Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Buccaneers, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive two-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and Bucblitz.com's Matthew Postins begin their back-and-forth interaction with six questions from Matthew to Craig. What's the story behind the 49ers' collapse this season? How much does San Francisco miss Jeff Garcia? What's the deal with new QB Shaun Hill and rookie sensation Patrick Willis? These Q&As and more inside.

Matthew Postins, Bucblitz.com: OK, so the 49ers finished with a flourish last year, snapped up free agency's top cornerback in Nate Clements and had a roster that seemed strong on younger players and ascending talents. So, what happened?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Try just about a little bit of everything that could go wrong. The platform for the team's high expectations began to get a little wobbly way back in February, when offensive coordinator Norv Turner left to become head coach of the San Diego Chargers. Turner directed an offensive turnaround in 2006 and also nurtured quarterback Alex Smith, who displayed some considerable development last year. When Turner left so late in the year, by which time NFL teams already had established their 2007 coaching staffs, it left coach Mike Nolan scrambling to find someone capable to run his offense, since Nolan's specialty is the defensive side of the ball. He opted to elevate his quarterbacks coach, Jim Hostler, particularly because of Hostler's close working relationship the past two seasons with Smith. Hostler's a first-time NFL coordinator, and boy, has it showed this year. While it certainly is not all his fault – San Francisco's offensive personnel has underachieved practically to a man this year – his game plans have been predictable and unable to get opposing teams from ganging up to stop the run. Two starting offensive linemen were lost for the season to injury, and then the 49ers lost Smith to season-ending shoulder surgery, but not before Smith got into a "he-said, he-said" squabble with Nolan that made public both the poor communication and underlying friction that existed between coach and quarterback. That ongoing saga, which lasted for a month while Smith sat out to decide what to do about his shoulder, made both Smith and Nolan look bad. Meanwhile, back on the field, the team imploded with the league's worst offense going nowhere – except the sidelines, which made a good San Francisco defense spend more time on the field than any other defense in the league. That's just an overview of the problems that have rocked this team to its core. We could go on and on. But you get the picture.

Matthew Postins: Shaun Hill appears to have done some nice work in place of both Alex Smith and Trent Dilfer. What has allowed Hill to move the football so efficiently in his limited exposure this season? And could Hill put the veteran Dilfer out of a job next season? I don't see him supplanting Smith.

Craig Massei: Hill has been a godsend this season, simply because the quarterback play had been so poor before he got his shot. Hill had never thrown a regular-season pass in 5¾ NFL seasons before Dilfer went down with a concussion before halftime of the team's Dec. 9 game against Minnesota. With good mobility and a quick release, Hill has been a nice fit for the West Coast-style short passing game that is part of a varied San Francisco offense that also is built to go vertical. Once given the chance – actually, as a last resort – Hill has looked great and has thrust himself into the team's muddled quarterback picture next season, if he indeed returns to the team. Hill will become an unrestricted free agent in March. By what he's shown in just six quarters of football – the best six quarters by a San Francisco quarterback this season – Hill certainly looks ready to move past Dilfer in the QB pecking order. That is, if Dilfer is even part of that order next season.

Matthew Postins: A player I really liked entering the last draft was Patrick Willis, who was named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday. Obviously, he's lived up to his billing. What has aided his swift transition from college star to NFL Pro Bowl performer?

Craig Massei: Call it sheer talent, a humble nature, an outstanding work ethic and a strong drive to succeed and be the best. Willis has all those qualities and more, but what sets him apart is his explosive speed and instincts for the position. It's as though he has a homing device within that locks in on ball carriers and pulls him toward them with magnetic force that allows him to blow by potential blockers as if they're not even there. The guy knows how to deliver a wallop, too, and possesses a textbook tackling technique. He also has benefited greatly from working under the tutelage of Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, San Francisco's assistant head coach/defense who works specifically with middle linebackers.

Matthew Postins: Just judging from the statistics, it seems one of the big problems with this defense is the pass rush. The 49ers have just 26 sacks this season, and grizzled veteran Bryant Young has 6½ of them. First, why is the pass rush under-performing? Second, how much will this unit miss Young if he chooses to retire?

Craig Massei:The pass rush has been a longstanding problem in San Francisco, and the 49ers were hoping to add some significant heat from the edge with linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, whom the team acquired in free agency after he had a career season in New England last year. Banta-Cain's specialty was supposed to be pass rushing, but he has been a big disappointment. The 49ers also lost versatile Manny Lawson, the team's other starting edge rusher, in Week 3 with a season-ending knee injury. The guys that must bring the heat in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme are the outside linebackers, and they've been unable to do it with any consistency. Young and Marques Douglas – who's second on the team to Young with three sacks – have been solid pass rushers as the ends in San Francisco's three-man front. But in the 3-4 scheme, their job is more to sacrifice themselves and occupy blockers so that others can make plays and get to the quarterback. That they're the team's two leaders in sacks is a clear indication that something is wrong. And Young? He pretty much came out and said this week that Sunday's game will be his last before the San Francisco home fans. One of the most respected players in team history, he will be missed in a big way both on and off the field.

Matthew Postins: Jeff Garcia makes his return to San Francisco this weekend as a playoff quarterback. Recount his departure from San Francisco and just how much the 49ers have missed his steady play at quarterback since he left as a cap casualty after the 2003 season?

Craig Massei: The day Garcia left was the beginning of the team's steady slide into the NFL abyss, thanks to foolish decisions of former general manager Terry Donahue that drove the 49ers into the ground. Opting not to keep around Garcia – who was willing to take a pay cut to stay, but not the cut Donahue was suggesting – was one of the worst moves made by a man who made many during a 10-month span that leveled the franchise. Garcia had some injury problems that diminished his effectiveness in 2003 after three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. Donahue, who was in way over his head – and get this, he continued to live in Southern California during the season and commute to the Bay Area! – failed to make the simple recognition how important it is to have a quality quarterback and what a precious commodity those are in the NFL. The 49ers had one in Garcia. They let him walk for nothing. And you know for what? Here's the three guys who played quarterback for the 49ers the year after Garcia left – Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett. And, believe it, Donahue really thought the team would get by just fine with Rattay as the starter. While the new regime that took over after the failed Donahue era probably would have wanted to rebuild with a young quarterback, Garcia was a definite keeper – and a pro's pro – and he is better than anybody the 49ers have put on the field at quarterback since the day he left.

Matthew Postins: How much leeway does head coach Mike Nolan have after this season? I thought this team was on the way up. Does management perceive this season as a speed bump or a setback, and how will this affect Nolan's job security?

Craig Massei: Team ownership appears to be in Nolan's corner for one more season to fix this mess, but nobody really knows for sure since owner John York said last week that all football issues will be addressed after the season. Nolan doesn't have a lot of leeway. As the 49ers enter the final two weeks of the season, his job status stands on shaky ground. Nolan has made a lot of mistakes both on and off the field this year. But what he did over the past two years to lay a foundation for a franchise in smithereens and then build upon it was exemplary, and that hasn't been forgotten. The 49ers' problems this season, however, run deep, and this disappointing year has been more than just a speed bump. It has been a notable step backward. There has been speculation about changing the structure and bringing in a general manager over Nolan next year. If Nolan stays, that is, and nobody can be too sure at this point that is actually what's going to happen.

PART II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and Bucsblitz.com as Matthew and Craig conclude their back-and-forth interaction with Matthew answering six of Craig's questions.


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