Wednesday, August 1, 2007

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49ers rely on building blocks to beat slow start
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By Chris Colston, USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — In this antiquated, scruffy stadium tucked into Candlestick Point by the bay, it's impossible to escape this city's glorious football past: five Super Bowl titles from 1981-94, earning the 49ers the nickname, "Team of the Eighties."
A poster of the late Bill Walsh, his arms crossed, graces the media elevator. The playing field is named for Walsh, architect of those dynasty years. Down in the 49ers' cramped locker room, photos of past heroes line the walls. Outside, fans pack the stands wearing cherry red, No. 16 Joe Montana jerseys, ever-present reminders of the glory days.
Lately, though, San Francisco fans have had little to cheer about. The team has only one division title since 1998 and has won one playoff game since 1999.
A new regime, led by head coach Mike Nolan and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan, wants to change that. Now in their third year of a build-through-the-draft plan, "McNolan" expects results. Nothing short of a playoff appearance will satisfy them.
But with the 2007 season quickly approaching its halfway point, the injury-wracked and offensively challenged 49ers are 2-3.
"Given the expectation of reaching the playoffs before the season started, this is shaping up as a monumentally disappointing year," the San Francisco Chronicle's John Crumpacker noted in a blog entry earlier this month.
San Francisco fans can be forgiven for wondering: How is the youth movement progressing? Is the plan on track? And is the plan itself well-conceived?
PREDICTIONS: Week 7 picks
POWER RANKINGS: 49ers struggling in the 20s
On Jan 17, 2005, Nolan was hired on the heels of a 2-14 season. He had been the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator for three years before being hired by the 49ers but had never been a head coach. Yet he wowed team co-owner John York in an interview. And Nolan had something else in his favor — his father, Dick, led the 49ers to three NFC West titles as their head coach from 1968-75.
"Mike Nolan understands what it means to be a San Francisco 49er," York said at the time. "That wasn't even on our criteria list, but I can tell you that was very important."
Two weeks later, San Francisco hired McCloughan with the idea that he would work hand-in-hand with Nolan. This symbiotic relationship has led to the "McNolan" moniker, and the two are of the same mind philosophically. They planned to draft, train and teach their players "how to be 49ers."
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Super Bowl SAN FRANCISCO NFC West Alex Smith MIKE NOLAN Joe Montana Vernon Davis Scot Mccloughan
"What's good about them is they're joined at the hip," says NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "To me, that's how you win in the NFL, regardless of the organization. And they have a really good working relationship."
Nolan and McCloughan's first big decision came almost immediately. They had the No. 1 overall choice in the 2005 draft in the aftermath of the team's miserable 2004 showing. The player they chose would not only have to perform on the field, but his persona would set the tone for the rest of the team.
They opted for Alex Smith, a bright, athletic quarterback from Utah who'd played in a sophisticated passing offense under then-coach Urban Meyer.
Many observers thought the 49ers would go with California quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was more polished than Smith. "There was nothing against Aaron," McCloughan says. "If we had traded down to the fifth pick, we would have taken Aaron. But with Alex we saw a bigger upside. We fell in love with his mental toughness and work ethic. In that regard, he reminded us a lot of Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck."
Interesting he should say that. "I always thought Smith was a good — but not great — prospect," Mayock says. "I still think he can be a good quarterback, like Hasselbeck, a sixth-round pick who's been to a Pro Bowl or two. He's big, smart and tough, and I think that's Smith. But he's got to continue to make better decisions, which also took Hasselbeck awhile."
Smith started seven games as a rookie and struggled mightily as San Francisco finished 4-12. Last year, he started all 16 games and threw 16 touchdowns against 16 interceptions as the team improved to 7-9.
Heading into this season, Smith likely didn't need to be Tom Brady for the 49ers to reach their playoff goal. But he did need to continue progressing and stay healthy.
But Smith's progress had been halting in 2007, and his health was compromised when he was buried on a sack by Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard on the third play of a Week 4 game that was supposed to be litmus test of NFC West rivals. Smith left that game with a separated throwing shoulder and hasn't played since; Seattle left San Francisco with a 23-3 victory and a claim on first place.
Smith hopes to be back under center Sunday when the 49ers face the New York Giants.
The team has also missed one of its best receivers, 2006 first-round pick Vernon Davis. A tight end, Davis has a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee and has missed the last two games; he missed six games last year with a hairline fracture in his left leg. He also hopes to return Sunday.
Without them, the 49ers are like a sputtering car with a doughnut wheel on the Interstate; while everybody else whizzes by at 70 mph, they're puttering along at 50.
San Francisco's offense ranks last in the NFL with 203.2 yards per game. How woeful is that? The 1992 Seahawks averaged 212.8 yards per game, the worst average in a 16-game season in NFL history.
Davis believes he would've made a difference in the 9-7 loss to the Ravens on Oct. 7, the first game Smith sat out.
