> Addressinghis team early in training camp, coach Mike Nolan took out clippings fromnewspapers in Phoenix, Seattle and St. Louis. He read headline after headline,then helped his players find the common thread. "All of them are going towin the division," Nolan said, referring to the teams in those towns."Seattle is going back to the Super Bowl because of its defense. Arizonagot a new ass-kicking coaching staff. And St. Louis has the best offense in theleague." Nolan's point--that in August everyone thinks he can win--neededto be made because never before under Nolan have the 49ers been expected to winthe way they are this season. "We've been putting this thing together fortwo years, and you want to believe that people think you are doing somethingright," Nolan says. "But as I told the team, it doesn't matter unlessyou are the best."
San Francisco maynot be the best this season, but the Niners are undoubtedly better,particularly on defense. A free-agent spending spree netted All-Pro cornerbackNate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and defensivetackle Aubrayo Franklin. Linebacker Patrick Willis of Mississippi was the firstof the team's two first-round picks. Combined with the shuffling of returningplayers, San¬†Francisco's defense could have new starters at six positions."Our first two off-seasons were about adding to the offense. This time itwas defense," says Scot McCloughan, vice president¬†of playerpersonnel. "Now, as a team, we have more athleticism, more speed, moretalent on the field. Everything feels different."
> Defensive endBryant Young almost retired this spring but chose to come back for a14th¬†season because he believes, as do many in the locker room, that the49ers are a playoff contender. "I've been through two rebuilding phasesbefore, and this one was done by people who had a vision," Young says."People who didn't fit were shown the door, and now they've got people theywere after. As a player, you like to think that there is a plan, but you arenever sure. After this off-season, I can see the plan."
Part of that designis to give more responsibility to third-year quarterback Alex Smith. As arookie in 2005 he was horrible, throwing 11 interceptions and only onetouchdown. Last season he tossed 16 touchdowns and only six interceptions.Moreover, with the emergence of running back Frank Gore, the team developed anoffensive identity--a heaping helping of Gore with a dash of Smith--that led toroad victories over Seattle and Denver in December.
"Two years agowas so awful, and it was hard to see the light," Smith says. "But atthe end of last year we started to see improvement, and then you see who weadded in the off-season, and you see them now in practice, and you can feel it:We are headed somewhere."
Smith is still only23 years old, but Nolan thinks of him as Mr. Reliable. "He's not like JohnElway, who showed up and threw three touchdowns in one game and then threeinterceptions in the next," says Nolan. "Alex is steady." Smithworked on his footwork in the pocket during the off-season, to try to avoid thefumbles and strips that kill drives. He knows he has to be better this year,because as he goes, so goes San Francisco. "The arc of a quarterback'simprovement and a team's success are usually the same," he says.
The offensive linemay be vulnerable on the left side with Jonas Jennings, who has never played afull season, at tackle and 35-year-old Larry Allen at guard, but first-roundpick Joe Staley of Central Michigan can cover for Jennings, and third-yearguard David Baas is good enough to start. Mr. Reliable Smith's task would beeasier if he had some reliable targets, but the 49ers will try to get by withthe underwhelming (Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie) and the oft-injured (DarrellJackson, whom the Niners acquired from the Seahawks).
If second-yeartight end Vernon Davis can stay healthy, he could become Smith's primaryweapon. Davis missed six games of his rookie season with a cracked right fibulabut still caught 20 balls, and he has looked good in camp. In the off-season heworked out with the wide receivers, practicing routes not often used by a tightend. "Vernon and I are learning together," Smith says. "He's gottenbetter at running outside and worked hard because he knows we're going to askhim to do a lot."
When Nolan arrivedin 2005, the roster was full of players the coach calls "two-plays-a-gameguys"--players who might make a couple of plays each week but otherwisejust take up space. "Now we've got some guys who can make plays allgame," Nolan says. "We've also got some depth now, and next year wewill have more depth and more guys who can make plays. That is what is excitingfor me--that while we're not there yet, we're getting there."--
WITH 2006 STATISTICS
COACH MIKE NOLAN (11-21 in NFL), third season with 49ers
DARRELL JACKSON(NEW ACQUISITION)
ARNAZ BATTLE (NEWACQUISITION)
HT 6' 8"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 4"
TULLY BANTA-CAIN (NEW ACQUISITION)
SACKS 5 1‚ÅÑ2
SACKS 5 1‚ÅÑ2
AUBRAYO FRANKLIN(NEW ACQUISITION)
NATE CLEMENTS (NEWACQUISITION)
MICHAEL LEWIS (NEWACQUISITION)
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD7-9 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 6/29/26 DEFENSE 19/26/26
10 ARIZONA (M)
16 at St. Louis
23 at Pittsburgh
21 at N.Y. Giants
28 NEW ORLEANS
4 at Atlanta
12 at Seattle (M)
18 ST. LOUIS
25 at Arizona
2 at Carolina
15 CINCINNATI (S)
23 TAMPA BAY
30 at Cleveland
(M) Monday (S) Saturday
NFL rank 30
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .469
Games against playoff teams 5
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ENEMY LINES AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE49ERS
> Eric Heitmann is the kind of tough young centeryou build a line around, but I'm skeptical that Kwame Harris is a long-termsolution at right tackle. He gets beat around the edge too much. . . . DarrellJackson will have something to prove and will be the kind of 70-catch receiverAlex Smith needs. I can't believe Seattle traded him within the division.Stupid. The 49ers beat Seattle twice last year, and now they've got theSeahawks' best receiver. . . . People don't know Brandon Moore, but they will.He's the kind of playmaking, sideline-to-sideline inside linebacker that makesa 3-4 defense work. . . . The weakest position group on this team: safety.Michael Lewis and Mark Roman are journeymen who will get beat deep.
THE KING 500
> LEFT TACKLE
When the 49ers gave Jennings a $36¬†million deal in '05, they werecriticized because of his history of injuries. "We knew he was going tomiss games, but we also knew that the games he did play would be at a Pro Bowllevel," says Scot McCloughan, VP of player personnel. Jennings gave SanFrancisco 13 games last season and was a leader on a line that helped FrankGore amass 1,695 yards rushing.
go-to guy In his second season a healthy Davis should become Smith's favorite target.
G. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/WIREIMAGE.COM