Steady As We Roll: Are Dominant 49ers NFL's Best Team?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers waves to the crowd as he runs off the field after the 49ers beat the Detroit Lions at Candlestick Park on September 16, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

It was a good weekend for the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree, with the 49ers and Stanford winning. But let's not forget David Shaw. That, two ways to look at the Eagles, and the rest of the weekend in the Monday Morning Jones.

I know what you're thinking. Don't worry -- there is an item in this column on the NHL lockout. The Monday Morning Jones loves Canadians, too. But first, there's four-down football to discuss.

The 49ers are that good. The league has gone aerial, but is there a better team in the NFL than the 49ers? They're the ground-and-pound team Jets coach Rex Ryan has tried to build, and the intimidating force the Lions try too hard to be. They beat teams up on both sides of the ball, and their defense is as cleanly punishing as any since the 2000 Ravens. They're predictable in the best way a football team could be. The more you watch them play, the less having Alex Smith at quarterback seems like a hindrance.


The Niners put on another impressive performance.

And Sunday night, they parked the Lions -- collectively, and each individual star -- in a 27-19 win that never felt as close as the score. They may struggle to score on days when their defense isn't as exceptional as it was Sunday. Don't forget they lit up the Packers' suspect defense and gashed a Lions defense that was awful against the run a year ago. But two weeks into the season, there appears to be no more steady or balanced team in the NFL.

This won't be a fun week for Mark Sanchez. Plenty went wrong for the Jets -- almost everything, actually -- in their 27-10 loss at Pittsburgh, but nothing matters as much as how poorly Mark Sanchez played. He was 10-for-27 for 138 yards, which is the sort of line Tim Tebow's detractors would have a field day with, so imagine how Sanchez's critics felt about it. In his fourth year, the one-time fifth pick in the draft should be his team's best asset. Instead, as Mike Vaccaro pointed out, his coaches still don't trust him to get things done by himself. This after last week, when Sanchez had one of the best games of his career. They way I see it, Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano may as well put games in Sanchez's hands. After all, what they're doing now is gonna get all of them booted out of the Big Apple.

Watch out for the Birds. There are two ways to look at the Eagles. The first is to say there's no way they'll keep winning while turning the ball over four times a game. The other -- after beating Baltimore 24-23, they're 2-0, in spite of nine turnovers in two games. Unless you're betting on the Eagles giving it up 72 times this season, these two wins should make you wonder just what this team is capable of. Michael Vick is still good for a few inexplicable decisions per game, but he was great most of the game Sunday. After Joe Flacco convinced the country he'd finally gotten there on Monday, he struggled most of the game, unable to adjust to the decriminalization of illegal contact downfield on receivers. And even though it didn't yield great dividends, Andy Reid's offense ran the ball 41 times (compared to 32 pass attempts). These are the games the Eagles lost last year, and don't forget -- they only finished one game behind the eventual Super Bowl champions last season.

There's cause for concern in the Crescent City. That's two losses in a row for the Saints, the team that needed a good start more than any other, after losing 35-27 to the Panthers. Instead, a team fighting to maintain continuity is doing so in the worst way. The Saints have only forced one turnover in their first two games. Last season, they only had 16 takeaways, 31st in the league. New Orleans gave up 5.0 yards per carry last season, and the Panthers topped that mark on the way to 219 rushing yards. And for all the shortcomings of Gregg Williams' defense last year, they only gave up 21.2 points per game. The Saints, thus far, have yielded 75 points to two quarterbacks with a combined 20 career starts. Sure, missing Sean Payton matters, but was he going to coach the defense, too? The Saints could be in big trouble.


Cardinals shock Patriots in New England.

New England lost to who? So much seemed uncharacteristic about the Patriots' loss Sunday, and not just that it came at the hands of the Cardinals (13.5 point underdogs). The Patriots' defense, maligned last year, held the Cardinals to 245 total yards, but that wasn't enough for the Pats' offense. Wes Welker played well, with five catches and 95 yards, but he's clearly been demoted. Tom Brady was good-but-not-great, but the protection in front of him was worse. That said, this is still the team that smoked Tennessee last week, right? And would there be much skepticism of the Pats had Stephen Gostkowski's last-second field goal gone through?

