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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.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
COACH: MIKE SINGLETARY