Spruce goose Bruce giving offense a boost

Isaac Bruce is the new spruce goose on the loose in the 49ers' offense. There he goes, tearing across turf with precise breaks and route-running to get open. There he is, catching everything in sight, making a leaping, over-the-shoulder grab of an off-target throw. The Niners haven't had a WR like him in years, and this old-timer is primed to make a difference on an offense that needs it in 2008.

Bruce, suave, lithe and sinewy, was one of the stars of San Francisco's spring minicamp earlier this month, making quite an impression in his first full-squad practices with his new team after spending his first 14 NFL seasons with the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams.

But Bruce is a 49er now, and he immediately stole the show as the new top target in San Francisco's rebuilding passing game as the team's starting flanker, showing no signs of decline at age 35 and displaying the skills and sure hands that have made him one of the most prolific wide receivers in NFL history.

After the final day of minicamp, before he could run a streak pattern out of the San Francisco locker room, Bruce took a few moments to speak with SFI about the 49ers' new offense and his place in it.

The first question was about the potential Bruce sees with this revamped San Francisco attack, an offense that was horrible by historical proportions last year, ranking last in the NFL in eight statistical categories recorded by the league, averaging nearly 40 yards fewer per game than any other team.

Bruce stopped me before I could get the entire question out.

"We definitely won't be ranked last in the league this year," Bruce said.

And he'll no doubt be one of the major reasons why.

Regardless of who ends up starting for the 49ers at quarterback this season, Bruce already has brought the goods to jump-start the offense in the passing game, as he so impressively and consistently displayed during three consecutive days of minicamp.

The 49ers have had a revolving door at receiver ever since All-Pro Terrell Owens took his bountiful skills and bad attitude out of town after the 2003 season. Since then, the team has brought in veterans such as Curtis Conway, Johnnie Morton, Antonio Bryant, Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie to try and add some experienced skill and spark.

All of them ultimately failed in that endeavor, most recently and notably Jackson, the most acclaimed of the aforementioned group who was supposed to be the savior last year but was dumped in March after one hugely disappointing season with the team.

Jackson was released after the 49ers had brought in Bruce and Bryant Johnson to be their new starting receivers in 2008. And Bruce - who ranks third in NFL history with 14,109 receiving yards and sixth all-time with 942 receptions - already has displayed the ample promise of a guy who can come into a lagging offense and emerge as a legitimate, go-to No. 1 wideout.

"Isaac Bruce catches your attention really quick just because he's so professional the way he carries himself in and out of the huddle and running routes," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He just knows what he's doing. You can just see there's a real certainty in what he does. He comes in and out of the huddle pretty sure of himself."

And why not? Besides the numbers that already establish him as an all-time great, Bruce is the only player in the San Francisco offense who has the comfort of playing before in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's detailed - and explosive - system.

Bruce, in fact, had some of his most spectacular seasons while playing in Martz's offense when they were together in St. Louis from 1999-2005, when the Rams were setting offensive records and advancing to two Super Bowls with Bruce playing a leading role in Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf."

"Just attack," Bruce told SFI when asked what was the best thing about the Martz offense. "Everything we do is attack."

And Bruce said he already sees the offensive players around him rapidly absorbing the intricacies of Martz's scheme, and he expects big things by the time the 49ers begin playing real games in September.

"I mean, as long as (his new teammates) continue to feed themselves with it, they'll get full of it, and before you know it, they'll know it like the back of their hand," Bruce said. "I expect a lot of great things this year, considering the chemistry of the offense. When everybody gets to know it, I expect great things to happen. I expect a 1,300-yard running back. Eight-hundred, 900 yards a receiver. Quarterbacks to play well. Tight end to the Pro Bowl. So that's what I expect."

And for himself?

"I have big expectations," Bruce said simply, leaving it at that.

As Bruce goes, so figures to go a San Francisco passing game that also ranked dead last in the NFL last year, averaging just a paltry 145 yards per game. Bruce has had that many yards receiving in a game by himself 14 times in his career, including a season-high 145 yards receiving in a Week 2 loss to the 49ers last year.

Now he'll be doing that kind of thing for the 49ers instead of against them, and contrary to what one might expect from an aging veteran with so much wear-and-tear on his wheels, Bruce does not appear to be slowing down as he attempts to help speed up a stagnant San Francisco offense.

"He's obviously a Hall of Famer," Martz said, "and in watching him (recently), he has not diminished in my estimation. He looks like he always has, so to have him be able to come in and function at a high level in our offense is really exciting. Isaac was always a feature of our offense (in St. Louis). He was always a go-to guy, and if we had to get something going, we would get the ball to him right away."

Bruce, who appeared in great shape at minicamp and carries no fat on his 188-pound frame, figures to be seeing the football a lot within the offense this year, but he downplays the idea that he'll be the undisputed No. 1 receiver the team has been searching for since Owens bolted from the franchise.

"You know what?" Bruce said. "I look at it like this: There's no No. 1 guy. We're all No. 1 because we all will have to catch the football at times. We'll all get our numbers called in every game. We'll do it as a unit."

That said, Bruce also will be doing it as an individual, just as he has throughout a distinguished career that dates back to when the Rams still were playing in Los Angeles. While he's ostensibly in the twilight of his career, Bruce says he still has plenty to give the 49ers.

"I have a lot left," he said. "If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't be here in San Francisco."

Now that he is here, Bruce's certainly proving that is the case.


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