Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive four-part offseason series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and AZRedReport.com's Amberly Richardson begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Amberly to Craig. What's going on with the 49ers' battle at QB? What's the buzz around new OC Mike Martz? How is former Arizona WR Bryant Johnson fitting in with his new team? These Q&As and more inside.

Amberly Richardson, Publisher, AZRedReport.com: What are your thoughts on the quarterback battle between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill? Who has the advantage?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Better throw J.T. O'Sullivan's name in there. Or so San Francisco coaches say. During the Niners' spring minicamp earlier this month, head coach Mike Nolan and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz almost went out of their way to include journeyman O'Sullivan's name in the mix at quarterback, making it a three-headed battle for the starting position as the competition heats up during organized team activities in June. But it's difficult to for me to believe that when all is said and done, O'Sullivan will be a serious contender for the role. Presumably, the Niners would like to have a pecking order established by the time training camp begins at the end of July, and though Smith has been maligned as a disappointment so far, considering he was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft, he made an impressive early return from his recovery from December shoulder surgery during the spring minicamp. Smith was the quarterback who took the first snap of team drills with the first-unit offense, and he made it clear that he's not going away meekly now that he has legitimate competition for a position that has been handed to him since he arrived in San Francisco. That said, Hill was a true revelation when given an opportunity to finally play last season after Smith and veteran backup Trent Dilfer were injured. Hill hadn't thrown a regular-season pass in his first five NFL seasons, but he came in after Dilfer was hurt and went 2-0 as a starter, completing 68 percent of his passes and finishing with a QB rating of 101.3. But Hill plays better than he practices, and going simply on minicamp evaluation, Smith has the early advantage in what coaches have promised will be open competition this season. But in reality, Smith has even more advantage than that. I mean, come on. The 49ers gave the guy a $49.5 million deal in 2005. Even though his season was doomed last year by a separated shoulder in Week 4, he's still considered a franchise quarterback, though that status is getting tenuous this year unless Smith steps up. Despite the rocky start to his career, Smith still has all the tools to develop into a fine quarterback, so from this vantage point, it's definitely his job to lose entering the summer.


Amberly Richardson: What's the buzz around new offensive coordinator Mike Martz? Is he what the 49ers offense has been missing?

Craig Massei: Ha! Well, the 49ers were missing a lot on offense last year, you certainly are right about that. The San Francisco offense showed some nice progress under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner in 2006, but when Turner left in mid-February last year to take over as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, it left the 49ers hanging, and Nolan turned to quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler to take the job. Hostler is a good guy and decent coach, but in his first try as a NFL coordinator, he was in way over his head, and the offense nosedived as the NFL's worst. So, as you can imagine, there's a lot of buzz now that Martz is on board to replace him. Martz's reputation precedes him, and the San Francisco offense looked smooth and crisp and quite innovative with constant shifting of formations during minicamp. So is Martz what was missing from the San Francisco offense last year? Well, you could make an argument for that. Injuries contributed to all the problems the 49ers had offensively last year, to be sure, but the team has some legitimate talent on that side of the ball. So, ostensibly, good coaching should make a difference, and Martz is considered one of the best. I haven't seen anything so far that would suggest Martz doesn't deserve that reputation.


Amberly Richardson: What effect does the flux of offensive coordinators coming through San Francisco and little success from Mike Nolan have on the locker room outlook?

Craig Massei: As mentioned above, the revolving door of offensive coordinators has had an adverse effect on the team, which never has been able to develop continuity in the system on that side of the ball. Martz is Nolan's fourth offensive coordinator in Nolan's four seasons with the team. That hurts. The 49ers, in fact, are on their sixth offensive coordinator in the past six years. No wonder they've been so bad on that side of the ball. It's tough to get an offense to produce when it's a new man putting it in place every year. The players obviously would like to establish some continuity in the system, too, but they're paid to do their jobs and learn the scheme no matter who is coaching. That said, there's some genuine excitement in the locker room now that Martz is running the offense. Despite his 16-32 record in three seasons directing the team, Nolan still has a hold on the locker room and the players believe in him and his methods. But there is pressure on everybody to win this year, and that pressure could become palpable tension in the locker room late in the year if the 49ers don't.


Amberly Richardson: WR Bryant Johnson never really got his chance in Arizona sitting behind Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Is San Francisco a good fit for him? What's the buzz surrounding his addition?

Craig Massei: It looks like a good fit so far. Johnson was thrust into the starting lineup from Day 1, and the team even released the guy who started at split end last year - Darrell Jackson - after Johnson signed a one-year deal with the team in free agency. Johnson showed a veteran's polish during the team's minicamp and seemed to have a good grasp of the complex Martz offense. There were some who suggested that Johnson wouldn't be a good fit for the Martz offense, which needs legitimate speed from the split end position, but Johnson looked good there this spring. And Martz said, "The guy who really has stood out (among receivers this spring) is B.J. Bryant has been exceptional so far. I've been pleased with what he's done." When I asked Martz if Johnson can be the vertical threat Martz needs in his offense, Martz responded, "Oh, he is. There's no question about that." So, there you go.


Amberly Richardson: Reports are saying that offensive lineman David Baas will be out for the regular season after tearing his right pectoral muscle while lifting weights in late April. How are the 49ers bracing for the worst-case scenario?

Craig Massei: Those reports are erroneous. Baas should be able to return to full-contact work by the end of training camp at the latest. He is unlikely to play during the exhibition season, but the team expects him back for the regular-season opener against the Cardinals. A torn pec, after being repaired by surgery, is not something that would keep a player out that long. Still, it was a hit for the 49ers, who had some serious depth issues on their offensive line even before Baas was injured, considering the team lost starting guard Justin Smiley and former starting offensive tackle Kwame Harris to free agency and starting guard Larry Allen to expected retirement during the offseason. The 49ers addressed this need in the draft - which they would have done even had Baas not been hurt - by selecting USC guard Chilo Rachal in the second round and Texas A&M center Cody Wallace in the fourth round. Both players will make the team and Rachal has starting potential as a rookie. In fact, Baas' injury may open the door for Rachal to get a starting shot right away - he could grab the starting slot at right guard and never give it back to Baas when the latter is healthy. Veteran Tony Wragge is currently the starter at right guard in Baas' place this spring, but Rachal already is breathing down his neck. The 49ers also picked up some veteran scrubs with previous NFL experience during the offseason, but none of those guys are starting material and they have an opportunity to make the team strictly as backups.

PART II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and AZRedReport.com as Amberly and Craig continue their back-and-forth interaction with Amberly answering five of Craig's questions.



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