|Willis has been to the Pro Bowl after each of his first two seasons.
|Greg Trott/Getty Images|
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
Dashon Goldson, Free safety: He has watched so much video during his first two years in the NFL,
footage of teammates who started ahead of him and top safeties such as the
Ravens' Ed Reed and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu, that Goldson 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 mental reps over the last two years,"
says Goldson. "I've seen what some safeties bring to their teams, flying all
over the place, going sideline to sideline being a ball hawk. I want to be
someone who can do the same."
A cornerback at Washington who was selected in the fourth round of the 2007
draft, the 6' 2" Goldson has good cover skills and attacks the line of
scrimmage so aggressively that he had to be told to stop hitting offensive
linemen during training camp.
"The key is for him to continue to get comfortable with the scheme, not
thinking as much but just going," coach Mike Singletary says. "He's got to
Goldson also must stay healthy. He missed seven games last season with a
knee injury, but he feels good now and is ready to make a video of his own.
"If I get through a full season," he says, "I know I can be a playmaker."
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The franchise once led by Joe Montana and Steve Young needs one of its two unspectacular passers to take charge.
A long-accepted football axiom has held that if a team can run the ball and stop the run, it
will 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, you have a chance
in any game, but when you go up against teams that can also do those things,
you've only got a 50-50 chance," he said. "To get to the next level, to get to
where we want to be, you've got to give yourself better odds 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 a slimmed-down and motivated Frank Gore at running back, San Francisco
should have no trouble generating a ground game. With All-Pro Patrick Willis
emerging as one of the league's best linebackers as he heads into his third
season, the defense should be stout enough. The great unknown is whether the
49ers have a quarterback who can better those 50-50 odds, a quandary that has
marked this franchise for so long that it's easy to forget San Francisco was
once the team of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
The candidates are well known, and it is debatable whether that is a good
thing. Eighth-year veteran Shaun Hill, who played in nine games last season, and
Alex Smith, the No. 1 draft pick in 2005 who has battled injuries and
inconsistency, staged a competition in camp that Hill won mostly because
Singletary perceived him to be the quarterback less likely to turn the ball
over. Even so, Hill's hold on the job is precarious -- Smith is the more talented
of the two when healthy -- and the closest Singletary came to paying his
quarterbacks a compliment was to call Hill "less of a mystery."
"First, I am looking for leadership, a guy who can take control of the
offense and get the other guys to believe in him," Singletary says. "If
something goes wrong, don't bring it to the sideline -- handle it on the field.
Second, I am looking for execution. The last thing, and this is essential: Take
care of the football." (Singletary's disdain for turnovers was evident when,
after Smith threw an interception in practice, the coach banished him for 20
minutes to a hill overlooking the field.)
Much was written about the physical two-a-day practices that Singletary, in
his first full season as coach, ran during camp, but more telling was the giant
clock that counted down from three seconds every time the ball was snapped. San
Francisco quarterbacks were sacked a league-high 55 times in 2008, and the
message was clear: Get rid of the ball.
Assisting Hill (or Smith) will be a line that is expected to be improved.
Fifth-year veteran Adam Snyder, who played various positions last season, has
found a home at right tackle, the team's weakest spot a year ago. He beat out
free-agent signee Marvel Smith, who becomes a valuable backup. Left tackle Joe
Staley, a third-year player who moved over from the right side before last
season, is more settled. "This is not a young and inexperienced group anymore,"
says center Eric Heitmann, the veteran of the bunch at 29. "We are not going in
with position battles and guys moving from the right to the left side like Joe
did last year, and we have great depth. We're in a much better position to give
our quarterback an opportunity to succeed."
It would have helped if Michael Crabtree, the Texas Tech wideout taken at No.
10 in the draft, hadn't missed camp in a contract dispute. An elite pass catcher
is needed to offset the assortment of average ones (Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle,
etc.) on the roster. There are other concerns, including the absence of a proven
pass rusher, but the season will most likely hinge on whether Hill or Smith can
lift the offense.
The odds of that? Call it 50-50.