to happen.

    If, by some odd stroke of insane luck it were to happen and we would win by 1 point every week in that fashion, by the Fates I’d be so happy. I’d also be living in fairy-tale land.

    Now, a smarter question would be “What if the Browns Defense was so consistent that they never allowed more than 17 points each game and their offense always scored enough to win, averaging around 21 points a game. Would that be amazing?” And the answer is yes.

  • Sean

    Drink up Craig that Kool-Aid tastes real good doesn’t it.

  • stin4u

    @oribiasi – Don’t be so dense. You took that far too literally.

    A win is a win, you either add one to the W column or to the L column. That is what Shurmur was trying to express. I don’t care if the Browns win by one point or 100 points. Although, if we were winning by such slim margins there is a good chance this town would be absolutely frothing at the mouth for another new regime.

  • You know what I never get sick of? Kook Aid jokes.

  • Tim

    @ stin4u

    If the Browns were competing, looked competent on offense, and were making visable improvements after adding an offensive minded head coach then you are right, every one should be far more patient. But the fact is that even though it’s a limited sample size, the new coach seems to be in over his head and unable to find a way to get the best out of the talent (albeit limited) he has right now. That is hard to swallow. It doesn’t mean I don’t cheer for my team or root every Sunday for then to win. It simply means I have very serious doubts about the man in charge of the team and makes me a harsh critic of him. Sometimes you can just tell of a coach has ‘it’ or not and so far Shurmur is leaving a lot to be desired.

  • Harv 21

    Sunday through Tuesday: Craig = Desperate Junior High principal shushing/threatening the kids in Severance Hall while the warning lights blink.

    By Wednesday: I too cannot rationally hold Holms/Heckert liable
    for the horrific sins of Policy choosing Dwight Clark 11 years ago, Policy man-crushing all power to The Butch, Lerner lurching to give Quirky Personnel Guy total authority, Lerner overcorrecting to throw all power to Mangini. On Rational Wednesday I say Holms, you may have wasted a year getting down to the serious bidness, but if we grab the pitchfork now we deserve the fallout. QBs need time to develop; Holms is entitled to being less than perfect; Heckert is already, hands down, the best personnel guy we’ve had since Accorsi.

  • Wacman

    @Tim, The Browns HAVE been competing… They’ve been in every game but one (Raiders). They have been making improvements. McCoy’s play is BETTER this year than last year (More TDs, Less INTs) and he’s playing in much worse circumstances (O-line injuries + 4th string RB = more passing attempts/less completion %/more QB rushing/more offensive burden). You’re right, this is a limited sample size, so why is everyone being so negative?

    If there’s anything to gain by analyzing this team, we can say that they are 3-4 with all of the adversity they’ve had thus far. The defense is keeping them in almost every game. There’s no Kool-Aid here, I just look at every situation for what it is: We do not have enough talent that is healthy on offense to win many football games. No amount of coaching in the world will change that.

  • Wacman

    Sorry, not the game against Oakland, Tennessee is the game we were blown out

  • Tim

    @ Wacman

    The Browns are not a competitive football team unless they are playing another bad team. Their record is an aberration because they have had a ridiculously easy schedule. And we were not competitive against Oakland, the score does not represent the actual game, nor were they competitive last Sunday against the 49ers.

    And Colt is not better this year. He looks worse, his completion percentage is down, he is not reading the defense pre-snap, he throws into coverage, and so on.

    I am not saying this means we need to come after Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur with pitchforks. But the offense has looked inept and the game management has been atrocious and that is unacceptable. Poor performance by a team that lacks talent is acceptable if that team is adding talent in a quality fashion, and the Browns are doing that. But poor performance is not acceptable when it is partly a result of poor coaching, bad play calling, disorganization, a lack of discipline, etc.

  • Wacman

    Easy schedule? Our losses have came against teams who have went 4-3, 4-3, 5-2, and 6-1 so far. At the beginning of the season, yeah, our schedule looked inviting, but the combined record of our losses is 19-9(15-9 if you take us out).

