SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Greeting the 49ers as they exit their locker rooms at this training camp is a large banner bearing a stern reminder:
YOU ARE GETTING BETTER, OR YOU ARE GETTING WORSE
Which is it, Nnamdi Asomugha?
The 32-year-old cornerback signed with San Francisco last spring, having been cut loose by the Eagles, for whom he'd been a major disappointment. Two years earlier, as the most gleaming prize of the 2011 free agency class, the three-time Pro Bowler had signed a five-year, $60 million deal with Philly, only to flop like the movie Jack The Giant Slayer. So eager was Philly's new regime to jettison Asomugha last March that it cut him loose despite still owing him $4 million in guaranteed money.
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One man's bust is another's potential treasure: Niners GM Trent Baalke's decision to welcome Asomugha into the 49er fold was part calculated risk, part exercise in wishful thinking -- an expression of hope that the California native can still recapture the speed and skills he used to jam, disrupt, blanket and otherwise discombobulate receivers during his eight mainly excellent seasons as an Oakland Raider. The 49ers are gambling that Asomugha's return to the Bay Area -- he played his college ball at Cal-Berkeley -- will serve as both a homecoming and safety net, serving to arrest the downward trajectory of his career.
If it turns out he's washed up, the Niners won't be overly put out. They signed him for a relative song: a one-year deal worth $1.35 million in base salary, none of the money guaranteed.
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What happened in Philadelphia? How did he go from Pro Bowler to bust -- a poster child for disastrous free-agent signings? Did his physical skills suddenly fall off a cliff?
Probably not. Transplanted abruptly into an Eagles defense in marked disarray, Asomugha simply found himself in a situation unfavorable to him in almost every way -- other than financial.
"Everything was different," he recalled before a recent Niners practice. "We were coming off that lockout year, so everything was tough." Without benefit of minicamps or a real training camp, he was thrown into the deep end of an ill-fated schemed dubbed the "The Wide Nine," the brainchild of first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. "The defensive staff was brand new," said Asomugha, "most of the players were brand new. It took longer than we wanted for the communication and all that stuff to start working."
At home in the orbit of celebrities -- last June he married actress Kerry Washington in Idaho -- Asomugha is also grounded and humble. True, humility comes easily when one is part of a secondary that surrenders 60 touchdown passes in two seasons, as he was with the Eagles.
"It took awhile for us to get to know each other, and to play with each other, and by the time we started to do better at it, the season had gotten away from us," he explains.
To meet him for the first time is to be struck by his cool, serene presence -- he is a kind of wise elder in the Niners room -- his exceeding graciousness, and ... size. A long-limbed 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he looks more like a safety -- which was, in fact, the position he played at Cal. After the Raiders drafted him late in the first round in '03, Al Davis informed the rookie that he would play cornerback in Oakland. "I was reluctant at first," he remembers, "but it turned out great ..."
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Playing almost exclusively in the in-your-face, aggressive press-man coverage synonymous with the Silver and Black, Asomugha flourished, then dominated. In one three-season stretch, he reportedly allowed just a single touchdown pass. He allowed just 13 completions in 2010 -- a measly baker's dozen. His signing by the Eagles was hailed as a masterstroke, a coup.
But he was far outside of his comfort zone in Philadelphia, playing far more zone defense than he ever had, backpedalling to an assigned area, rather than challenging wideouts mano-a-mano. As he and the secondary struggled in '11, Asomugha appeared to lose confidence. "He became tentative to the point where he didn't even resemble the player who made three Pro Bowls in Oakland," wrote Ray Didinger in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The following season was worse: "It appeared at 31 Asomugha had lost his speed. He never was blazing fast but last season he actually looked slow."
So what exactly have the Niners got their hands on? A rejuvenated, top-shelf DB poised for a comeback? Or a guy on the slippery slope?
"He looks like the Nnamdi he's looked like his whole [pre-Eagles] career," asserts Niners wide receiver Kyle Williams. "I don't know what was going on in Philadelphia, but going against him so far -- he's still got it. He's so long out there, he can disrupt you without doing that much."
That was Williams' assessment after a single day in pads. The Niners coaches have been more measured in their evaluations:
"He gives you a guy that can match up with big receivers -- which we have [a lot of] coming through the division," said secondary coach Ed Donatell. "In press coverage, which has been his signature, he's hard to get around."
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What about Asomugha's dreadful interlude in Philadelphia?
"We don't really deal a lot with the past. He changed addresses" -- from Oakland to Philly -- "in a lockout year, so he didn't get to mesh with his teammates, get things going," Donatell said. "Now he's back home. And that's all we looked at. We looked at his best football, his best Raiders stuff, and said, that's what we want."
Are they getting it? Not consistently, according to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who told reporters on Aug. 2 that "the jury is still out" on Asomugha.
"He's had some good days out here and some days where we weren't sure if he was going to be able to still have it," reported Fangio. "So I think we're kind of in between with him right now. Hopefully he'll be able to still have gas left in the tank to be able to go out and play like he did prior to going to Philadelphia."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the man Asomugha most needs to impress, although his odds of making the roster certainly improved on Aug. 1, when Chris Culliver, slated to start at one corner, was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Culliver's misfortune is but the latest drama to befall a position that is remarkably unsettled, for a Super Bowl contender. He went down two weeks after the Niners had traded for troubled Buccaneers corner Eric Wright, who then failed his physical, voiding the trade. Three days later, San Francisco's other starting corner, Tarell Brown, fired his agent after learning (via Twitter) that he had forfeited a $2 million escalator in his contract by failing to participate in the team's offseason workout program. The same day Fangio issued what amounted to a three-letter assessment of Asomugha -- Meh -- Baalke was reportedly back in contact with Wright, who may yet become a Niner.
It doesn't bode especially well for Asomugha that, despite this turmoil, he remains on the bubble. While he surely knows that, he remains outwardly calm, supremely focused. Asked if the reports of his regression as an Eagle made him feel disrespected, gave him fuel to disprove doubters, he said, basically: Not so much.
"I already have such high expectations, the pressure other people put on me is never going to match the pressure I put on myself."
As the Niners made their playoff run last season, was Asomugha eyeballing them, thinking that Santa Clara might make for a nice landing spot?
"I didn't watch their run, actually," came his unsmiling reply. We have landed, accidentally, on a mildly sore subject. "I don't really get into the playoffs." He was speaking literally. After a decade in the League, somewhat incredibly, he's never been to the postseason. "When it's time for the playoffs to come on, that gets tough [for me], so I didn't really see their playoff run."
He chose San Francisco over New Orleans, impressed in particular by the atmosphere in the 49ers' room. There's that college atmosphere where guys are always around each other, and it feels like family, "cause they're spending so much time together."
The feeling is mutual: rather than risk butchering the pronunciation of his last name -- ahh-SEM-wa -- some of his new teammates refer to him merely as "Awesome Guy."
Will Awesome Guy end up being a member of the 49er family? That will depend on whether he's getting better, or getting worse. As it says at the bottom of that banner, "You never stay the same."