Offensive makeover

The 49ers were going to have an altered look on offense this year even before Tim Rattay went down during the team's first spring practice. The Niners will continue to closely monitor their QB situation after Rattay's groin surgery, but there are plenty of other areas on offense the team will be watching this spring. "As I'm looking at this offensive team that we're putting together for the fall, we have to try and find some ways to move the football," coach Dennis Erickson said.

Rattay's surgery to reattach the adductor tendon in his left upper groin region "went well," according to team doctor Michael Dillingham, who performed the surgery Tuesday. The Niners' progress on offense obviously will be stymied while Rattay recovers, particularly if his injury prevents him from being ready for the start of training camp - or beyond.

Rattay needed valuable practice time this spring to truly make the offense his and have it build around him. But the construction of a new attack goes on without him. That building still must take place even if it's Ken Dorsey or some other quarterback behind center. Quarterback is only one of seven positions at which the Niners are replacing an offensive starter from 2003.

"Our whole football team is going to be a little bit different," Erickson said. "We just have to evaluate what our team is all about. Every team is different. We have to decide what is best for our team as far as what we are going to do offensively and defensively."

San Francisco's first-team offense also was without starting center Jeremy Newberry and starting tight end Eric Johnson during mini-camp. Following his offseason ankle injury, the team sees no reason to have Newberry practice until training camp. Johnson, who's coming off surgery to repair a broken collarbone, participated in some practice drills but was held out of team drills as a precaution. He should be back for the passing minicamp scheduled for the start of June.

So make that eight starters from 2003 that the offense was without as the new Niners took their first babysteps of 2004. Only left guard Eric Heitmann, right tackle Scott Gragg and fullback Fred Beasley were in the same positions as when the 49ers left off five months ago.

And it's debatable if Beasley will be used as much as a true fullback in the new offensive wrinkles that will be implemented this year. He'll be used in some one-back sets and resemble an H-back in some formations, but the standard two-back system the Niners have used as their base offense in recent years probably is headed for a makeover.

Expect to see more one-back sets that feature Kevan Barlow. That means Barlow will need a rest every now and then, so establishing a solid backup is critical. Jamal Robertson remains one-dimensional due to his problems catching the ball, so special teams captain Terry Jackson is getting a look again as a backup halfback. Undrafted free agent Jason Wright also impressed coaches during minicamp before pulling a hamstring.

With so much uncertainty in the passing game - the Niners also are breaking in a whole new set of receivers to go along with their unsettled QB situation - those backfield producers will be a key because the Niners will rely more on their running game, at least while the offense is finding itself.

The team will have a stronger run blocker at left tackle in Kwame Harris, and the Niners also believe rookie Justin Smiley - whose first appearances drew solid reviews - will give them a dimension at right guard that will allow the team to pull on sweeps and trap block as it hasn't been able to do in the past. The addition of top backups Greg Randall and Scott Rehberg also gives the Niners quality veterans to step in at both guard and tackle.

The Niners paid Johnson big money to resume his role as a top receiving threat at tight end. Jed Weaver did an admirable job in Johnson's place last year, but he's not the downfield threat Johnson can be. In a West Coast system that is being reshaped by Erickson, the Niners will look for more punch and pizzazz from their tight ends, and Aaron Walker will fit into that equation. So could James Jordan, a practice-squad receiver in recent years whom the team is trying to turn into a tight end.

While the Niners made adjustments at quarterback during Rattay's recovery, it hardly is the only tinkering that will be going on with the offense in the formative months leading to training camp.

"As far as what we're going to do offensively," Erickson said, "we're going to try to get it down the field a little bit more, do some different things in play-action pass, you'll see some one back a little bit more than you probably did last year, whether it is (Beasley) back there or someone else. We evaluate in mini-camps, we evaluate in training camp. That's what we are in the process of doing."

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