31 Days, 31 Teams: San Francisco 49ers
By Jeff Falconio
After years of futility the San Francisco 49ers began showing signs of a recovery in the second half of the 2008 season. Mike Nolan was fired as head coach after week 7 and replaced by Mike Singletary who guided the team to a 5-4 finish.
Optimism is higher in the Bay Area than in previous years as the 49ers are slowing putting playmakers on both sides of the ball. At running back the Niners have solid Frank Gore but the fifth year veteran has been hampered by injuries the last two seasons. To add depth San Fran drafted Glen Coffee to serve as understudy to Gore. Veteran Isaac Bruce leads a very young core of receivers that includes Josh Morgan, Jason Hill and rookie Michael Crabtree. However, Crabtree remains unsigned and his future with the Niners is unclear.
While the young nucleus is being formed the 49ers need to find stability at quarterback. In 2005 the 49ers used the overall number one pick on Alex Smith but injuries and inconsistent play has dropped Smith to second string. Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan split time last year but O'Sullivan is gone. Hill won the open training camp competition but he's not a long term solution at quarterback.
While youth rules on offense the 49ers are much more seasoned defensively. San Francisco brought back linebacker Takeo Spikes, who was all over the field with three interceptions to go with 96 tackles last year. Justin Smith revived his career at defensive end with seven sacks. The lone exception to experience is linebacker Patrick Willis. In his second year Willis was the second leading tackler in the NFL with 141. The 49ers began to take on Singletary's toughness in the last five games of '08. In that stretch they gave up an average of 14 points per game.
Burning Question: Is Alex Smith a lost cause? After throwing 11 interceptions his rookie year Smith showed some progress in '06 but was still picked off 16 times. 2007 was meant to be a pivotal year but Smith only played seven games before getting injured. Smith then missed all of 2008 with a shoulder injury. Hill is the starter but last year he threw 13 touchdowns with eight interceptions and if the paltry numbers continue it could open the door for Smith.
The 49ers will be better than last year if: During the offseason the 49ers got rid of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and will concentrate on running more. Gore stays healthy all year and teams up with Coffee for a powerful backfield with the commitment to the run. Crabtree gets signed and adds another dimension to the young fleet of receivers. Willis and Spikes form one of the best linebacker tandems in the NFC as the 49ers parlay the success from last December to become the best defensive unit in the NFC West. A run for the wild card is possible.
The 49ers will be worse than last year if: Hill can't be consistent and Smith doesn't take advantage of the opportunity. Gore gets hurt again forcing the 49ers to lean too much on Coffee. Without much offense the defense can't hold its own and spends too much time on the field. Arizona and Seattle throw all over the field against San Fran as the Niners finish third in the NFC West.