This week in replacement officiating. The NFL was left with egg on its face when an official was removed from the Saints-Panthers game after the league found out he was a Saints fan. That seems like it should have been the first question on the replacement referee questionnaire, but somehow it slipped through the cracks. After this news broke, much of the country was treated to Eagles-Ravens, which was marred by awful officiating and several scuffles. In fact, scuffling was a common sight all over the league.

The replacement refs get no respect from anyone, and they haven't shown any reason why they should. Their mere presence obscures the game. It is a slap in the face of the customers that the NFL and many media members continue to pretend these overwhelmed amateurs have any place in a first-class league. People are paying big money to watch these games. They're betting bigger money on their outcomes, a practice the NFL tacitly encourages. Yet the league has no qualms about sullying its product with officials who looked more like substitute teachers in Week 2 than Week 1.

Fans of the NFL should receive better from the league. And if the officials don't get better, the complaints may become too loud for the league to ignore.


How’d the rookie QBs do in Week 2?

Your rookie quarterback update. Three of the five rookie starting quarterbacks won their first games this week (Old Man Weeden is still stuck on the schneid). And while plenty of credit is due to Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III was the star of the group, even in a 31-28 loss to the Rams. There will be growing pains, of course, but watching him effortlessly make 60-yard tosses and blow past defenders on designed runs has made him a must-watch Sunday Ticket attraction. He certainly could have been better, but the Redskins were done in by lapses on defense and special teams, and a rookie mistake by Josh Morgan that moved realistically Washington out of field goal range late.

Often, teams try to win in spite of their rookie quarterbacks. All four teams starting newbies, however, will have to win because of their signal callers, and none look more up to that challenge so far than Griffin.

The star of the weekend in college football? David Shaw. When Stanford marched to its second straight season of 11 or more wins last year, most of the credit went to Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh. That was strange, seeing how Shaw was Stanford's coach. And he wasn't like Larry Coker, inheriting one of the greatest collections of talent ever. Yes, he had Luck, David DeCastro and Coby Fleener, but this was still a team that relied on exceptional execution to win. There aren't many average coaches who can maintain that just because the last coach was pretty good.

Well, did you see the Cardinal Saturday night? Did you see how surely they tackled? Did you notice how the offensive line dominated USC at the point of attack, how their commitment to physicality on both sides of the ball wore down the Trojans' thin roster? And did you see how, with a quarterback who is no Andrew Luck, Stanford ensured that Matt Barkley will leave school having never beaten Stanford.

Shaw's credit is long overdue. He thoroughly outcoached Lane Kiffin, who has been given credit for being a good coach with one career win over a team that finished with less than five losses. Shaw already had one over Kiffin, and Saturday's will probably go down as another. The Cardinal is undeniably his team, and his team clearly has a good coach.

Are you ready for some hockey? Well, you're in luck ... Given how closely this script has followed those we've seen in football and basketball, there was no shock in the beginning of the NHL's lockout. Owners always believe they're better equipped for a trip to the mattresses -- and they're probably right -- so that's where we are.

What's interesting is the presence of former Major League Baseball Players Association chief Donald Fehr. He built his reputation working for the strongest union in professional sports, and now he's leading a group that many feel lost a full season and the lockout eight years ago. The MLBPA never lost a work stoppage -- though no one really "won" in 1994 -- and it's doubtful Fehr plans to start now.

But he's not dealing with owners as reticent to tangle with the union as baseball's have become. While his players have spoken loudly about their resolve, does any union engender commitment like the MLBPA? What can Fehr do without the leverage he had at his last gig? He's insulated from the backbiting that hampered the NHLPA in the past, but changing the minds of 30 owners intent upon changing the game is one helluva task.

Needless to say, this is going to take a while.

A salute to Manti Te'o. For a moment, let's ignore how well Te'o played at Spartan Stadium in Notre Dame's dominating 20-3 win over Michigan State. The senior linebacker, the best recruit of the Charlie Weis era, lost both his girlfriend and his grandmother within 24 hours last week. It's amazing enough that he could get out of bed, let alone give his all to his football team.

But he did, and he will continue to this season. This will be the only weekend when Te'o's grief will lead stories about him, but it's certainly not the last time those things will be on his heart and mind. Whether he plays his best or worst, whether or not Notre Dame stays near the top 10, here's hoping Te'o can remain as strong as he's been so far.

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