John Crist: Bears fans acknowledge that the quarterback competition between Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton left an awful lot to be desired, but apparently the situation in San Francisco is even worse. Former No. 1-overall pick Alex Smith is in danger of losing his starting job to the likes of Shaun Hill or J.T. O'Sullivan – O'Sullivan spent some time with Chicago in NFL Europa and the following training camp, but that's about it. Does Smith get the benefit of the doubt because of the investment in him, or is it time to move on with another QB?
Craig Massei: It's a convoluted situation involving several dynamics, to be sure, but the 49ers aren't necessarily looking at it like it's time to move on without Smith. The way the team is looking at is: The 49ers need to win now, as in yesterday, and they're going to go with the quarterback that gives them the best chance to win NOW. Smith is clearly the most athletic and physically talented of San Francisco's three QBs, but he has had a very difficult time picking up the intricacies of the Mike Martz offensive system, and he's just not ready to make things happen in that system. In contrast, O'Sullivan clearly knows the system and has what it takes to operate it, though he's not going to impress anybody with his physical skills. Hill, who never has been a strong practice player, also has struggled in the offense and is out of the race to be the team's starter for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener.
Though coach Mike Nolan still says the team has not decided on its starter for the season, it almost certainly will be O'Sullivan, since he has worked almost exclusively with the first team since Aug. 6. Another dynamic involved is Martz, who doesn't seem to have the patience to methodically develop Smith and will get much more credit for succeeding with a journeyman such as O'Sullivan, since he notably developed other unheralded veterans (read: Kurt Warner, Trent Green, Marc Bulger, Jon Kitna, et al) into Pro Bowl-level QBs – or better. There is pressure on the entire team to win immediately, so the 49ers aren't going to wait around for Smith to get it, though they might quickly go back to him once they feel he is ready at some point during the regular season.
JC: Frank Gore was nothing short of sensational during his breakout campaign in 2006, but he came back to reality this past season after struggling with some injuries. What can 49ers fans expect out of Gore in 2008, and how much will we see him Thursday night since he's only gotten a few carries thus far half way through the preseason? Also, is free-agent addition DeShaun Foster going to see a significant workload in the backfield, or was he brought in simply to be an insurance policy for Gore and take a series here and there?
CM: Gore is a phenomenal halfback. He actually had a fine season last year, but his numbers declined simply because he turned out to be the only legitimate threat on an offense that was dead last in the NFL rankings. Opposing defenses designed their schemes to specifically stop him, loading the box with seven- and even eight-man lines. Despite facing these kinds of obstacles – along with being hampered by an ankle injury – Gore still finished fifth in the NFC with 1,102 yards rushing, averaging 4.2 yards a pop, and led the team again in receiving with 53 catches. In some ways, I thought it was every bit as good as his breakout season of the year before, considering the conditions were stacked against him to succeed, and the offense truly was horrible.
This summer, in the Martz offense, he has never looked better. He'll be used a lot of different ways in the scheme and could be headed for a big year. Foster is here more than just for insurance – he'll get regular work in the offense as Gore's backup and as a third-down back. Gore actually has carried eight times for 35 yards so far in the preseason, and you'll be seeing him in the first half along with the rest of San Francisco's regulars. You'll be seeing a lot of Foster also.
JC: Vernon Davis was supposed to be the most talented tight end to ever step foot in the NFL after he was drafted sixth overall a little more than two years ago. But he's had a slow start to his career, missing eight games combined his first two seasons and only averaging 10.8 yards per reception when he has played. I know the players surrounding him have been suspect, but is there any reason to assume – especially with the lack of ability throwing him the ball – that Davis will finally post Antonio Gates-like numbers this year?
CM: Yeah, you can assume that, because it is bound to happen and this could be the year. Davis really is the bomb, as advertised, but he was a victim of San Francisco's pathetic attack last year and turmoil at quarterback. He averaged 13.3 yards per catch as a rookie, and then last year, he was open down the field so many times it was ridiculous. But the 49ers either couldn't get him the ball or inexplicably didn't try enough to do so.
Martz isn't going to let the same thing happen this year. The 49ers will go to Davis as a staple of their attack, and he will be isolated one on one on defenders, where he can be a terror. The 49ers also will look for those opportunities to get him the ball behind defenders that they never took advantage of last year. I'm not sure if you can expect Gates-like numbers, but definitely expect career-high numbers this year from Davis.
JC: The 49ers gave Nate Clements a free-agent contract this past year on par with the gross national product of Lichtenstein. The former Buffalo Bill did have a pretty good debut season in the City by the Bay, totaling 92 tackles, a sack, 3 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions, and 14 passes defensed, but was his play from down to down worth the monetary commitment made by the organization? The numbers suggest not since San Francisco was still just 22nd in the league against the pass in 2007.
CM: Nobody's worth that kind of money, but in today's NFL that seems to be the going rate for a top-flight cornerback. And that's what Clements is and was to the San Francisco defense last year. He had an excellent season, developed quickly into a team leader, and was named as a Pro Bowl alternate. He made a lot of plays that don't show up on the stat sheet and also spent a lot of time throughout the season shadowing the best wide receiver on the other side of the field.
Again, the coin the 49ers heaped upon him was outlandish, but they have been pleased with their investment. Clements is one of the best players on the team and clearly a key cog in San Francisco's big hopes for its defense.
JC: Seattle is still the team to beat in the NFC West and has been for quite some time. But make me a case for the 49ers exceeding expectations and possibly competing for a playoff berth in a wide-open NFC. Conversely, make me a case for the 49ers potentially having the worst record in the league and eventually flipping a coin between quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Matthew Stafford with the top pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. And to wrap it up, which scenario do you feel is more likely?
CM: San Francisco's defense is for real. Nolan has been putting the pieces in place since he got here, and the 49ers now have five Pro Bowl players and a couple of others near that level among their starters in the team's 3-4 scheme. Part of the reason the defense did not look great statistically last year is that the offense was so inept that San Francisco's defense was on the field in 2007 more than any other NFL team. The defense will keep the 49ers in games this year. Despite the turmoil that hit the offense last year, there is talent on that side of the ball, and the Martz system assures the 49ers won't finish last in the league in total offense this year.
I just don't see the 49ers finishing with the league's worst record, though I'll never rule out anything after witnessing last year's freefall collapse. If the offense struggles, the early schedule presents enough challenges where the 49ers could start poorly and never get back on track, and that could lead to catastrophe if team ownership gets fed up and gives Nolan the early boot. The most likely result? The 49ers finally getting back among the NFL average. This looks like an 8-8 team that will be better or worse depending on how its offense jells and, ultimately, performs on Sundays.
That said, I sure do like Tebow.
To read Part II of this series, where John answers five questions from Craig, Click Here.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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