The 49ers are currently 3-10. But when their coach, Kyle Shanahan, addressed the media Monday, it sounded like end-of-semester office hours with your most laid-back professor. Shanahan talked about how much he missed “NFL Countdown” with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, and joked about keeping the identity of his starting quarterback secret until kickoff. (It’s the great Jimmy Garoppolo, silly!)
The Raiders, meanwhile, are a middling 6-7 and clinging to hope of a postseason berth. But expectations are a rabid jackal sometimes, and this one is baring its teeth at the Raiders.
So when Oakland coach Jack Del Rio did his version of the Monday presser, about an hour before Shanahan’s, it was not chipper, or relaxed, or fun. Del Rio sat at the podium, Raiders background draped behind him, and set his jaw.
This is how Del Rio began: “All right, here’s what I know: As players and coaches, we are as frustrated and pissed off about what occurred yesterday as you can be, as anybody out there is. Losing a game like that hurts. And there are no words that I can say here today that are going to take away that pain or make those that care about the Raiders feel better. So I’m really not going to try.”
And he didn’t. We have seen glib Jack Del Rio when the Raiders are on a winning streak, and evasive Jack Del Rio when he’s not sure which hand to play. But this was Del Rio at his realest. This is not the time for obfuscation, and it’s certainly not the time for cockiness. Judging by my Twitter feed yesterday afternoon, Raiders fans are eagerly turning on Del Rio and his staff. It will only get worse if and when the Raiders are eliminated from playoff contention.
Having sat on my couch and used the sacred remote to toggle back and forth between Raiders-Chiefs and 49ers-Texans on Sunday morning, I’m ready to make another comparison: The Niners are the better team.
I don’t mean that the 49ers were better than the Raiders in Week 14, when San Francisco beat a not-very-good team in Houston and Oakland got stomped by a weirdly ineffective team in Kansas City. That’s a no-brainer.
No, I mean that if they played at a neutral site this weekend, I’d expect the 49ers to win. It’s a proposition that would have sounded outlandish after two weeks of the season. So how did this happen? Here are three explanations:
1) The 49ers have a better defense.
Granted, this isn’t exactly a computer analysis of the 1985 Bears vs. the 2000 Ravens. Both Bay Area defense have their issues.
But the SF defense is improving. It might even be, dare I say it, solid at the moment. And that’s after an express lane to the injured reserve that has claimed people like linebacker Malcolm Smith, defensive end Arik Armstead, and defensive backs Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward.
Coordinator Robert Saleh has cut dead weight and repackaged players in different roles, and his young defense plays with obvious passion. Holding consecutive opponents to a total of 30 points and 458 yards is an accomplishment — even if those opponents are the Bears and the Texans.