Search

1 San Francisco 49ERS

Sept. 06, 2010
Sept. 06, 2010

Table of Contents
Sept. 6, 2010

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
NFL PREVIEW
Departments

1 San Francisco 49ERS

Mike Singletary's crew will go as far as quarterback Alex Smith can take them

EVERYTHING APPEARS to be in place for the 49ers to make a run at their first playoff berth in eight years. The defense allowed fewer points than all but three teams last season, the receiving corps features big-play threats in tight end Vernon Davis and wideout Michael Crabtree, and coach Mike Singletary has no qualms about keeping a foot in the players' backsides if they lose focus.

This is an article from the Sept. 6, 2010 issue

That leaves quarterback Alex Smith—the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, who has yet to convert a spoiled fan base into believers—as the key to how far the 49ers will go. Though Smith might never win over the public after Joe Montana and Steve Young set the bar so high during their Hall of Fame careers, you get the sense that he is comfortable with that. He has been through the worst situation possible—five offensive systems in his first five years, two shoulder surgeries, a former head coach who questioned his toughness, an offensive coordinator who tried to break him mentally because he believed Smith had been pampered, and a $17 million pay cut—yet his will and confidence remain intact.

One reason is that he hasn't had to learn a new offensive system between seasons for the first time in his career; another is that he now has a coach and an offensive coordinator who not only challenge him but also believe in him. Singletary made that clear in the off-season when he didn't pursue a quarterback in free agency or use either of his two first-round draft choices on one.

Like coordinator Jimmy Raye, Singletary saw Smith grow as a player and a leader last season, when the QB returned to the lineup in Week 7 after missing 28 consecutive games because of injury and finished the year with career highs in passer rating (81.5), completion percentage (60.5) and touchdown passes (18) while throwing for 2,350 yards.

"It's almost ridiculous to think about how far he has come since I got here [in February 2009]," says Raye. "I don't mean for this to be derogatory," he continued, "but Alex wasn't close to being able to play in the NFL at this time last year. He had so many things to overcome. The biggest thing for him now is that for the first time the system didn't change. He's more familiar with the nomenclature. He understands what he's doing, and now he can take it and go. He believes what I believe about him, and he believes that [Singletary] has got his back. He's comfortable that way. That's the biggest thing that's going to propel him to the next level."

That, and the fact that he's surrounded by San Francisco's deepest team since he arrived five years ago. Davis led all tight ends in 2009 with 13 touchdown catches; Crabtree is a Pro Bowler--in-waiting after catching 48 passes for 625 yards and two scores despite missing all of training camp and the first five games in a contract dispute last year; and running back Frank Gore ranked third with 10 rushing scores and fifth in total yards in the NFC in '09. The team also upgraded the line by using the 11th and 17th picks in April's draft to select offensive tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati, who are expected to start immediately.

Secure in his knowledge of the 49ers system for the first time, Smith focused on fundamentals in the off-season with quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson drilling him on footwork, drops, resets and firming his base when releasing the ball. They also spent a lot of time in the classroom.

"He's understanding everything we're trying to do from a protection standpoint and a route standpoint, and it's allowing him to play faster," Johnson says. "Alex is a very competitive person, and he wants to prove to everyone that he was the Number 1 pick for a reason and warrants that type of respect. He has a tremendous amount of self-respect and pride and works harder than anybody I've ever coached. He's growing."

And he's hungry. Smith had a chance to leave the organization after the 2008 season, when he was a year and a half removed from his last game and coming off a second shoulder surgery. But instead of tucking and running, he allowed the 49ers to restructure his contract and decided to see if he could succeed in San Francisco.

"It would have been easy to leave, to go get a fresh start," Smith says. "But I don't know if that would have been the right thing to do. I know I can play. It's just about going out and doing it."

