Postcard from camp: 49ers (cont.)
New Faces, New Places
On offense, it's Martz. Few are on par with him when it comes to the passing game, which is why head coach Mike Nolan hired him. The feeling within the organization is that if the 49ers can get marginal improvement from a passing game that ranked last in the league in 2007 (and get back to running the ball like it did two seasons ago, when Gore ranked third in the league with 1,695 yards) then that alone should account for at least a few more wins. Tight end Vernon Davis says that he has learned more from Martz in one offseason than he did in either of his first two years in the league. That's saying a lot considering Norv Turner was the coordinator his rookie season.
On defense, Smith is the big addition. With the retirement of Bryant Young, the 49ers needed an end who could provide a physical presence, anchor the run and pressure the passer. Smith is coming off a career-low two sacks, but there is excitement internally about his addition.
Looking At The Schedule
The 49ers' fate could be decided early. They not only open the season against two divisional foes -- Arizona at home, Seattle on the road -- but play five of their first 10 against NFC West competition. That's noteworthy because San Francisco has not had a winning divisional record since 2002, the last season in which it made the playoffs. Another challenge is that it plays five playoff teams from a year ago, including both Super Bowl participants and Dallas. Much-improved New Orleans is also on the schedule. A fast start is imperative.
Memorable Image From Camp
The offensive line is not at full strength. David Baas, a projected starter at right guard, is out indefinitely with a torn pectoral, and second-year standout Joe Staley is on the non-football injury list due to a foot infection from a bug bite. These are setbacks. The unit needs to build cohesion not only because it struggled last season, but also because three projected starters will be playing new positions: Staley and Jonas Jennings are swapping spots (Staley is going from right tackle to left tackle, and Jennings is going from left to right), and Adam Snyder, who started 11 games at left tackle after Jennings was hurt, is moving to left guard.
Davis believes he's on the precipice of a breakout season. Martz is pushing him to play at a faster speed and to be more precise in his routes. "When he tells you he needs 15½ yards, he wants that half yard," Davis says.
The receiving corps appears to be the deepest since Nolan arrived in 2005. Bryant Johnson, who was the third receiver in Arizona, is expected to be the No. 1 with Rams veteran Isaac Bruce starting at the other spot. Arnaz Battle, who led the team's wideouts in catches the past two seasons, is the projected third wideout. Rookie Josh Morgan intrigues position coach Jerry Sullivan, who is one of the best in the business.
Middle linebacker Patrick Willis, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, jumps out at you. He has the talent and the desire to be one of the all-time greats, and he practices as hard as he plays. It's scary how good he can be with continued good health. The beautiful thing about Willis is that he's as humble as he is talented.
Nolan says he thought it was 50-50 whether he would be brought back for a fourth season, but Jed York, son of team owners Denise and John York, says the only way Nolan wasn't going to return was if Nolan told them he wanted out. York won't say that Nolan is on the hot seat or whether there is a win total the team must reach for Nolan to have job security. But he does believe it's time for the team to take the next step and get to the playoffs after three years of rebuilding.