Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part III

In Part III of our exclusive four-part series,'s Craig Massei and's Amberly Richardson continue their back-and-forth interaction with five more questions from Amberly to Craig. What kind of future does Mike Nolan have in San Francisco? How do the 49ers match up with the "Birds" of the NFC West? What's SFI biggest area of concern? These Q&As and more inside.

Amberly Richardson, Publisher, What is Mike Nolan's future looking like in the Bay area, do fans support him or are they ready to see him hit the road?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, That's a major topic of discussion in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it will be throughout the season - if Nolan sticks around that long. He might not. If the 49ers implode early in the season and get off to a poor start - they lost eight consecutive games after a 2-0 start last season - it's possible Nolan could get the heave-ho during the season. After going 16-32 in his first three seasons, he is on a short leash. He already has been stripped of personnel power he enjoyed during his first three years after the team elevated Scot McCloughan to general manager in January after deciding to bring back Nolan for a fourth season. Nolan will either be fired during or after the 2008 season or be signed to a contract extension. He will not return in 2009 for the final season of the original five-year deal he signed when he became 49ers head honcho in 2005 as a lame duck coach without a new deal. The team will know well by then whether it wants to continue to go forward into the future with Nolan charting the course. With all of those gloom-and-doom parameters out of the way, it must be said Nolan still is the central figure of the entire operation and he still is calling the shots as the face of the franchise. He just doesn't hold the sway he once did and his command has been somewhat diminished by the team's disappointing struggles of last year. After last season's breakdown, the feeling I get is fans are getting a little impatient with Nolan because 2007 was a difficult season for him as a coach in several ways - he personally did not have a good season, just as his team didn't in general. So, he's a guy who's definitely on the spot in 2008. But he still has time to win back everybody's confidence and cement his place in the franchise's future. That time, however, is now.

Amberly Richardson: Many NFC West 'experts' have the 49ers placed behind the Seahawks and the Cardinals, what's your take on where San Francisco stands up against the "bird" teams?

Craig Massei: I realized after watching the 49ers struggle last summer that they weren't going to live up to the expectations of all those jump-on-the-bandwagon prognosticators who were making them a trendy pick to win the NFC West and challenge for the playoffs in 2007. The team is better this year - maybe much better - that much seems clear. There's some genuine excitement here about the season. But it has gotten to the point that the 49ers must go out and prove it on game days in the regular season before you can really start believing. But most indications suggest that there is something to believe in. Most definitely, the success of San Francisco's season will be determined by what the 49ers do against the Cardinals and Seahawks. They have the defense to play with both teams - they have the defense to play with anybody. What it comes down to - and this probably is the theme of San Francisco's season - is whether the offense can keep up and do well enough to keep pace with these two talented offensive opponents. The defense should keep the 49ers in games with the Seahawks and Cardinals, particularly since those are two teams San Francisco knows so well and has geared its personnel to stopping.

Amberly Richardson: San Francisco picked up linebacker Ahmad Brooks and all the baggage that he brought with him. How will he be incorporated into the 49ers defense, and will he play nice?

Craig Massei: He's going to play behind young star Patrick Willis at the team's weak-side "Mike" inside linebacker position, and may be used in some situations to rush from the edge in passing situations. As you pointed out, Brooks' baggage is heavy and he comes to the team with plenty of questions about his dubious character. But he makes a strong group of inside linebackers even stronger. The team now has Willis, Jeff Ulbrich, Takeo Spikes and Brooks inside - and those are four guys who can play. I'm not sure what Brooks' impact will be in the early going - or even if he'll play much in the opener against the Cardinals. But when he does play, I wouldn't expect him to be playing nice. Sorry, Cards.

Amberly Richardson: The 49ers picked up return specialist Allen Rossum, has he shaped up the special teams unit?

Craig Massei: Yes. He appears to be an excellent addition. One of the most prolific return specialists in NFL history - he ranks second in league history in total return yards and second in kickoff return yards - Rossum appeared to have plenty left in his wheels during the preseason and gives the team the explosive dimension it has been lacking in the return game in recent seasons. Rossum was held out of the preseason finale with a minor chest contusion, but he averaged 13.1 yards on punt returns and 26.9 yards on kickoff returns in San Francisco's other exhibition games. Those are some huge numbers. The 49ers will be just giddy if he can approach them during the regular season. San Francisco also got a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the preseason finale from Delanie Walker, Rossum's understudy, so the return game promises to be much improved.

Amberly Richardson: What's the biggest area of concern for this year's 49ers?

Craig Massei: That new starting quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan and the offense won't measure up, struggling to find footing in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's complex system, and the 49ers will once again be brought down by an offense that finished dead last in the NFL rankings two of the past three seasons. Nobody really can be sure about O'Sullivan until the real games begin, so there is concern there until he actually goes out and does it. Defensively, there is concern about whether the team's pass rush has improved enough to make a difference. That's probably what it will take for a promising defensive unit to reach its full potential. Generally, there is concern the team will struggle again to a losing record - it enters the season with a franchise-worst string of five consecutive losing seasons. The 49ers hardly want to be starting all over again in 2009. They've already been there and done that.

PART IV: Make sure to check back on both and as Amberly and Craig conclude their back-and-forth interaction with Amberly answering five final questions from Craig.

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