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Article Title: Mental Toughness.
Article Date: October 11th, 2006
By Sydney


Every San Francisco 49er fan is elated to have been at Monster Park and to have been parked in front of a television set last Sunday, as the victory over the Oakland Raiders by a score of 34-20 was as sweet as a Ghirardelli chocolate bar. The City of San Francisco is alive with jubilation as the black hole of football was sent back across the bay where it inevitably belongs.

Every aspect of this victory was a redemption stamp upon our performance over a week ago against the Kansas City Chiefs and coming back embarrassed and humiliated by a score of 41-0. Even though the thought is that the Oakland Raiders may be the worst team in the NFL statistically, the ability and talent among some of the players on that team was still something to be concerned about.

As is always the perception a team having not won a game yet in the league is starving to feast on some poor sap not playing up to the expected potential they are supposed to exhibit on a consistent basis. The Oakland Raiders was that team coming into Monster Park this past Sunday, but met a fate that was to our liking in more ways than one.

San Francisco 49er offensive coordinator Norv Turner fired at the end of the 2005 NFL season as the Oakland Raiders head coach received one of the game balls being distributed after the victory in the 49er locker room, by head coach Mike Nolan. He was so elated to have been a part in the formula to achieve victory that he enthusiastically spiked the ball in front of the very players he coached to victory.

I am so happy for his redemption and more importantly for our redemption as a football team. The enthusiasm after a victory is so contagious and meaningful following the game, especially after it follows a thrashing of a defeat like we had suffered while on the road in Kansas City.

Now hope is restored and progress is noted among all the units on this football team. How we respond through mental toughness like Mike Nolan indicated at his weekly press conference this past Monday is a determining factor in securing a victory in the NFL.

Every win in the NFL is a difficult win, hands down as indicated by Mike Nolan. Mental toughness is what separates a good team from one that is still struggling. It’s needed to be able to respond to adversity.

And even if you don’t make a play like we didn’t in two penetrations inside the red zone of the Oakland Raiders in the first half on fourth and one downs, you have to take some calculated risks to stimulate mental toughness among your players. And when we failed to make those first downs in retrospect because of in my opinion some bad spots by the officials instead of execution, someone or somebody has to respond.

And that someone or somebody was the San Francisco 49er defense that helped capitalize on four Oakland Raider turnovers that equaled 24 unanswered points for the 49ers. San Francisco 49er cornerback Walt Harris a free agent that signed on with the 49ers this year intercepted the Oakland Raiders for a career high three times once in the third quarter and twice in the fourth quarter.

San Francisco 49er nickel back/safety Chad Williams a free agent signed this past off-season also had an interception at the beginning of the fourth quarter to help seal a victory as well.

At the Oakland Raiders 20-yard line in the fourth quarter with 10:42 left in the game Raiders quarterback Andrew Walter threw a backwards pass to running back LaMont Jordan that bounced off his hands.

He nonchalantly started walking back to the huddle when San Francisco 49er rookie defensive end Melvin Oliver cleverly picked the ball off the ground and ran it into the end zone after not hearing the whistle blown for a touchdown.

“Coach Emanuel always tells us that if the ball is on the ground, pick it up,” said Oliver. “I didn’t hear a whistle so I picked up the ball and took off. Not too many guys get a chance to do something like that so it was surreal. It was a defensive lineman’s dream.”

First round pick defensive end/ linebacker Manny Lawson continued to showboat his credentials in this game especially by penetrating punt coverage and blocking Oakland Raider’s Shane Lechler’s punt to start the third quarter of this game.

This incredible special teams heads-up play allowed Alex Smith to set-up camp on the Raider 9-yard line where he connected with wide receiver Arnaz Battle for the second time in the game for a touchdown.

“It was one of those moments where everything went right, I was untouched and all I had to do was put my hand on the ball,” said Lawson. “On the punt before that one, they let us rush the punter a little bit. When we called a different rush, I was curious if they would let me go at him again and sure enough they did. Once I got through, I eye-balled the football and put my hand where the ball was at.”

This is a guy that has made us forget who Julian Peterson was. Manny Lawson is an unbelievable athlete with enormous potential to be really special. Right now Mike Nolan is concerned with the amount of playing time he’s seeing and the expectation that he is maybe pushing the bar too high as a rookie.

In a typical college season his season would be over right now. But as of now he has a whole other season yet to play. That is why Parys Haralson is now seeing more playing time to free him up and provide the needed rest on the sidelines to keep him fresh on third downs.

As indicated in conversations with Mike Nolan, Manny Lawson’s primary goal is to learn how to play the position of linebacker. Even though he was a top-tier defensive end out of North Carolina State when we drafted him, in order for him to compliment the 3-4 defensive alignment favored by Nolan he must learn how to play linebacker.

Premier veteran linebacker Brandon Moore has also been used a lot this season in keeping Manny Lawson fresher, by substituting for him on first and second downs, a role he has played well so far. Haralson still lagging a bit behind Lawson because of his injury, still is regarded as a very decent pass rusher and will only get better with more playing opportunities.

