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> Addressing his team early in training camp, coach Mike Nolan took out clippings from newspapers in Phoenix, Seattle and St. Louis. He read headline after headline, then helped his players find the common thread. "All of them are going to win the division," Nolan said, referring to the teams in those towns. " Seattle is going back to the Super Bowl because of its defense. Arizona got a new ass-kicking coaching staff. And St. Louis has the best offense in the league." Nolan's point--that in August everyone thinks he can win--needed to be made because never before under Nolan have the 49ers been expected to win the way they are this season. "We've been putting this thing together for two years, and you want to believe that people think you are doing something right," Nolan says. "But as I told the team, it doesn't matter unless you are the best."
San Francisco may not be the best this season, but the Niners are undoubtedly better, particularly on defense. A free-agent spending spree netted All-Pro cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Linebacker Patrick Willis of Mississippi was the first of the team's two first-round picks. Combined with the shuffling of returning players, San�Francisco's defense could have new starters at six positions. "Our first two off-seasons were about adding to the offense. This time it was defense," says Scot McCloughan, vice president�of player personnel. "Now, as a team, we have more athleticism, more speed, more talent on the field. Everything feels different."
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
> Defensive end Bryant Young almost retired this spring but chose to come back for a 14th�season because he believes, as do many in the locker room, that the 49ers are a playoff contender. "I've been through two rebuilding phases before, and this one was done by people who had a vision," Young says. "People who didn't fit were shown the door, and now they've got people they were after. As a player, you like to think that there is a plan, but you are never sure. After this off-season, I can see the plan."
Part of that design is to give more responsibility to third-year quarterback Alex Smith. As a rookie in 2005 he was horrible, throwing 11 interceptions and only one touchdown. Last season he tossed 16 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Moreover, with the emergence of running back Frank Gore, the team developed an offensive identity--a heaping helping of Gore with a dash of Smith--that led to road victories over Seattle and Denver in December.
"Two years ago was so awful, and it was hard to see the light," Smith says. "But at the end of last year we started to see improvement, and then you see who we added in the off-season, and you see them now in practice, and you can feel it: We are headed somewhere."
Smith is still only 23 years old, but Nolan thinks of him as Mr. Reliable. "He's not like John Elway, who showed up and threw three touchdowns in one game and then three interceptions in the next," says Nolan. "Alex is steady." Smith worked on his footwork in the pocket during the off-season, to try to avoid the fumbles and strips that kill drives. He knows he has to be better this year, because as he goes, so goes San Francisco. "The arc of a quarterback's improvement and a team's success are usually the same," he says.
The offensive line may be vulnerable on the left side with Jonas Jennings, who has never played a full season, at tackle and 35-year-old Larry Allen at guard, but first-round pick Joe Staley of Central Michigan can cover for Jennings, and third-year guard David Baas is good enough to start. Mr. Reliable Smith's task would be easier if he had some reliable targets, but the 49ers will try to get by with the underwhelming ( Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie) and the oft-injured (Darrell Jackson, whom the Niners acquired from the Seahawks).
If second-year tight end Vernon Davis can stay healthy, he could become Smith's primary weapon. Davis missed six games of his rookie season with a cracked right fibula but still caught 20 balls, and he has looked good in camp. In the off-season he worked out with the wide receivers, practicing routes not often used by a tight end. "Vernon and I are learning together," Smith says. "He's gotten better at running outside and worked hard because he knows we're going to ask him to do a lot."