Postcard from camp: 49ers
The 49ers feel confident they can take the next step after just missing Super Bowl
Randy Moss has been quiet in the media, but is excelling on and off the field so far
Colin Kaepernick needs to be better in his second year to win the backup QB job
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about 49ers camp in Santa Clara, Calif., which he visited on Aug. 7. Read all of our postcards here.
In Santa Clara, Calif., at the 49ers' year-round training facility. It's debatable which construction job is more impressive: the one that has been done to the team's roster the last half-dozen years, or the one being done next door, where a state-of-the-art stadium is rising from a former parking lot. The 49ers clearly are one of the league's more talented squads, with a defense that will challenge for the lead in every major statistical category, a kicking game that is second to none, including the one across the bay in Oakland, and an offense that should be upgraded by additions to the passing game.
1. There is a businesslike attitude surrounding this team. No false enthusiasm or contrived emotion. The 49ers were an overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants from playing for the Lombardi Trophy. There's no reason to believe they can't take that next step this year. End Justin Smith, perhaps the club's best player and without question one of its most respected, set the tone in the offseason when he reminded teammates that the window of opportunity doesn't stay open for long in the NFL. His words resonated with everyone, if only because Smith doesn't lead many group talks. It's also clear that the guys have adopted his sense of urgency. Running back Frank Gore, who says it took months for him to get past the loss in the conference championship, recently spoke with great passion during a team meeting, exhorting his teammates to take the next step. Focus will not be an issue this year.
2. Randy Moss continues to be the talk of camp, even if he isn't speaking himself -- to the media, that is. Moss did a presser on the opening day and has turned down every interview request since. Maybe he wants to let his performance do his talking, which is fine with the 49ers. Thus far the 35-year-old has impressed teammates and coaches with his trademark speed and downfield ability on the field, and his willingness to mentor younger players off it. Still, none of that will matter if he doesn't get it done in games. The 49ers likely will limit him to 20-25 plays a game to keep him fresh. If he's able to take the top off the defense and keep a safety deep, it'll create so many opportunities elsewhere that coordinator Greg Roman, who oversaw a unit that attempted the second-fewest passes in the league last year, will be kept awake at night pondering all the possibilities. Roman not only has a new toy in Moss, but also wideouts Mario Manningham and top draft pick A.J. Jenkins, as well as rookie running back LaMichael James. (I'll write more about the passing game in the magazine's season preview.)
3. The preseason could be big for determining who will back up Smith at quarterback. Colin Kaepernick isn't going anywhere after being drafted in the second round last year, but he probably needs a better showing than a year ago to win the No. 2 job over former Bucs backup Josh Johnson, who starred for coach Jim Harbaugh when the two were at University of San Diego. In last year's preseason, after being prohibited from having contact with the coaches in the offseason because of the lockout, Kaepernick posted a 23.9 passer rating that was last among 42 quarterbacks who attempted at least 20 passes. He has looked more confident and at ease in camp, but his play has been inconsistent.
Alex Smith, quarterback. The former No. 1 overall pick made tremendous strides last season in helping the 49ers reach the conference final, but he appeared tight at times in the overtime loss to the Giants. It could have been due to his wideout corps being depleted by injury, and the Giants' pass rush being so fierce. But a concerted effort was made to upgrade the receiving corps, so there should be more opportunities for Smith to improve on his 17-touchdown, five-interception season of 2011.
Mario Manningham, wide receiver. Another potential weapon in the passing game, Manningham had a memorable catch in the Giants' Super Bowl win last season. He doesn't spend much time thinking about the sideline grab, preferring to live in the present, and believes the 49ers have an excellent shot at helping him win back-to-back titles. He told some of his former teammates as much when they ran into each other at the ESPY awards and did some playful trash-talking to each other.
The 49ers will be tested out of the gate, with a trip to Green Bay before hosting the Lions. They don't play a division game until Week 7, when in consecutive weeks they'll host Seattle, visit Arizona and host the Rams. Also keep an eye on the final six weeks, when they will hit the road four times. It's not implausible that the division race could come down to the final three weeks, when they play at New England and Seattle before hosting the Cardinals, who beat them 21-19 last year.