Progress for 49ers
Ultimately, the 49ers chances of returning to respectability rest on the coach and quarterback.
From the start, Nolan has shown that he understands the importance of building an offensive line. Recent 49er history sends the same message. Though much of the impetus for the start of the championship run under Bill Walsh came from stars like Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, it helped greatly that Walsh inherited the nucleus of a strong offensive line with Randy Cross, Keith Fahnhorst, Fred Quillen and John Ayers.
In Nolanís first draft, he grabbed two offensive linemen, guard/center David Baas and guard/tackle Adam Snyder on the second and third rounds. He also signed free agent tackle Jonas Jennings. Snyder and Baas made significant late season contributions. Jennings was lost to injury.
Assuming Jennings returns from injury, as he should, the Niners offensive line should be a real strength this year. Snyder and Jennings will be the tackles. Allen will be a starter at one guard, with Baas, Justin Smiley and Eric Heitman vying for the other slot Ė if Jeremy Newberry can return at center. If Newberry canít, which would be my guess, Heitman can return to center.
Allen isnít the dominating force he once was, but heís still a massive presence in the middle, which will help the inside running game and the pass protection schemes. He will also provide a strong veteran leadership for a team that sorely needs it.
Meanwhile, Nolan seems to be getting a firmer grip on the job. I hope that isnít just because itís the offseason, when he doesnít have to make the game and roster decisions that plagued him last year.
Despite his talk about inheriting a weak roster, I thought Nolan really believed he could make a significant difference last year. In fairness, Walsh was also unrealistic in his first season expectations. That can happen with coaches who have great self-confidence.
Nolanís self-assurance led him to some ludicrous positions, including his ďgoalĒ of winning the NFC West. It also led to the rant after the Niners blew their third game of the season, against Dallas. The fallout from that led to the dropping, and ultimate trade, of linebacker Jamie Winborn and a horrendous loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City.
On the positive side, Nolan kept the team playing hard despite its low standing, and the 49ers ended the season strong by winning their final two games, against the Rams in St. Louis and at home against the Houston Texans.
Nolan also changed his views on his personal authority. When he took the job, he liked the fact that he would be in total control, not just on the field but in the personnel decisions. After talking to Mike Holmgren after the second game against Seattle, he changed his mind, as Holmgren told him he was a better coach without the responsibility of also acting as the general manager. The 49ers have yet to bring in a veteran executive for the front office, but Nolan is firm in saying he wants somebody in place.
Iíve always liked the energy he brought to the 49ers, but Iíve questioned his flexibility. Now, it seems Nolan is growing into the job.
THE PROGNOSIS for his quarterback is more clouded, and the success of last yearís draft as well as the future of the team depend on Alex Smith.
The changes that have been made so far will benefit Smith. The strengthened offensive line will mean that Smith wonít be buried by the pass rush, as he often was last year. An improved running game should take off some of the pressure, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner believes in the power running game. The addition of Antonio Bryant gives Smith a better receiver than anybody he had last year. It will also help greatly if Eric Johnson can come back.
The idea of starting as a rookie can be daunting even for a quarterback like Peyton Manning, who had the benefit of four years in a top collegiate program and a father who had been an NFL quarterback. Even with that background, Manning was only 3-13 as a rookie starter, because his supporting cast at the time was weak.
Smith had none of Manningís background advantages, having played only two years at Utah and in a spread offense, unlike anything heíd play in as a pro. He had a very rocky rookie year, throwing only one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions.
Nonetheless, itís important to remember what Manning told him when Smith sought his advice: Play, play, play. Manning told Smith that the only way to really learn the pro game was to play it, no matter how many setbacks he had.
That was Nolanís decision, too. Tim Rattay was the safer choice at quarterback, but Nolan knew Rattay wasnít a quarterback who could be the guy they needed to lead them out of the quagmire. He traded Rattay early to make room for Smith and, except when he was injured, Smith was the starter for the rest of the year.
Players coming to the NFL often talk about how much faster the game is, because even the weakest of NFL teams has players who were stars at the collegiate level. In college, for example, even if a team has an outstanding cornerback, the other DBs are not likely to be strong, so itís easy to stay away from the one playmaker. In pro ball, you donít have that luxury.
For a quarterback, the game seems even faster because there are so many decisions to make; alone among players, the quarterback has to know what every offensive player is doing Ė and then, be able to read the defense, too. For Smith, the problems were compounded by the fact that he came from an offense where he took a direct snap from center, so just being under center and learning the footwork as he came away with the ball was difficult. When you add to the mix an offensive line which was a sieve for a substantial part of the season and a weak receiving corps, itís no surprise that Smith had a disastrous year.
The game will seem slower to Smith this year, just because of what he learned last year. Itís too early to predict success for him, but he does have the natural ability and intelligence, and heíll get better coaching this year.
THEREíS STILL much work to be done by the 49ers, because there are still many holes on the roster. They probably need a couple of good drafts yet, which is why Nolan is stockpiling extra picks, both for this year and next.
Itís encouraging, though, that the coach is growing into the job. If the quarterback also makes progress this year, it will be another encouraging sign. Ultimately, it always comes down to the coach and the quarterback.
RADIO TIME: Iíll be a guest on Marty Lurieís ďTalking BaseballĒ on KYCY, 1550 AM, at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
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