    Our offense has LOOKED inept, and McCoy has LOOKED bad, but I gave you numbers that say otherwise. I’ll concede the completion percentage being 3% less than last year, but he’s had to do much more with much less. Even if he had the same exact team as last year (no injuries), what’s 3% less completion when you balance it with +3 TDs and -4 INTs and a higher QB rating. I’m not saying he’s doing great, but to say he’s regressed at all is just totally false if you look at the stats AND the environment (No Steinbach, No effective rushing attack)

    How is no one seeing that this offense was built on Hillis and the fact that he was pretty unstoppable last year? McCoy isn’t a playmaker yet. He’s a caretaker right now. Without a rushing attack, the QB suffers, the playcalling suffers, the offense suffers, the entire team suffers. Whether this is a product of bad coaching is up for debate. My point is that there’s much more to this than people LOOKING bad and not being fit for the coaching job after 7 games.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    @ Craig. I can at least appreciate that you and the other authors in this blog take the “patience” viewpoint. If I wanted to read doom-n-gloom, I’d read the PD message boards. Even most commentators on this blog (both sides of the argument) are generally intelligent and factual. Personally, I think I disagree with you more often than not, but at least you are providing a well needed counterbalance and articles like this help dispel common myth-arguments that really have no place in intelligent conversation. So, thanks I guess.

  • Josh

    What this whole article fails to account for is that the 49ers were only a “playoff contendor” last year because they were playing in the worst division in football, and one of the worst divisions in sports history. They were not a good team. In fact, I think most people would agree the Browns, who were competitive in almost every game of a ridiculously difficult schedule were better than the 49ers in 2010.

    So, no, I do not think it is false to say the 49ers had an overnight turnaround any more than it would have been false to say the Browns had an overnight turnaround had they been competent this year. Realistically, neither team is an “overnight” turnaround when you consider they have both been incompetent for a decade or so. But the point is that outside of being in a much less difficult division (which to this point is meaningless since the Browns have played a far easier schedule thus far than them), the 49ers had no business turning things around this much faster than the Browns.

    Having said all that, I do agree that we appear to be heading in the right direction, at least from a talent standpoint. The last two drafts have been phenominal. But if Shuurmar and McCoy don’t get dramatically better or replaced, we will never, ever have a turn around like the 49ers have had this year.

    And Wacman, if you are honestly going to sit there and say McCoy is better this year than last because of his touchdown passes against prevent defenses you should never be allowed to watch a football game again. He is unbelievably worse than last year to this point.

  • Tim


    Yes our schedule has been easy… Colts, Seahawks, dolphins (coincidence the they all have crappy coaches????)

    And yes it is legitimate to say Colt has played worse. The eye test, although deciving at times, is applicable. And stats can lie too, it’s obvious from watching McCoy that he is not playing well in this offense. Bad coaching? Colt’s fault? That I don’t know. This offense was not built around Hillis. Last years was and maybe this years should have been too. The offense we are running is built around an accurate QB. Colt had continuously missed wide open receivers, lead them into coverage, and thrown into coverage.

  • Wacman

    I’m not going to go through and figure out if all of McCoy’s TD passes and INTs were legit enough for you to count. My overarching point is that he’s statistically doing better than last year in a situation that was worse than last year (both by eye test and statistics). Are you going to refute that with evidence or are you going to nitpick one of my statistics without taking all of them into consideration or giving me some of your own?

    Yeah, we beat the teams much worse than us and we lost to the teams that are better than us. What more do you want from them? You want them to “look” better doing it? Too bad, it doesn’t work that way.

    Also, if the offense wasn’t built around Hillis, then why doesn’t it work without him? McCoy? Don’t think so. Shurmur? Perhaps, but I don’t fully evaluate coaches after 7 games.

  • Tim

    @ Wacman

    Was the offense was working this year with Hillis? Wasn’t there some giant controversy about Shurmur not playing him enough? Maybe I misremember the first few games but if I recall correctly Hillis was not the focus of the offense and was underused.

  • JM

    The Bengals have turned it around in a year. Just saying.

