49ers 2007 season: The top story lines

The 2007 opener finally arrives Monday night for the 49ers, who haven't had this much anticipation swirling around them to begin a new season in several years. Here's a look at the top story lines surrounding coach Mike Nolan's dynamic young team as it enters the pivotal third season under his direction.

THE NFL'S NEW DARLINGS: NFL pundits far and wide are declaring the 49ers as the trendy pick to be the league's surprise team of 2007. The Niners – who will play on national television four times this season – are getting a lot of play as a rising up-and-comer that has captured the fancy of the league with its steady rise from the ashes of a shattered dynasty, and positive buzz surrounds the team like a hive of bees. Despite a lukewarm finish to a 1-3 preseason, there is a lot of light on the 49ers as the season begins, and that light and won't be any brighter during the first month of the season than it will be in Monday's nationally-televised opener against the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco's most hyped opener in several years.

GORE GOES FOR THE GUSTO: A day after capturing the 2006 NFC rushing title and setting a new franchise record with 1,695 yards on the ground, Frank Gore declared that it wasn't nearly enough. Gore set new goals of surpassing the 2,000-yard barrier and challenging Eric Dickerson's NFL record of 2,105 yards, and that will be a fun chase to watch as one of the league's best young running backs hits his stride. After missing the entire preseason with a broken right hand, Gore has fresh legs and is anxious to get it going Monday against Arizona, which he hopes is the start of something for both the team and his record pursuit.

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: Who's that sharp-dressed man on the 49ers sidelines? Why, it's coach Mike Nolan, who has gained permission from the league to wear a suit and tie on home Sundays to honor his father and other head coaches of yore, along with presenting an image of both dignity and authority. Nolan is one of only two NFL coaches who are making such plans, so you can be sure the network cameras will be following him around. That will be particularly true on Monday against the Cardinals when Nolan debuts his black suit and striped tie, an outfit he'll adorn for each of San Francisco's eight regular-season home games this season.

THE 3-4 COMES TO THE FORE: Nolan has built his coaching reputation as a defensive mastermind, but the 49ers haven't had the right personnel to fully utilize the 3-4 scheme that has been the secret to his success. Two years after his arrival, the right personnel is now in place, and with a new defensive coordinator on hand to carry out his directives, the defense Nolan envisioned when he took over as San Francisco's coach finally can start making waves. With newcomer Greg Manusky calling the shots, a San Francisco defense featuring five new starters will unveil and an aggressive scheme Monday night that was pretty much kept under wraps during the preseason.

TAKING BACK THE NFC WEST: This is the season, folks, when it's all supposed to happen. When Nolan arrived in 2005, he had a huge banner placed outside the 49ers' locker room that features the helmets of San Francisco's three NFC West opponents with a large X swathed over each of them. That banner remains in the same spot today, and it never has looked more appropriate than it does now as San Francisco prepares to spend each week determinedly seeking its first divisional title in five years. That pursuit begins immediately with Monday night's opener against the Cardinals, the first of three games the 49ers will play against NFC West rivals during the season's first month.

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