Niners to find out where they stand in opener

The 49ers do not have to wait long to see where they rank among NFC teams. The first full year of the Mike Singletary era begins Sunday when the Niners face the Arizona Cardinals, winners of the NFC West and a team that came within 35 seconds of winning the Super Bowl last season.

"They are wearing the NFC crown right now," 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill said. "Until somebody knocks them off, it is theirs. It is good that we get to open up against them, the NFC champs, a division team. All of those things make it very exciting."

Singletary said he is thankful that the exhibition season is over. He said he can barely contain his enthusiasm for the coming season.

"There's not enough room around here for me to show you what my emotions are," Singletary said. "I'm very excited, but I'm really excited about our team. That's what I'm excited about. I'm excited about the guys."

The 49ers, coming off a 7-9 season, don't feel overmatched against the Cardinals. The teams played twice last season, and the 49ers let opportunities to win both game slip away.

The 49ers committed five turnovers with no takeaways in a 23-13 opening-game loss. Then, in Singletary's second game at the helm after taking over for fired Mike Nolan, the 49ers lost when the final play they ran was stopped a yard short of the end zone.

"I don't even look at them being the NFC champions," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It's a new year. That's what they were last year so this year, to us, they are a team on our schedule. They are No. 1; we want to win so it starts with them."

After the season, the 49ers made a failed attempt to sign Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner after flying him and his wife, Brenda, to the San Francisco area for a free-agent visit. Warner re-signed with the Cardinals.

When Singletary spoke to the media this week, he said he did not want to talk about the 49ers' offseason interest in Warner, the 49ers' last-minute meltdown against the Cardinals or receiver Michael Crabtree.

Crabtree, the No. 10 overall pick in the draft, missed all of training camp in a contract impasse. The 49ers had high hopes for Crabtree this season, but he remained out of sight and out of mind with the team this summer.

"That's already been handled, already been dealt with - don't want to go there," Singletary said of the 49ers' pursuit of Warner.

Hill won the starting job with a solid training camp, but there is little question who is the team's main offensive weapon. The 49ers expect consistent play from Hill, to be sure. But running back Frank Gore will be the focal point of the offense.

"We're trying to build a team," Singletary said. "We're not trying to build superstars; we're not trying to build any of that stuff. We want a team. I think to give us the best chance of winning is getting the ball into the hands of our playmakers. The No. 1 playmaker that we have is Frank Gore."

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Singletary feels his team is ready or the big challenge it will face in a pivotal season opener.

"I know we have a tremendous opportunity coming up this Sunday in playing the defending champions of the NFC," Singletary said. "I'm very excited about the opportunity that we have. We've been preparing for this since March 16th, and we're just continuing each day to strive to get better and compete and do the things that we need to do. Have an identity going into the season. I think we did all the things that we needed to do to prepare for the season and be ready for the first game."

Singletary named six players as team captains or the season on Friday. All six are leaders among their respective units – linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, defensive end Justin Smith, center Eric Heitmann, tight end Vernon Davis and running back Michael Robinson, the start of San Francisco's special teams units.

"Those six guys, to me, embody all of the things that we strive to be, in terms of the work ethic No. 1," Singletary said. "These guys are always working, and they're team guys striving to do all the little things that we need to do in order to be the best we can.

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Singletary said he has been particularly pleased by the maturity of Davis, who might seem an odd choice as a captain considering the volatile nature of his first three NFL seasons.

"I'm really excited about Vernon. I think he exemplified a lot of those qualities that you have to have in order to be a leader," Singletary said. "I know he told me last year that that's something he wanted to strive to be, and I felt that this year, just simply by what many of his teammates have said, comments the coaches have made about the maturity level that Vernon has shown and the professionalism and the work ethic and all of those things, I'm very excited about him."

When asked what Davis has done to make things right since Singletary sent the tight end to the locker room during the second half of Singletary's coaching debut against Seattle last October, Singletary had a long and thoughtful reply.

"It's not about making things right," Singletary started. "I think the thing that I've always talked to Vernon about, and even before that event, Vernon and I had a relationship because, as a former linebacker, trying to think about covering someone like him, I just always talked to him about – I never thought he had an idea of the ability that God has given him. We had a relationship before then. I just felt that the bottom line to that game was just unacceptable.

