Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Bears, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive two-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and BearReport.com's John M. Crist begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from John to Craig. What has Alex Smith been doing beyond the stat sheet to establish himself, did the 49ers really know Frank Gore was this good, and what's up with that struggling 49ers' secondary? These Q&As and more inside.

John M. Crist, Editor in Chief, BearReport.com: Alex Smith is obviously having a much better second year when you look at the stat sheet, but what is he doing - or not doing - that doesn't show up in the box score to establish himself as the next great quarterback in San Francisco?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Let's hold off right now on the judgment of Smith being the next great San Francisco quarterback. The team is being built around him from the ground up, so it will be a while - perhaps several seasons - before there are enough viable parts around Smith to give him an opportunity to achieve greatness - or fall short of it. But the change in Smith from the bumbling, deer-in-the-headlights NFL neophyte of his rookie season has been dramatic, though not necessarily surprising to those who have seen his development since he arrived in San Francisco. Smith now is putting up some decent numbers on the stat sheet, but like you say, there is much more to him and his development than that. His presence in the pocket, something that can't be taught, has materialized almost out of thin air after he showed no such awareness last year, and his ability to read defenses and make the right decisions has improved manifold. He always had the physical gifts, but now his arm is stronger and he's allowing his athleticism to show and take over by instinct. He also is much more accurate with his passes and seldom forces throws into coverage, something he did out of desperation often last year. But one of the biggest things you don't see about Smith from the outside is his toughness, maturity and leadership. The guy still is just 22, the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL, yet his understated confidence has never wavered despite the doom and failure he experienced last year. And he already has won over the San Francisco locker room. When the 49ers recently voted for team captains to represent them the remainder of the season, Smith received more votes from his teammates than any other player on the squad. That tells you right there about the seeds being planted for Smith's potential greatness in San Francisco.

John Crist: Many of us were surprised when the 49ers traded Kevan Barlow and even more surprised that Frank Gore has performed so well as an every-down back, but did the organization know all along that he could be this good?

Craig Massei: Gore already was better than Barlow last year - Gore became the first rookie to lead the 49ers in rushing in 15 years last season - and the 49ers were high on him from the moment they selected him with the first pick of the third round in the 2005 draft. Scot McCloughan, the 49ers VP of player personnel, believed the 49ers were getting a steal with Gore that low, and he was right. Gore would have been a first-rounder if not for the major knee injuries that wrecked his college career at the University of Miami, but those have not held him back since he arrived in San Francisco. Barlow is a talented running back who - how should we say this? - has a delicate personality that holds him back. Gore showed right away that he hits the hole harder than Barlow and can move the pile better than many NFL backs despite his size. He clearly beat out Barlow for the starting role early in training camp this year, and the 49ers privately were concerned how Barlow would handle himself in a backup role. When the Jets dangled a fourth-round pick for Barlow in August, it was a no-brainer. As coach Mike Nolan has said several times, Gore is the team's back, and the 49ers have believed in his ability to produce big things all along. That's why they kept feeding him the football even after he experienced fumbling problems earlier this season.

John Crist: Smith's receiving corps is almost completely turned over from his rookie season, so has that hurt his development with the lack of time he's had to work with the new guys, or are Antonio Bryant & Company making it easier on him because they're better players?

Craig Massei: The 49ers' receiver corps is far from great, but it is so much better than last year that there really isn't any comparison. Bryant - this year's No. 1 wideout - is so much tougher and such a better player than Brandon Lloyd - last year's No. 1 wideout - that Smith almost had to be improved by that change. It was addition by subtraction even before the 49ers signed Bryant. But Arnaz Battle also has shown development as an adequate No. 2 and Bryan Gilmore provides a dimension of stretch-the-field speed the team has been lacking as the third receiver. After Bryant was signed as a free agent in March, he, Smith and the other receivers hit the field the moment NFL rules allowed them to begin offseason workouts at the team facility. They've put in a lot of time together since then, and the rapport that developed quickly between Smith and Bryant became undeniable by the end of training camp in August. Under the dire circumstances of last season, Smith never really seemed to develop a connection with any of his receivers, but it has been a different story in 2006.

John Crist: Vernon Davis is obviously a freak athlete and has all the tools to be a dominant tight end in this league, so how much more can he eventually bring to this offense once he finally gets healthy again?

Craig Massei: A lot. Make that, a real lot. Davis is all he's cracked up to be, and he's going to be a star. The biggest impression he has made on me so far - besides the freakish physique and talent that you mention - is how quickly he developed into a formidable run blocker after looking lost at times learning San Francisco's blocking schemes in the early part of training camp. Davis' blocking was a big factor in the 49ers' success running the ball before he was hurt in Week 3, and all he needs is time to become an impact receiver at the position. Davis can get open deep over the middle, and that creates all kinds of matchup problems for opponents. He also is tough to catch and bring down - he turned his first NFL reception in San Francisco's season opener into a 31-yard catch-and-run into the end zone in which he broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage and blew past another defender down the sideline. Davis still is raw as a receiver, however, and he had several key drops - one in the end zone, another that would have went for a huge gain, if not a TD - before he was hurt. He needs work catching the ball with his hands instead of trying to bring it in with his body. But once he develops that skill, watch out.

John Crist: The San Francisco secondary has been horrid for most of the season, but is this more a product of a poor scheme, or is the depth chart simply overmatched and in need of an influx of talent?

Craig Massei: All of the above. It says plenty about the San Francisco secondary that its most effective player so far - make that, its only effective player so far - is 11th-year veteran cornerback Walt Harris, who was discarded as no-longer-of-starter-quality by the Washington Redskins last year. Harris actually has played consistently superb - he leads the team with three interceptions - but nobody else has come close to that level. After breaking his leg against the Bears last November, safety Tony Parrish - who not too long ago was a great player - has lost it to the point that he's not even starting any more. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer - thought to be the rising young star of the secondary - has been very up and down, and more of the latter than the former. The others getting playing time are either backup types or fringe NFL talent. That said, they're not getting much help from a coaching staff that is always tinkering with different schemes and not putting them in positions to be successful. There have been particular instances when the DBs haven't been protected well within the scheme, too, and opponents have been quick to pick that up and come right after them. The weak pass rush also has contributed to the horridness, leaving the secondary exposed when opposing QBs get extra time to pick it apart.


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