  • Josh

    “You want them to look better doing it? Too bad, it doesn’t work that way”.

    Ummm… Why, exactly, does it not work that way? The Browns have enough talent to look like a competent team against good teams. The Browns have enough talent to score points against Seattle. The Browns have enough talent to not need a final seconds miracle against a prevent defense to beat an awful, awful Miami team. I’m baffled why exactly you don’t think it works that way.

    And stop, please just stop, with the McCoys stats are better than last years garbage. The only stats that are better are touchdowns and interceptions. And that is due to playing either garbage teams or prevent defenses against the good teams. His accuracy and yards per attempt were all much better last season. And if you have watched a single second of the games it’s is pretty easy to see how much worse he is than last year. Now is some of that coaching, injuries, etc? Absolutely. But those things don’t account for him missing wide open receivers, never throwing the ball down field, making terrible decisions and not hitting guys in stride in the few completions he does make. I have not heard of a single person who has watched the Browns this year claim McCoy is better than last year. It’s almost unbelievable someone could actually think that.

  • Eric G

    oribiasi is a bummer

  • Wacman

    The thing with Hillis early in the season was that everyone was putting 8 or 9 guys in the box against him, so he wasn’t as effective. Rather than continuing with something that was ineffective, they tried other things (Kinda like in the 2nd half when the Browns played the run against the 49ers at their offense disappeared). I think the secret of Hillis is out, so teams are forcing us to pass. Therefore our 2nd year QB has been forced into more playmaking situations that he would normally be.

    So we’re willing to attribute his good statistics to his level of opponents, but his bad eye tests are attributed to him all by himself. Let’s ignore the other teams’ records, let’s ignore the changes in personnel, the # of dropped passes, and coaching strategy (West Coast Offense has more underneath throwing, which equals less downfield passes, which equals less yards per attempt).

    Again, for the 2nd time, my point is that he’s doing better than he did last year, and this year he’s in a worse situation. Some of the stats don’t fit my argument perfectly, but the facts are that he’s been asked to throw the ball 64 more times in one less game, with no consistent rushing attack or protection (in comparison to last year). I think those facts plus my other stats outweigh a 3% difference in completion percentage.

  • Wacman

    Also, maybe we have different opinions of competent… I watched the 2nd half yesterday, did you? They looked pretty competent considering they almost came back and tied the game up.

  • Tim

    Really? They looked competent to you? They scored 10 points!! This is the NFL, 10 points does not cut it. A few nice completions here and there does not equal competence. Watch other teams and compare what you see to what the Browns do, its not even close. Again, there are many reasons for that from poor play calling to a bad line to a QB with a weak arm.

    Watch a good NFL team or even a decent one – they do things like throw the ball deep (even WCO teams do it a lot), use advanced routes and throws like the back shoulder pass, make pre snap adjustments, use the shotgun, dictate the pace of the game, and on and on. The Browns do none of that.

  • oribiasi

    @ Eric G: I tell it like it is, brah, and sometimes it ain’t pretty. Like now.

  • Wacman

    When I think incompetent, i think Derek Anderson completing 2 passes in a game. I think Tim Couch, period. I don’t think scoring 10 pts against a pretty good 49er defense is incompetent. I don’t think a 2nd year QB making a few bad throws a game is incompetent. Maybe we just have different benchmarks…

  • Tim


    I agree with your examples, both were incompetent. But I challenge you to have some higher standards. I just want a coach and quarterback who can have an offense that is good.

    Let me make a little comparison to demonstrate what I mean. Take Buffalo for example. Last year, Galiey comes in and inherits a team with a journeyman QB in Fitzpatrick and a group of relatively unproven WRs. In his first year the team had a poor record. However, the offense showed that it was a real NFL, dynamic offense. Fitzpatrick had a strong arm, was completing NFL throws, the offense put up points, and so on. Now in year two they are winning. But the key is the signs they showed last year and the instant improvement not in wins but on field play that improved.