"Guys like (Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis and (safety) Ed Reed, I know them. I'm sure they would've been told to key on me," Davis says. "I'm pretty sure I could have opened some things up for Frank (49ers running back Frank Gore). I could've taken some guys out of the box and spread them out a little bit."
San Francisco suffered another hit in September when it lost outside linebacker Manny Lawson for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The team's other first-round pick in 2006, Lawson had 11 tackles in two games. And a hamstring injury has slowed receiver Jason Hill, a 2007 third-round pick.
"My disappointment right now is that we're being challenged with some adversity that removes our young guys from the field," Nolan says. "It puts us back where we were without them, and that's not a place of comfort."
Mayock likes what the 49ers have done with their last three drafts. "They're trying to upgrade their team speed and athleticism, but they've been hit pretty hard on the injury side," he says. "They've had five first-round picks in the last three years, and three of them are injured right now.
"Davis and Lawson could be difference-makers, but we don't know that yet because they've been hurt. I'm bullish on the 49ers on what they're trying to do, but the jury is still out. If you pushed me and said how would you rank them on a scale of one to 10, I'd like to say it's an eight — but with an asterisk, because of the injuries."
Both 2007 first-round picks, linebacker Patrick Willis and offensive tackle Joe Staley, are healthy, however. And they're playing as well as anybody could expect.
Because they both wear No. 52, play middle linebacker and possess great talent, sportswriters naturally compared Willis to Ray Lewis prior to the Ravens game. The 11th overall pick in the draft, Willis runs the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds, sideline-to-sideline speed that has enabled him to average 10 tackles per game this season.
"I think that's why people are making comparisons," Willis says. "We've always been around the ball."
Nolan coached Lewis with the Ravens, so he would know.
"They're two different people," Nolan says. "Ray is very passionate; he comes in and says, 'I'm the leader.' The first time he walked into the door as a rookie, he thought he should be the starter. Patrick, I think, felt the same way, but he isn't as extroverted in saying it."
Willis only recently started studying Lewis' play. He wears No. 52 only because the NFL doesn't allow linebackers to wear No. 49, his number at Mississippi.
But Willis has become a big Lewis fan.
"He's reached out to me as a mentor," Lewis says. "I told him I can help a great deal. He's a tremendous athlete. In many ways, he reminds me of me when I was young. He's very fast, strong and likes to run around like crazy out there. And he has a love for the game. Those are some of the ways that he reminds me of me."
Says Willis, "I've done nothing yet. I haven't been to the Pro Bowl. I haven't been MVP. I haven't gone to a Super Bowl. So I don't see how they can compare me to him. But as far as having a knack for the ball, there's a correlation there."
Willis hasn't always been spectacular this year. But Nolan believes greatness is in the consistency; great players don't have bad plays.
He's seen opponents block Willis. But he hasn't seen him go right when the ball goes left. "He's got good instincts, and he's a hard worker," Nolan says. "Football is really important to him."
For Staley, learning to play offensive tackle in the NFL is a tough job.
Keeping his teammates happy might be even tougher.
"Through the first quarter of the season, I'd give him a B grade," says left tackle Adam Snyder. "I can't give him an A; you can't put him on a pedestal like that."
San Francisco swung a deal with the New England Patriots on draft day, surrendering a future first-rounder to move up the board and grab Staley with the 28th pick.
"Watching him in August, you'd never know that was his first training camp," McCloughan says. "He's had some good days and bad days, but he's learning every day. You seldom see him make the same mistake twice, and that speaks to his mental toughness."
In addition to learning the intricacies of pass protections, traps and power run-blocking, Joe Staley— that's what they call him around here, not "Joe" or "Staley" but "Joe Staley" — is also charged with keeping his teammates' appetites sated.
Over the course of the season, he must treat teammates to dinner at least four times. And that doesn't count the times he's paid tabs.
There's more:
• Every Wednesday, he has doughnut duty — two dozen for his teammates, plus special orders like apple fritters and bear claws — which runs him about $20 a pop.
• Every Friday morning before practice, he visits Starbucks and Jamba Juice in nearby Santa Clara. He often employs his girlfriend to help him out. That tab usually runs about $45.
• On Saturdays, when the 49ers are home, he must provide breakfast sandwiches, which usually cost about $55. They know him now at the sandwich shop; when he calls in the order, they say, "Is this Joe?"
"But I don't catch any price breaks," he says.
•Fridays before a road game are the worst. In addition to the coffee/smoothie run, he has to provide lunch for the offensive linemen. Veteran guard Larry Allen will tell him where to go: either pizza or chicken. That order usually amounts to about $80.
It makes for a hectic day: the breakfast run in the morning, practice, lift weights, shower, order lunch, and still make the bus for the airport.
"I had to do this when I was a rookie, and it's not fun," Snyder says. "You want to do everything right. It's a lot of stress."
His teammates did help Staley celebrate his 23rd birthday on Aug. 30, but he had to rent the limo.