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH MIKE SINGLETARY

OFFENSE

2009 RANK: 27

QB ALEX SMITH

G 11

ATT 372

COMP 225

PCT 60.5

YARDS 2,350

TD 18

INT 12

RATING 81.5

RB FRANK GORE

G 14

ATT 229

YARDS 1,120

AVG 4.9

REC 52

YARDS 406

AVG 7.8

TTD 13

FB MORAN NORRIS

G 16

ATT 14

YARDS 41

AVG 2.9

REC 7

YARDS 31

AVG 4.4

TTD 1

WR MICHAEL CRABTREE

G 11

REC 48

YARDS 625

TTD 2

WR JOSH MORGAN

G 16

REC 52

YARDS 527

TTD 3

TE VERNON DAVIS

G 16

REC 78

YARDS 965

TTD 13

LT JOE STALEY

G 9

HT 6'5"

WT 315

LG MIKE IUPATI (R)

G 13

HT 6'5"

WT 331

C ERIC HEITMANN

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 312

RG CHILO RACHAL

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 323

RT ANTHONY DAVIS (R)

G 13

HT 6'5"

WT 323

DEFENSE

2009 RANK: 15

DE ISAAC SOPOAGA

G 16

TACKLES 29

SACKS 1

INT 0

NT AUBRAYO FRANKLIN

G 16

TACKLES 36

SACKS 2

INT 1

DE JUSTIN SMITH

G 16

TACKLES 55

SACKS 6

INT 0

LB MANNY LAWSON

G 16

TACKLES 68

SACKS 6½

INT 0

LB TAKEO SPIKES

G 15

TACKLES 75

SACKS 4

INT 0

LB PATRICK WILLIS

G 16

TACKLES 152

SACKS 4

INT 3

LB PARYS HARALSON

G 16

TACKLES 45

SACKS 5

INT 0

CB NATE CLEMENTS

G 7

TACKLES 35

SACKS 0

INT 1

FS DASHON GOLDSON

G 16

TACKLES 94

SACKS 2

INT 4

SS MICHAEL LEWIS

G 15

TACKLES 82

SACKS 1

INT 1

CB SHAWNTAE SPENCER

G 16

TACKLES 53

SACKS 0

INT 2

SPECIAL TEAMS

P ANDY LEE

PUNTS 99

AVG 47.6

NET 41.0

K JOE NEDNEY

FG 17--21

XP 33--33

POINTS 84

PR TED GINN JR.

RET 5

AVG 5.6

TD 0

KR TED GINN JR.

RET 52

AVG 24.9

TD 2

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 8--8

September

12 at Seattle

20 New Orleans (M)

26 at Kansas City

October

3 at Atlanta

10 Philadelphia

17 Oakland

24 at Carolina

31 vs. Denver*

November

7 BYE

14 St. Louis

21 Tampa Bay

29 at Arizona (M)

December

5 at Green Bay

12 Seattle

16 at San Diego (T)

26 at St. Louis

January

2 Arizona

(M) Monday (T) Thursday *in London

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 28

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .457

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 6

ANALYSIS

Life will get a little easier for the Niners right after their transatlantic trip to play the Broncos at Wembley in Week 8. They have the typical post-London bye and follow that up with winnable home games against the Rams and Buccaneers. But they play three of their first four on the road—the home game's against the champion Saints—and have four road trips in five weeks beginning on Nov. 29.

SPOTLIGHT

Frank Gore, Running back

GORE MIGHT be the league's most insecure Pro Bowl running back. It's not uncommon for him to ask out-of-town reporters what people are saying about his game. He remains miffed that he wasn't selected until the third round of the 2005 draft and still tracks the output of the five backs drafted ahead of him—Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams, J.J. Arrington and Eric Shelton—his goal being to end his career with statistics that surpass any of theirs.

Which brings us to the 49ers' signing of former Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook. The move wasn't made to motivate Gore, who remains the unchallenged starter. But anyone who knows Gore acknowledges that it will push the sixth-year pro even harder; if he's unwilling to be shown up by someone drafted ahead of him, he's definitely not going to accept being outplayed by someone on his own team.

A former University of Miami star, Gore is the only back in 49ers history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in four consecutive seasons, and his 4,953 rushing yards during that time rank fourth in the league. When asked if Westbrook's presence could push him past the franchise single-season record of 1,695 yards rushing he set in 2006, Gore flashed a broad smile. It was a smile similar to the one that a team official displayed when discussing how Westbrook's arrival could benefit the team in multiple ways, including providing a change-of-pace threat, playoff experience for a team that hasn't reached the postseason since '02—and added motivation for the speedy and bruising Gore.

PHOTOCARY EDMONDSON/US PRESSWIREHANDY MAN Crabtree is poised to put up Pro Bowl--worthy numbers this season.PHOTOPETER READ MILLER