Of the 49ers’ remaining opponents, which ones have a defense that can cause problems for a 49ers’ offense with a spotty passing game? That is the key question.
If a team can’t stop Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin, that team can’t beat the 49ers. But if a team has a good run defense and at least one good cornerback, now the 49ers are in a fight.
It’s the Muhammad Ali Syndrome.
Ali could knock you out – he knocked out George Foreman – but Ali wasn’t a devastating puncher. He wasn’t a one-punch knockout fighter. He had to work and take shots to beat inferior boxers, boxers Foreman put away early, no sweat.
In 39 rounds, Ali never put away Ken Norton. Norton broke Ali’s jaw and won a split-decision the first fight, Ali won a split-decision the second fight and Ali won a 15-round decision the third fight. Foreman knocked out Norton in the second round.
Norton had a glass chin, so he couldn’t stand in and trade shots against a puncher like Foreman. But Norton could trade shots with Ali, who lacked a killer punch just like the 49ers.
NFL teams with nothing going for them other than a good run defense and one good cornerback can trade shots with the 49ers. Those opponents are the 49ers’ Ken Nortons. You saw it last weekend when the 49ers played the Cardinals.
The Cardinals are not a good team. Their quarterback, Carson Palmer, didn’t mess around against the 49ers – he tried to give them the game right away. He took a sack in the end zone and threw two interceptions in the first half. But the 49ers still couldn’t pull away from the Cardinals until the fourth quarter, after the Cardinals had committed their third turnover of the game.
The Cardinals’ defense held Gore to 20 yards on 10 carries in the first half and cornerback Patrick Peterson held Boldin to three catches for 28 yards the entire game. The Cardinals trailed by two points late in the third quarter when they had the ball near the red zone and Larry Fitzgerald fumbled. If he hadn’t fumbled, the Cardinals probably would have taken the lead.
The Niners almost got Nortoned.
The 49ers’ didn’t have Ali Syndrome last season. The 49ers had the knockout punch of Sonny Liston – a dangerous passing game – mostly because they had Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree was the seventh-best wide receiver in the NFL according Pro Football Focus. This season, Boldin is tied for 64th with Leonard Hankerson and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Boldin had 208 receiving yards against the Packers’ soft zone defense Week 1. Since then, opposing defenses have covered Boldin man-to-man with their No.1 corner. Boldin has just 213 receiving yards the past five games. Good cornerbacks shut him down.
That wasn’t the case with Crabtree last season. He almost was unstoppable down the stretch. From Week 13 through the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick passed to Crabtree an average of 10 times per game. Week 17 against the Cardinals, Crabtree had eight catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns against the same Peterson who held Boldin to three catches for 28 yards last week.
Crabtree tore his Achilles’ tendon May 21. The 49ers hope to have him back by late November, six months after his injury, but it usually takes an athlete 12 months to completely regain explosiveness after tearing an Achilles’ tendon.
Crabtree probably won’t be Crabtree again until next season. There is no cure coming for the 49ers’Ali Syndrome this season.
So how many Ken Nortons are left on the 49ers’ schedule?
We already know the Cardinals are a Norton. The 49ers play them again in Arizona Week 17.
The 49ers host the Falcons Week 16. They have the seventh-ranked run defense and three good cornerbacks. A Norton.
The 49ers play the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay Week 15. They have the 13th-ranked defense and Darrelle Revis, a great cornerback. Another Norton.
The 49ers play the Seahawks at Candlestick Week 14. They have the No.5 run defense and the No.1 cornerback in the NFL – Richard Sherman. The Seahawks are Ken Norton minus the glass chin. The Seahawks are Joe Louis.
Week 13, the 49ers host the Rams and their 30th-ranked run defense. Not a Norton. A bum.
Week 12, the 49ers play the Redskins in Washington D.C. The Redskins have 27th-ranked run defense. Not a Norton. Another bum.
Week 11, the 49ers play the Saints in New Orleans. The Saints have the 21st-ranked run defense so a Norton they are not. But they score more than 30 points a game in the Super Dome. Call them George Foreman.
The Panthers qualify as a Norton. The 49ers play them Week 10. The Panthers have the No.4 run defense in the NFL and their No.1 corner, Captain Munnerlyn, is pretty good – he’s allowing an 81.4 passer rating this season. The 49ers host the Panthers Week 10.
Week 9 is the Bye. Week 8, the 49ers play the Jaguars in London. The Jaguars have the worst run defense in football. The Jaguars are not a Norton, they’re a punching bag.
The 49ers fly to Tennessee to play the Titans this Sunday, and the Titans have definite Norton qualities.
Their run defense ranks 19th, but they held the elite Marshawn Lynch to 23 rushing yards on nine carries in the first half last week. The Titans have one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL – Jurrell Casey – and one of the best run-stopping safeties – Bernard Pollard.
And the Titans have one of the best cornerbacks in the league – Alterraun Verner. He’s picked off four passes and broken up eight so far this season. Quarterbacks have a 15.4 passer rating when they challenge Verner.
Counting the Titans, the 49ers will face six more Nortons and a Foreman during the regular season. The 49ers may win all of those games – after all, Ali KO’d Foreman and beat Norton two out of three.
But if the 49ers fall short of the Super Bowl this season, it’s because of the Muhammad Ali Syndrome and how the Niners had trouble with Nortons.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.