THE BELIEF On a
wall outside the locker room at the 49ers' training camp, there's a banner with
X'd out helmets of the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals that boldly says: win the
west. The 49ers may have had the worst record in the NFL over the last two
seasons (6-26), but second-year coach Mike Nolan is infusing the franchise with
a winning attitude as he continues to remake the team. Since last year he has
added playmakers, strengthened a porous offensive line and brought in
coordinator Norv Turner to work with quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 draft
pick out of Utah in 2005, who was overmatched in his seven starts.
THE REALITY San
Francisco still doesn't have enough talent to escape the NFC West cellar, but
just as the team improved from two wins to four in Nolan's first season, the
Niners will take another step in the right direction this year.
Chief among the
newcomers is tight end Vernon Davis, the No. 6 pick from Maryland. Millions of
TV viewers saw him cry uncontrollably after he was chosen, but Davis assured
Nolan in their first phone conversation that he wasn't bawling about going to a
franchise with the NFL's lowest-ranked offense and defense. He was just
thrilled to achieve his NFL dream. "I get the opportunity to be on a team
where we go from being down to being on top," Davis says.
To be sure, tight
end-where the 49ers had an NFL-worst 17 catches in '05-is no longer a weakness.
Davis often will be paired with Eric Johnson, who missed last season with a
torn right plantar fascia but in '04 was one of the league's top pass-catching
tight ends (a team-high 82 receptions for 825 yards). San Francisco also
brought in free agent Antonio Bryant, a poor man's Terrell Owens. Last season
in Cleveland the high-strung wideout had a career-best 69 catches for 1,009
yards, including 15 receptions of 20 yards or more.
Having more and
better targets can only be a plus for Smith, who finished his rookie year with
11 interceptions, three lost fumbles and one touchdown pass. Smith's 40.8
quarterback rating was the lowest by a top pick since Terry Bradshaw's 30.4 in
1970. "I'm not going to lie," says Smith. "Sometimes I did question
things, even questioned myself." An already thin line was plagued by
injuries, leaving Smith vulnerable to 29 sacks-a staggering number for someone
who threw only 165 passes.
The line should
be better this year, even with center Jeremy Newberry out for the season (left
knee injury). The 49ers signed free-agent Pro Bowl left guard Larry Allen, who
remains solid if unspectacular at 34. And left tackle Jonas Jennings returns
after missing 13 games with an injured shoulder.
But the biggest
boost for Smith may be the arrival of Turner, who, as the Cowboys' offensive
coordinator in the early 1990s, had such an impact on Troy Aikman's career that
Aikman chose Turner to present him for induction into the Hall of Fame this
summer. In Turner's motion-heavy offense San Francisco will set up deep passes
with power runs from Frank Gore.
There are no
quick fixes, though. Despite having plenty of salary-cap room, the 49ers are
building largely through the draft (19 picks over the past two years),
emulating the strategy of the Eagles and the Patriots. It's just going to take
San Francisco a good while longer to match those teams' success on the