    But with the Browns they are not showing the signs that Buffalo showed. When watching the Bills last year it was obvious that they were not a good team, but were building a nice offense. When watching the Browns this year, it is obvious they are not a good team and the offense is in disarray.

    So that’s my point. A strong armed, decently accurate QB and a great offensive scheme can turn around a bad team. We seem to have neither. Perhaps that will change as the season progresses. But as of now, the Browns are not showing the kinds of offensive improvements the Bills showed last year with a first year coach and an journeyman QB and unproven receivers.

  • Josh

    They almost tied the game against the 49ers? lol. They never once had the ball when they were down less than two scores. The closest they came was scoring a TD off a bad throw and broken tackle to get within seven points. A team that had scored ONE touchdown in their previous 8 quarters got within a touchdown against a good defense, and that is “almost tying the game”. Holy cow. You do have one thing right, we have ridiculously different definitions of the word competent.

    Not a single stat supports McCoy being better than last year, unless you take the lazy way out and use just basic TD passes, ignoring attempts and defenses played. He is significantly worse than last year. Even his biggest fans (and I actually am a fan of his) admit that. It’s not even debatable. And by the way, these great teams you are claiming he has played against are all bad against the pass. The only pass defense they have played ranked in the top 15 is Cincy. So if you want to brag about the tough competition he faced against Tenn and Oakland, have fun, but it’s a completely incorrect statement. Even San Francisco has struggled against the pass. Well, except against our putrid passing “attack”.

  • Wacman

    My only problem with that example is that Fitzpatrick’s been in the league for a while, and McCoy hasn’t. I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack because of that. If next year, he’s making the same bad throws, I’ll start to worry, but I can’t be too upset with him considering it’s his first year in this system. Right now, no, the Browns aren’t showing us much. I contend that they don’t have much to show in the circumstances, so I’m less likely to criticize.

  • Tim

    Good points, seems you are just more patient than I am. But I just dont see McCoy’s arm getting any stronger and seeing him able to make throws that Rodgers, Brees, Newton, Fitzpatrick, Flacco, etc. can make. That’s a problem. Take a look at the top 15 QBs in the NFL. All of them have a strong arm and can make any throw. All of them can make pre snap reads. Now take a look at the SB winning QBs over the last 10 years. Again, the all have strong arms and can make any throw at any time. The days of Dilfer and Johnson winning the SB are over.

    I like Colt and I want him to succeed. He seems like a good guy, he is tough as nails, he is mobile, he cares about the game. But at the end of the day a QB is judged by his arm.

  • Pepe

    The only teams worse than the Browns this year have lost their starting QBs. The 49ers argument is based on hindsight. A lot of people thought Harbough would be in the Andrew Luck sweepatsies. The Niners were probably worse team than the Browns last year. They certainly werent any better. Alex Smith was a bust. They drafted a QB with the 45th pick in the draft. They were in full rebuild mode. The only change was the coach. It’s not a valid argument.

  • Adam

    Craig, nice to see some common sense from somebody in this town – (FINALLY!).
    The only teams worse than the Browns this year have lost their starting QBs. The 49ers argument is based on hindsight. A lot of people thought Harbough would be in the Andrew Luck sweepatsies. The Niners were probably worse team than the Browns last year. They certainly werent any better. Alex Smith was a bust. They drafted a QB with the 45th pick in the draft. They were in full rebuild mode. The only change was the coach. It’s not a valid argument.

    Are you serious? Gore, Davis, Crabtree, an offensive line that can actually block somebody, and a QB that’s been in the league for years? Not to mention they’re in the weakest division in sports. Compare that to what the Browns have. I’m not a Shurmer fan but he has far less to work with than Harbaugh.

  • Tbone

    I really think the Browns are worse this year. At least in the Mangini regime you had a feeling that they could pull off an upset or 2. (New Orleans, Pittsburgh) I look at the remainder of their schedule and I see a few wins but not one that could be an upset win. They just don’t show anything to support it.

  • MP34

    @Tbone, don’t forget the New England game last season. That’s the best and most complete game I’ve seen this expansion era team play. No gimmicks, just good game planning, coaching and execution.