Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive four-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Doug to Craig. Is Alex Smith finished with the 49ers? Is journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan more than just a stopgap option at QB? Will Frank Gore continue to be a central figure in the team's new offense? These Q&As and more inside.

Doug Farrar, Editor in Chief, Seahawks.NET: It's fair to say that between his own unconvincing production, dealing with four different offensive coordinators in as many years, a feud with his own head coach, and what appears to be a serious and recurring shoulder injury, things have not gone well for Alex Smith. The assumption is that the 49ers will go forward with J.T. O'Sullivan and a horde of replacement-level backups in the short term, but where does this put Smith in the long term? Is he done with the 49ers, and may he be done for good?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Done with the 49ers, and possibly done for good. Yeah, I would say that about covers it. I'm not sure Smith will ever take another snap in the NFL. But I am pretty sure he'll never take another snap with the 49ers after they placed him on injured reserve Wednesday with a fractured bone in his throwing shoulder which may require yet another shoulder for the beleaguered quarterback. It's not that the 49ers are necessarily ready to give up on Smith – they're not – but his contract almost prohibits that he'll return to the team next year unless he's the proven starter. Obviously, he won't get another chance to claim that distinction now. Smith's non-guaranteed base salary for 2009 is $9.625 million, and if he were on the roster next season his cap figure would be $12.292 million. Smith's future with the 49ers already was on shaky ground BEFORE his recent injury, a non-contact incident which apparently occurred when he was throwing a deep pass at the end of practice last Friday. Smith struggled to pick up new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system this summer and was beaten out for the starting job by journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan, which had to be a considerable disappointment to many in the organization, though the company line was that Alex showed improvement and was getting better but not quite there yet, yada, yada, yada. The latest development just seems like the breaking point for both Smith and the franchise to part ways. There are even more extenuating factors that would suggest Smith won't be back with the team next year that are too deep to go into detail here. I highly doubt he'll ever play for the 49ers again, and I would suggest his career may be in jeopardy, considering all the problems he is having with his throwing shoulder, though somebody else surely will give him another chance if he's healthy. The Seahawks maybe?


Doug Farrar: What has the team seen in O'Sullivan that makes them believe he's a better option than a veteran stopgap, or Shaun Hill? And how do you see the team's quarterback issues being resolved in the longer term?

Craig Massei: O'Sullivan has a complete better understanding than Hill of the Martz offense, which O'Sullivan learned last year when both he and Martz were with the Detroit Lions. And, frankly, O'Sullivan has just looked like the better quarterback since training camp began in July. Hill never has been much of a practice player – but he proved last year he can rise to the occasion in games – and that probably hurt him this summer while the 49ers were trying to sort out what they were going to do at quarterback. Like Smith, Hill struggled to pick up the system, and he never is going to impress anybody with his throwing in practice. In contrast, O'Sullivan delivers pinpoint passes with high accuracy, and he clearly won the job over both Smith and Hill. He definitely appears to be the best option to give the 49ers a chance to win here and now, though I kind of felt Hill became Martz's whipping boy during the summer and is a better quarterback than he showed. That said, it would be pure conjecture at this point to speculate about what the 49ers are going to do at quarterback beyond this year. If O'Sullivan proves to be a legitimate starter, he's only 29 and could have a future here. If he doesn't, who the heck knows who could be the starting quarterback here in 2009? It's not going to be Smith. I doubt it's going to be somebody playing in college today, but the 49ers almost surely will look to find a young quarterback to groom for the future, whether or not O'Sullivan is the man next year. I don't believe Hill is the long-term solution at the position, and O'Sullivan might not be either. Only time will tell.


Doug Farrar: The thought is that with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz on board, Frank Gore might see a more varied menu of formations and production. He's led the team in receptions before; will he continue to be the center of this offense?

Craig Massei: Gore IS the center of the offense, and it will revolve around him this season like planets in the solar system revolve around the sun. Barring injury, Gore's headed for a 1,500-yard-plus rushing season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him lead the team in receptions again for the third consecutive season. Gore led the 49ers with four receptions in last week's opener, and he accounted for 151 of San Francisco's 291 offensive yards. In other words, 52 percent of the team's total offense. Gore accounted for a NFL-high 40.5 percent of San Francisco's offensive yardage in 2007, and if Sunday's opener was any indication, he'll continue to be counted upon for the bulk of the 49ers' yardage both on the ground and swinging out of the backfield in the passing game. This offensive system is tailor-made to his skills. He could be one of the league's most productive backs this year. He's a tremendous talent in the prime of his career playing in a system that accentuates his skills.


Doug Farrar: San Francisco has had issues at wide receiver for a long time, though there might be a bit of relief on board. How has new acquisition Bryant Johnson looked, and where did this Josh Morgan guy come from?

Craig Massei:Johnson looked great during the spring, when he quickly assumed the starting role at split end, but he missed the first three preseason games with a hamstring injury. Since returning in late August, he probably has looked like the team's best receiver and has established himself as a legitimate threat in the passing game. Johnson's injury in early August gave Morgan an immediate shot at the starting lineup when the exhibition season began, and the rookie excelled in each of San Francisco's first two preseason games, catching nine passes for 182 yards and looking like a skilled pro and game-breaking threat. Morgan, the team's sixth-round draft choice in April, was one of the team's bona fide stars of the summer and has gotten some national recognition as one of the steals of the draft. He'll see regular work in the team's receiver rotation against the Sehawks, but Johnson and Isaac Bruce remain the starters.


Doug Farrar: How has Joe Staley looked at left tackle, and how has the rest of the 49ers' offensive line looked so far? In what ways do you think the Martz scheme will affect quarterback protection?

Craig Massei: I like Staley a lot and think he's going to be an excellent tackle for the 49ers for years to come. But he's still earning his stripes at left tackle after moving over from the right side. He allowed a sack that resulted in a lost fumble in the opener, but definitely held his own and is an asset to the team at the position. There has been a lot of change on the line – starting guards Larry Allen and Justin Smiley and former starting tackle Kwame Harris all are gone from last year's team – but it displayed a lot of progress during the summer and preseason and entered the season on a roll. There's some fresh blood and young talent in there now and I think that will make the line better this year. That said, Martz's scheme probably will have an adverse effect on quarterback protection. He spreads it out with a lot of four-receiver sets, which doesn't leave many extra blockers in for protection. Martz's scheme relies on precision and the quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly. O'Sullivan fits the scheme, but he still was sacked four times while throwing only 20 passes in the opener, and there were several other times he was scrambling to get out of harm's way. With this line, the run blocking definitely is ahead of the pass blocking as the 49ers prepare to play the Seahawks.

PART II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and Seahawks.NET as Craig and Doug continue their back-and-forth interaction with Doug answering five questions from Craig.



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