Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Saints, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive three-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and SaintsInsider.com's Matthew Postins begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Matthew to Craig. Who's considered the QB of the future now in SF? What has Mike Martz's arrival meant for Mike Nolan and RB Frank Gore? How's the O-line doing after Larry Allen's departure? These Q&As and more inside.

Matthew Postins, Publisher, SaintsInsider.com: The emergence of J.T. O'Sullivan during the preseason surprised a lot of football observers, but he seems to be performing well so far. Is O'Sullivan considered the quarterback of the future now and what is Alex Smith's future in San Francisco?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: At this moment as we speak, there IS no quarterback of the future for the 49ers. It's all about the here-and-now for this team, which is looking at a personnel shakeup if it sags to a sixth consecutive losing season this year. Until just over a month ago, Smith was always seen as the quarterback of the future for this team, but his latest shoulder injury and the surprising emergence of O'Sullivan have changed all that. Smith suffered a rare fractured bone in his throwing shoulder while attempting a deep pass in practice a few days before the season opener. It's the same shoulder that required season-ending surgery last year to repair torn ligaments after Smith separated the shoulder in Week 4. With a $9.625 million base salary for 2009, general manager Scot McCloughan already has said that Smith won't be back at that price unless he is established as the team's clear starter for next season. At this point, that obviously is not going to happen. But I heard today from sources that Smith wants to remain a 49er and will be willing to take the huge pay cut necessary to stay with the team. However, from my viewpoint, I'm not sure if the guy's shoulder will ever be right again, at least right enough to be an effective quarterback in the NFL. From that standpoint, I think his career might be over, but that would be speculation at this point as he considers another surgery after being placed on injured reserve two weeks ago today. O'Sullivan? Sure, he has a chance to be the QB of the future here. All he has to do is keep playing like he has through three weeks, and the 49ers will make every attempt possible to keep him here and make him happy. I sense that O'Sullivan already feels some loyalty to the 49ers for giving him his starting shot. And, frankly, it's difficult to believe none of the other seven NFL teams O'Sullivan already has played for gave him that shot first. From the moment he took over with the first unit in early August, O'Sullivan has been a revelation. He can make all the throws, has outstanding knowledge of the game and system, has pinpoint accuracy and a quick release, and he also is mobile with a surprising ability to make plays with his feet. He already has become a presence on this team, particularly the offense, and he has played every bit as good as his 104.6 QB rating – second in the NFC and fourth in the league this week – might suggest. But the 2008 49ers aren't in a position to start thinking about the future until it arrives.


Matthew Postins: Does Mike Martz's offense really mesh with a player of Frank Gore's talents? While he's an undeniably physical runner, I've never thought of him as a pass-receiving threat, much like Marshall Faulk.

Craig Massei: Absolutely. Martz's offense is perfect for Gore and, in fact, he looks like another Faulk in it. Gore is still a bit under the radar as NFL running backs go, but he is better than a lot of people think. He is both a powerful and explosive runner, and he's actually a top receiving threat out of the backfield, having led the 49ers in receptions each of the past two seasons with 61 catches in 2006 and 53 last year. Gore leads the team again this year entering Sunday's game with 13 receptions, so his versatility is a fit for Martz's diversified offense, which has made him the featured man in the attack. Martz already has said he has a "Frank Ratio" for how many times he wants Gore to touch the ball each game, and during last week's 31-13 rout of the Lions, Gore had 31 touches. Gore currently leads the NFL with 412 yards from scrimmage, so I suppose you could say Martz's offense is meshing with Gore's talent so far.


Matthew Postins: Who has replaced future Hall of Famer Larry Allen and how has Allen's departure affected the offensive line?

Craig Massei: Fourth-year veteran Adam Snyder is the new starter at left guard. Snyder has started at three different positions along the line, and he started the final 11 games last season at left tackle next to Allen. The 49ers are hoping that this will be Snyder's permanent home, but Davis Baas got a few series of work in place of Snyder during last week's victory. Snyder is no Larry Allen in the run game, where Big Larry still was steamrolling opponents even in his 14th season last year. But Allen was starting to become a liability in pass protection, and it was his missed block on Seattle's Rocky Bernard that led to Smith's shoulder separation last year. The 49ers have four new faces starting in new places along their starting line this season as compared to last year, but I think it's an improved unit over last year's, which had a hugely disappointing letdown after playing quite well in 2006. I believe the line is marginally better now without Allen, only because his game was becoming a bit one-dimensional by the end of last season. But that one dimension still was pretty damn good.


Matthew Postins: Talk about Patrick Willis' development on the defense in his second year. He played so well last year that it earned him a Pro Bowl nod. Is he playing to that same level? Has anything changed in his play this year that signals improvement or refinement of his game, and will that affect the Saints on Sunday?

Craig Massei: It's difficult to come up with an encore when you're a first-team All-Pro, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year and the league's runaway leader in tackles in your debut season. And – while it's not accurate to say Willis is struggling by any means – he has not shot out of the gate this year like he did last season. I have seen him struggling to get off blocks, particularly last week, as opposing offenses now give much more attention to stopping him and often assign linemen/tight ends/fullbacks specifically to engage him at the point of attack. He's finding life in the trenches a little more difficult now, but he's truly an exceptional talent who has it all as a linebacker. I mean, we're talking future Hall of Famer here if he keeps it up and doesn't get hurt. I'm expecting a big game out of Willis on Sunday as he always rises to the challenge presented by the better offenses, and he'll also be playing near the area in which he was raised and made his name in college. While so far he has not quite been the tackling machine he was last season, he is making more big plays. His 86-yard interception return for a touchdown in Week 2 was truly and awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping play, and it was the play that turned the game in San Francisco's favor during the 49ers' 33-30 upset victory at Seattle.


Matthew Postins: I thought the arrival of Martz in Detroit last year would signal the end of Rod Marinelli's tenure with the Lions. But Marinelli survived. What does Martz's arrival in SF say for the future of head coach Mike Nolan, an undeniably defensive-minded coach?

Craig Massei: Well, Nolan hired Martz, so it's an interesting question that already has been asked here and will be asked over and over again into next year. Nolan and Martz go way back and have coached together previously in the NFL, so it was a natural hire when Nolan was desperate to find an offensive coordinator who could save his offense – and hence, save his job – after the offense imploded under the direction of Jim Hostler last year. But Martz is something of a bigger-than-life figure in some NFL arenas, and he has been getting a lot of credit for the team's quick turnaround – the 49ers are 11th in the league in total offense this week after finishing a distant 32nd – dead last – in the league last year. The defense, which is very good, is ninth in this week's NFL rankings, primarily because it doesn't have to spend the entire game on the field anymore, like it did much of last season. Nolan is on the hot seat this season – he entered the fourth year of his five-year contract this season with a 16-32 record with the team – but this could turn into a situation where Martz actually ends up saving Nolan's job. But I know this already: The 49ers definitely do not want to lose Martz. Martz is the team's sixth offensive coordinator in six years, and nobody wants to see the 49ers go 7-for-7 in that category next year.

Part II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and SaintsInsider.com as Craig and Matthew continue their back-and-forth interaction with Matthew answering five questions from Craig.



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