A LONG-ACCEPTEDfootball axiom has held that if a team can run the ball and stop the run, itwill win. Coach Mike Singletary pondered that one morning at training camp,then offered a revision. "If you can stop the run and run the ball, youhave a chance in any game, but when you go up against teams that can also dothose things, you've only got a 50-50 chance," he said. "To get to thenext level, to get to where we want to be, you've got to give yourself betterodds than that. So, yes, if you can run the ball and stop the run, you can win,but to really be successful you've got to have balance on offense."
Led by aslimmed-down and motivated Frank Gore at running back, San Francisco shouldhave no trouble generating a ground game. With All-Pro Patrick Willis emergingas one of the league's best linebackers as he heads into his third season, thedefense should be stout enough. The great unknown is whether the 49ers have aquarterback who can better those 50-50 odds, a quandary that has marked thisfranchise for so long that it's easy to forget San Francisco was once the teamof Joe Montana and Steve Young.
The candidatesare well known, and it is debatable whether that is a good thing. Eighth-yearveteran Shaun Hill, who played in nine games last season, and Alex Smith, theNo. 1 draft pick in 2005 who has battled injuries and inconsistency, staged acompetition in camp that Hill won mostly because Singletary perceived him to bethe quarterback less likely to turn the ball over. Even so, Hill's hold on thejob is precarious—Smith is the more talented of the two when healthy—and theclosest Singletary came to paying his quarterbacks a compliment was to callHill "less of a mystery."
"First, I amlooking for leadership, a guy who can take control of the offense and get theother guys to believe in him," Singletary says. "If something goeswrong, don't bring it to the sideline—handle it on the field. Second, I amlooking for execution. The last thing, and this is essential: Take care of thefootball." (Singletary's disdain for turnovers was evident when, afterSmith threw an interception in practice, the coach banished him for 20 minutesto a hill overlooking the field.)
Much was writtenabout the physical two-a-day practices that Singletary, in his first fullseason as coach, ran during camp, but more telling was the giant clock thatcounted down from three seconds every time the ball was snapped. San Franciscoquarterbacks were sacked a league-high 55 times in 2008, and the message wasclear: Get rid of the ball.
Assisting Hill(or Smith) will be a line that is expected to be improved. Fifth-year veteranAdam Snyder, who played various positions last season, has found a home atright tackle, the team's weakest spot a year ago. He beat out free-agent signeeMarvel Smith, who becomes a valuable backup. Left tackle Joe Staley, athird-year player who moved over from the right side before last season, ismore settled. "This is not a young and inexperienced group anymore,"says center Eric Heitmann, the veteran of the bunch at 29. "We are notgoing in with position battles and guys moving from the right to the left sidelike Joe did last year, and we have great depth. We're in a much betterposition to give our quarterback an opportunity to succeed."
It would havehelped if Michael Crabtree, the Texas Tech wideout taken at No. 10 in thedraft, hadn't missed camp in a contract dispute. An elite pass catcher isneeded to offset the assortment of average ones (Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle,etc.) on the roster. There are other concerns, including the absence of aproven pass rusher, but the season will most likely hinge on whether Hill orSmith can lift the offense.
The odds of that?Call it 50-50.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
5--4 in NFL, second season with 49ers
Former No. 1 pickAlex Smith (914 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs in '07) missed all of '08 with a shoulderinjury; 2009 first-round WR Michael Crabtree was unsigned as of Monday.
Veteran FS MarkRoman (85 tackles, 0 INTs as a starter the past two years) comes off the benchin '09.
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2008 RECORD 7--9
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 27 > 13 > 23
DEFENSE 13T > 20 > 13
13 at Arizona
27 at Minnesota
4 ST. LOUIS
25 at Houston
1 at Indianapolis
12 CHICAGO (T)
22 at Green Bay
6 at Seattle
14 ARIZONA (M)
20 at Philadelphia
3 at st. Louis
NFL Rank: 26
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .443
Games against playoff teams: 7
The Niners' run-first philosophy fits a schedule thatincludes November and December trips to Green Bay and Philly. But the defense,which improved at the end of '08, will be tested by four top 10 offenses. CoachMike Singletary will put all his motivational tools to use before his youngteam enters marquee matchups against his former club, the Bears, and BrettFavre's Vikings.
Dashon Goldson, Free safety
HE HAS watched so much video during his first twoyears in the NFL, footage of teammates who started ahead of him and topsafeties such as the Ravens' Ed Reed and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu, thatGoldson knows well how his position is supposed to be played.
Now he just has to, well, play his position.
"I've gotten a lot of what I would call mentalreps over the last two years," says Goldson. "I've seen what somesafeties bring to their teams, flying all over the place, going sideline tosideline being a ball hawk. I want to be someone who can do the same."
A cornerback at Washington who was selected in thefourth round of the 2007 draft, the 6'2" Goldson has good cover skills andattacks the line of scrimmage so aggressively that he had to be told to stophitting offensive linemen during training camp.
"The key is for him to continue to get comfortablewith the scheme, not thinking as much but just going," coach MikeSingletary says. "He's got to play fast."
Goldson also must stay healthy. He missed seven gameslast season with a knee injury, but he feels good now and is ready to make avideo of his own. "If I get through a full season," he says, "Iknow I can be a playmaker."
BEN MUNN/CAL SPORT MEDIA
MIDDLE MANAGER Willis has been to the Pro Bowl after each of his first two seasons.
PETER READ MILLER