"Going forward, I think Vernon has really opened up in terms of communicating, ‘Coach, how do you want me to do this? How should I go about doing that? What's the best way to do this?' Those kinds of things. I remember one day during the first minicamp that we had, the veteran minicamp. I brought everybody up and everybody was dog-tired. I brought everybody up and I said, ‘Guys, I realize this is hard. I realize it's difficult. Why don't we just stop right here and take a breath and walk around and we'll come back and start up.' And Vernon said, ‘No. We started it. We're going to finish it.' He was the first one and he set the tempo, for me, for the rest of that minicamp. So, it's things like that, and other things that he's done, but that's just one example."

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After missing all but the first two games last season with a torn ACL in his left knee, veteran cornerback Shawntae Spencer came out of nowhere in training camp to beat out Dre' Bly and Tarell Brown for a starting job.

His first assignment will be Sunday against Anquan Boldin and the explosive Arizona passing game.

"It would fall that way," Spencer said, laughing.

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Bly signed a one-year contract with the 49ers after starter Walt Harris was injured in an offseason camp and appeared to be the favorite to win the starting job at right cornerback that went to Spencer.

Although he was not guaranteed a starting job, he thought there was a high degree of certainty he'd be adding onto his streak of starting every game the past three seasons.

"I've been used to playing my whole life," Bly said. "I started the last three years. Been productive. But still, he (Singletary) made a decision. I'm going to support it. They're still trying to figure out who I am. I'm not going to hold my head down. I have standards."

Bly will see a lot of action Sunday against the Cardinals, as he'll be the team's No. 3 cornerback.

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Safety Michael Lewis, who sustained two concussions in 11 days during training camp, has been medically cleared to return to action. Lewis will start at strong safety for the 49ers in Sunday's opener, Singletary said.

Lewis sat out the 49ers exhibition finale after sustaining a concussion Aug. 29 against the Dallas Cowboys. His first of the summer came Aug. 18 during a joint practice with the Raiders in Napa.

"It's super bad luck," Lewis said. "It's just one of those things. I wouldn't say scary. . . . In football, you keep rolling and you don't think about it like that."

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After the 49ers whittled the roster down to 53 players, the club pursued free-agent offensive tackle Tony Pashos, who spent two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens under current 49ers offensive line coach Chris Foerster.

Pashos was signed a backup to right tackle Adam Snyder. Pashos joins veteran Barry Sims as the only backup tackles on the team.

Pashos was scheduled to make a base salary of $4.335 million with Jacksonville but was released by the Jaguars. He has a scheduled base pay of $1.2 million with the 49ers with the possibility of achieving $500,000 in incentives. Snyder is scheduled to make $1.4 million.


--- RB Frank Gore said coach Mike Singletary challenged him after the season to report back to the 49ers in the best shape of his career. During training camp, Gore did not miss a practice or a rep. He said he is feeling as good as he's ever felt heading into a season.

--- S Mark Roman lost his starting job to Dashon Goldson, but Roman has won the job as the 49ers' sixth defensive back. He will enter the game in the 49ers' dime package.

--- RB Glen Coffee is expected to get a handful of rushing attempts a game, as the 49ers want to give starter Frank Gore periodic breaks during the course of a game. Coffee tied for the NFL lead in rushing during the exhibition season with 249 yards.

--- WR Jason Hill was not happy with his limited reps during the exhibition season and training camp but he said he was thrilled to make the 49ers' 53-man roster. He does not know his role once the season begins, though he and Michael Spurlock both figure to be in the mix when the team uses a fourth wide receiver.

--- OLB Manny Lawson is expected to be a three-down player this season. Lawson has proved to be a reliable performer against the run and in coverage. However, Lawson is being counted upon to supply pass rush on third downs, too.

--- WR Isaac Bruce had 14 receptions of 20 or more yards last season, as the 49ers ranked fifth in the league with 64 plays of more than 20 yards. In his 16th year in the NFL, Bruce enters this season as the team's No. 1 receiver after leading the 49ers with 61 receptions for 835 yards and seven touchdowns last year.

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