THE BELIEF On awall outside the locker room at the 49ers' training camp, there's a banner withX'd out helmets of the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals that boldly says: win thewest. The 49ers may have had the worst record in the NFL over the last twoseasons (6-26), but second-year coach Mike Nolan is infusing the franchise witha winning attitude as he continues to remake the team. Since last year he hasadded playmakers, strengthened a porous offensive line and brought incoordinator Norv Turner to work with quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 draftpick out of Utah in 2005, who was overmatched in his seven starts.
THE REALITY SanFrancisco still doesn't have enough talent to escape the NFC West cellar, butjust as the team improved from two wins to four in Nolan's first season, theNiners will take another step in the right direction this year.
Chief among thenewcomers is tight end Vernon Davis, the No. 6 pick from Maryland. Millions ofTV viewers saw him cry uncontrollably after he was chosen, but Davis assuredNolan in their first phone conversation that he wasn't bawling about going to afranchise with the NFL's lowest-ranked offense and defense. He was justthrilled to achieve his NFL dream. "I get the opportunity to be on a teamwhere we go from being down to being on top," Davis says.
To be sure, tightend-where the 49ers had an NFL-worst 17 catches in '05-is no longer a weakness.Davis often will be paired with Eric Johnson, who missed last season with atorn right plantar fascia but in '04 was one of the league's top pass-catchingtight ends (a team-high 82 receptions for 825 yards). San Francisco alsobrought in free agent Antonio Bryant, a poor man's Terrell Owens. Last seasonin Cleveland the high-strung wideout had a career-best 69 catches for 1,009yards, including 15 receptions of 20 yards or more.
Having more andbetter targets can only be a plus for Smith, who finished his rookie year with11 interceptions, three lost fumbles and one touchdown pass. Smith's 40.8quarterback rating was the lowest by a top pick since Terry Bradshaw's 30.4 in1970. "I'm not going to lie," says Smith. "Sometimes I did questionthings, even questioned myself." An already thin line was plagued byinjuries, leaving Smith vulnerable to 29 sacks-a staggering number for someonewho threw only 165 passes.
The line shouldbe better this year, even with center Jeremy Newberry out for the season (leftknee injury). The 49ers signed free-agent Pro Bowl left guard Larry Allen, whoremains solid if unspectacular at 34. And left tackle Jonas Jennings returnsafter missing 13 games with an injured shoulder.
But the biggestboost for Smith may be the arrival of Turner, who, as the Cowboys' offensivecoordinator in the early 1990s, had such an impact on Troy Aikman's career thatAikman chose Turner to present him for induction into the Hall of Fame thissummer. In Turner's motion-heavy offense San Francisco will set up deep passeswith power runs from Frank Gore.
There are noquick fixes, though. Despite having plenty of salary-cap room, the 49ers arebuilding largely through the draft (19 picks over the past two years),emulating the strategy of the Eagles and the Patriots. It's just going to takeSan Francisco a good while longer to match those teams' success on thefield.
10 at Arizona
17 ST. LOUIS
1 at KansasCity
15 SAN DIEGO
29 at Chicago
12 at Detroit
26 at St.Louis
3 at NewOrleans
10 GREEN BAY
14 at Seattle(T)
31 at Denver
NFL rank 23
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .477
Games againstplayoff teams 4
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE 49ERS
> Their youngplayers need to taste success early in the season to get some confidence.
> With thequarterback position in flux, you've got to be so good everywhere else-and the49ers aren't. I don't put it all on Alex Smith, but he's got to take the nextstep.
> I don'tknow how much guard Larry Allen has left in him after 12 years in Dallas. I'dbe surprised if he has a good year.
> SanFrancisco is weak at wide receiver, and I don't think Antonio Bryant is goingto be the answer. Guys like him, who have been in a few different places, don'tall of a sudden become stars.
> They'll belucky if they win more than five games.
Derek Smith is agood linebacker, but when you get to be 30 or 31, you start to recede a bit.Smith is in that stage.
He envisionshimself becoming an elite tight end on a par with Antonio Gates and TonyGonzalez. And Davis has already topped them in one department: His five-year,$25 million contract is the largest ever for a player at that position. The6'3", 253-pound Davis has a swagger that's perhaps justified by hisprodigious physical gifts. Last winter he clocked a 4.38 in the 40 at thecombine, the fastest time ever recorded by a tight end. Davis will createserious matchup problems for opponents.
COACH MIKE NOLAN(4-12 in NFL), second season with San Francisco
ANTONIO BRYANT --NEW ACQUISITION
VERNON DAVIS (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
LARRY ALLEN --NEW ACQUISITION
MANNY LAWSON (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
WALT HARRIS --NEW ACQUISITION
(R) Rookie (college statistics) *2004 statistics
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (ALEX SMITH)
LOOKING UP Alex Smith hopes a better line will help him improve on a dismal rookie year in which he suffered 29 sacks.
PETER READ MILLER
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