Said Nolan: “I think we have a better surrounding cast on third down in a Brandon Moore and a Parys Haralson than the surrounding cast in the base defense.”

And just when you didn’t think that the defense and special teams units weren’t doing enough to secure a victory for this team in comes veteran wide receiver Antonio Bryant to field a game ending onside kick by the Oakland Raiders that he recovered at a heavy price with Raider running back Justin Fargas laying a vicious under the chin helmet hit on him that could be heard for miles around.

Antonio Bryant was seemingly knocked out gasping for air and had a distinct cut on his lip that even required five stitches to mend. He was a bit infuriated with his blockers not blocking well enough for him, but accepted and acknowledged the fact that his recovery on that play was vital to securing victory.

He went on earlier in that game to have three catches for 27 yards, but it was Arnaz Battle that shined on this afternoon with four catches for 37 yards, but more importantly two touchdowns.

Arnaz Battle in my opinion has secured the opposite receiving slot next to Antonio Bryant hands down with his up and coming performances. His knee problems have been minimized with the medical treatments he has been receiving to keep him active on a weekly basis. I have come away very impressed with his abilities and talent being instrumental in securing vital points for this team.

On the offensive side of the ball, the offensive line for the second time in five games didn’t allow one sack on quarterback Alex Smith and provided him with enough protection schemes to find his targets down the field. In fact sack artist Derrick Burgess was kept at bay all during the game by an improved performance by right tackle Kwame Harris believe it or not.

On top of all that Jonas Jennings was almost ejected instantly from the game after suffering a sprained wrist and torn ligament in one of his fingers. This again resulted in reshuffling of the offensive line with Adam Snyder sliding over to left tackle and journeyman superstar Tony Wragge coming in to secure left guard. There was absolutely no drop off in production for both Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore due to the sudden changes.

Alex Smith had his best game this season by completing 15-of-19 passes for 165 yards with three touchdowns and a high passer rating of 120.5. He was intercepted just once at the start of the second quarter with a pass intended for Antonio Bryant that a Raider defender got in front of.

But he responded well throughout the game especially in my opinion in the third quarter as Alex Smith had marched the team from our own 20-yard line to the Raider 33-yard line and it was third down and 12 to go. A perfectly designed screen pass was sent off to running back Maurice Hicks who with a key block from right guard Justin Smiley saw pay dirt with a 33-yard touchdown to go ahead 21-13 49ers.

“It was a normal screen play,’ said Hicks. "The defense blitzed pretty well on that play. I just got out in the open and the offensive line did a good job of blocking the threats and I just did the rest."

Maurice Hicks is establishing himself as being one of the best kickoff return specialists in the NFL. Just in this game alone he had two kickoff returns for 51 total yards averaging 25.5 yards a carry. This is an athlete that has made the loss of Terry Jackson acceptable in my terms and he has great explosion when given the opportunity.

Frank Gore of course deserves to be player of the week in the NFL based upon his outstanding performance in this game. He carried the ball 27 times for 134 yards and averaged 5.0 yards a carry. He caught the ball three times for 38 yards as well and never had one fumble following the four he had in a row thus far straight-lined up and until now.

Running backs coach Bishop Harris has been working diligently with a concerned and stimulated Frank Gore on his fumbling mistakes and attached straps to each end of a football and ran behind him and tried tugging the balls from Frank’s grip while in practice.

Frank Gore is an athlete with something to prove. He wants to be an elite running back in this league despite all the odds he has had thrown at him from injuries to living up to the other big names he once was teammates with at the University of Miami.

“We never loss confidence in him,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. “There were a couple weeks where he had some problems with the ball, but as far as running for those tough yards and the job he’s done this year, you can’t say enough about him. That’s what he should focus on, and to see him come out in a physical game and get those yards and handle it the way he did, I’m really happy for him.”

It was Frank Gore’s running expertise that helped Alex Smith be effective on his passing plays. Gore ran it hard and furious right up the middle and secured one first down after another, providing opportunity for Alex Smith to do his own thing. If you want to talk about mental toughness this is the first guy I would stop at inside the 49er locker room.

There is nothing better than a football player who is already good and has something to prove. These were the words expressed in part by head coach Mike Nolan and I couldn’t agree with it more.

Thank you God for Frank Gore. I am confident that he’ll continue to match those impressing numbers he already has registered thus far, and with our offensive line playing better than ever before, he has instant potential to be an elite back in comparison to his former teammates he had back in college.

With San Diego on the horizon, the task of victory becomes more elusive. We face a team in the same caliber as the Philadelphia Eagles. A playoff contender whom we’ll have to play mistake free football, something we didn’t do against the Eagles.

We know what we can do when both the defense and offense are in sync. If we can maintain that consistency we have a chance at beating any contender and can rid ourselves of the pretender label once and for all.