Air raid! SF passing game set to soar again

They used to be the soaring eagles of the NFL airwaves, a team that passed its way into history with one of the most prolific attacks the league ever has seen. But where, oh where, has the 49ers' passing game gone? After the two worst statistical finishes in franchise history, the 49ers have the weapons to find it again, and that's what Alex Smith and his new band of playmakers intend to do.

This isn't your father's 49ers anymore, and that means there's no Joe Montana and Steve Young, no Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice and John Taylor, no Brent Jones and Roger Craig to pass-and-catch the team to some of the greatest heights the league ever has seen.

But this isn't exactly your 49ers of the past two seasons, either, when San Francisco was 29th and 32nd – dead last – in NFL passing to record the worst two finishes in the league rankings in the 61-year history of the franchise.

These 49ers of 2007 are somewhere in between, but they promise to be a lot closer to the team's star-studded offenses of yore than the struggling, transitional units the team put on the field the past two seasons.

Actually, the team's passing attack of 2006 didn't struggle as much as its low ranking might suggest as Smith made substantial progress in his second NFL season, giving the team hope for better tomorrows as both he and the team grow.

Now, with some new weapons added to a solid young nucleus that includes running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis, the 49ers have the potential to be a legitimate passing team again, and that's exactly what Smith and Co. intend to do.

"As far as right now, I think we definitely have the capability," Smith told SFI on Thursday. "It's never going to be – at least this next year – it's not going to be something like the Indianapolis Colts. It's not going to be a one-back deal all the time; we're going to run because we can. But we have to be able to do both. We've added people and have the ability to throw the ball. This team's talking about accomplishing a lot and we have to be able to throw the ball in order to do that."

That's a basic fact in today's NFL – you can't pass go until you can at least pass somewhat effectively. The 49ers displayed traces of that last season, particularly when the Smith-to-Antonio-Bryant collaboration showed such promise in the early going.

But then Davis broke his leg in Week 3 and Bryant went into the crapper after midseason, ultimately getting suspended in December for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. After throwing for 286, 233 and 269 yards in the first three games, Smith didn't have another 200-yard game the rest of the season, and he had a three-game stretch near midseason when he had only 329 yards passing combined.

Now Smith is entering his pivotal third season, always a crucial year in the development of a young quarterback. The third season as a starter is when quarterbacks are expected to take a big leap, and whether they do or not can indicate where their career is headed.

But as Smith enters that consequential Year 3, having just turned 23 three months ago, never before has the landscape in front of him looked so good. The 49ers have overhauled and upgraded their receiver corps for the second consecutive season, and Smith also has Davis emerging as a potential top target with Gore – the team leader in receptions last season with 61 – on hand as outlet option.

"Obviously, it's going to depend on what's asked of us and when," Smith said. "But I definitely think we have the ability and need to have the ability to throw the ball."

Smith nearly doubled his passer rating last season after a dismal rookie year. He displayed substantial progress while throwing for 2,890 yards and 16 touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in team history to take every offensive snap in a season. Now he's looking to take the next step to playoff-caliber QB, and that means those numbers must continue to improve.

With a capable set of weapons around him, the passing game now is set up to do some real damage.

And, like Smith, the supporting cast is eager to get into the act.

"We want to turn it up and get on the map," receiver Darrell Jackson said. "Alex is going to get better every day and the sky's the limit for this guy. He's coming into his own and he's mature. I think he's going to be the next Pro Bowl quarterback. Last year I guess they say there was a void, but we're expecting big things from our receiving corps." Jackson is one of the primary reasons for those high expectations. Acquired via trade from NFC West rival Seattle in April, Jackson led the Seahawks in receptions four of the past six seasons and could provide a big boost while giving the 49ers a legitimate No. 1 wideout the team has lacked in recent seasons.

The 49ers also added veteran free agent Ashley Lelie and third-round draft pick Jason Hill to the mix at receiver to go along with holdover starter Arnaz Battle. Three other veteran receivers who played for the team last year – Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs and Brandon Williams – also are competing for roster berths and time in the receiving rotation along with All-NFL Europa standout Marcus Maxwell.

Lelie led the NFL in average yards per catch with 20.1 in 2004 and 18.3 in 2005. Battle led all San Francisco wideouts with a career-high 59 catches last year, picking up the slack after Bryant's downward spiral began. The 49ers ultimately cut ties after one season with Bryant, who was released in March as the team decided to start over again at split end.

"What we get out of these guys that I really like is that we have football players in the group," coach Mike Nolan said. "They have been better pass receivers than the guys we've had. They have better numbers, better stats. However we get it out of them, I'm looking for that to happen."

The 49ers certainly have a standard set by their San Francisco predecessors that they can emulate. The 49ers have finished higher than 14th in NFL passing offense just once in the past six seasons, but it used to be a whole lot different.

During the heyday of their two-decade dynasty, the 49ers finished in the top 10 in NFL passing offense 18 consecutive seasons with 15 top-5 rankings during that span. The team doesn't figure to move into the upper third of the league rankings this year, but there promises to be a noteworthy jump from the past two seasons.

But with Gore and a strong running game at their disposal, the 49ers won't necessarily be tilting their offense toward the pass any time soon. Gore led the NFC with a franchise-record 1,695 yards on the ground last season as the 49ers ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing offense.

Now if the 49ers can just assemble a productive passing game to go along with that, their offense will really be onto something. And by the looks of things summer, they already are.

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