"As a rookie, you want to make a favorable impression," Staley says. "You're walking on eggshells when you get here. I mean, you have some veteran guys here. Larry has been in the league for 14 years. You want to respect them, but you also want to show them you mean business."
The 49ers have shown some sympathy to their meal ticket. "I was a little quiet at first," Staley says, "and they've been proactive in involving me."
When 14-year veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer came into the league, he told Staley a lot of veterans liked to haze the rookies. But that mentality has changed. "People realize they need the rookies to help them win," Staley says. "There's no time for hazing. We need to bring them along and get him to be part of the program."
While the two first-rounders have been bright spots, the offense under first-year coordinator Jim Hostler, 40, has been anything but. Gore, who rushed for a franchise-record 1,695 yards last season, has just 306 this season. Overall, the 49ers have had fewer than 200 yards of total offense in four of their five games.
The team's quarterbacks coach since Nolan arrived, Hostler took over as offensive coordinator when Norv Turner left to become head coach in San Diego.
"I think Jim is going to be an outstanding coordinator, but it is his first time," Nolan says. "He's a hard-working guy, a tough guy. He commands the room pretty well. And that gets better when you go through times like this and you can reflect.
"I've had some tough times along the way to get here. … The down years make you appreciate the other ones better. But also, when you stumble, you recognize it and say, 'Back it up. I'm fine.' When you've never done those things, it makes you think.
"The first time I stumbled, I wondered, 'Am I just going to stay down here, or am I'm going to get up?' So I tell him to keep doing his job. Don't lose confidence."
Losing Smith and Davis didn't help. And new receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie have done little to instill confidence; they've been unable to stretch the field to give Gore any running room. And Hostler admits he's still learning.
"As everybody goes through this, they make mistakes," he says. "I know of great play-callers who said, 'I shouldn't have done that,' or, 'That's not a good call.' But that's part of it. There is no perfect game. You have to live with it and move on. Especially when you're not having success."
Hostler has felt scrutiny since Week 1, when San Francisco opened on Monday Night Football. "That was a tough situation on a big stage," he says. "Pressure has never really bothered me; I'm more concerned about results. But that was some pressure."
Yoga, acupuncture or deep breathing? That's not for Hostler. He sleeps about four hours a night and guzzles coffee and Cokes all day.
"It's just a mind-set," he says. "You learn it over time. That's what I've learned from my mentors — it's not the plays or how you call them; it's how you handle these kind of moments that define you.
"I've been around Norv and (Green Bay head coach) Mike McCarthy when they've all been struggling. Hey, we went through a stretch last year where we lost three in a row. Here's Norv, and we're not having a lot of success on offense. But he knew what he wanted to do, and he kept sticking with it. All the coordinators I've been around, they've been that way. Because if you can't do that, you're not going to make it."
Three consecutive losses is reason for concern, but the season is still young. Getting Smith and Davis back should rejuvenate the attack, and Hostler is sure to improve.
"We just need to find five to 10 plays that work well for us," McCloughan says. "If a play is executed well, it's going to be a productive play even if the defense knows what's coming.
"Sometimes, people make football too complex. Basically, it comes down to man-on-man and who executes their assignments better."
Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain spent the last four years in New England, so he knows a quality program when he sees it.
"When I was at New England, I always paid attention to the 49ers. They've always been my team," says Banta-Cain, a native Californian. "I studied what they were doing personnel-wise. … I'm glad I'm here and being a part of this. I think this team is headed to a New England-esque type of mind-set."
The 49ers' work ethic prompts his optimism. "It's neck-and-neck with what I saw with the Patriots. The difference is experience. In New England, the table is set. You know the quarterback, you know the core guys, where here, it's more of guys trying to find their roles."
Defensive lineman Bryant Young has been with the club since 1994, San Francisco's last Super Bowl team, and has seen a variety of rebuilding efforts, some unsuccessful.
"I really believe they've taken their time to make this process done the right way — having a plan, having a vision — to make it work," he says of the McNolan team. "And bringing in the right people, gutting it out a little bit. They're trying to reach back to where the club was before, with all the tradition that's been here.
"I've seen progress. That's very promising. You hope you can turn things around in one year, but nowadays, it's tough. It's a process. Especially when you're making so many changes; everybody has to be on board with that plan and that vision."
Nolan talks about bringing in the right people, showing fiscal responsibility with the salary cap and making good draft-day decisions.
"But we need to keep those players on the field," he says. "In the long run, if you can deal with those things, you're that much better. I'd like to think we're there today, but we're not.
"Our expectations for the season are higher than they've ever been. To achieve that, you have to fight through times like right now."
Mayock believes the team is on the right track, but still needs to fortify the wide receiver position. And there's still work to do on the offensive line. "They've got to get more speed on the edges, to open things up for Gore," he says.
But despite their struggles, the 49ers are only a half-game behind the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West. McCloughan isn't just spewing a cliché when he says, "There's a lot of football left to play."
"This is a good bunch of guys, from the coaches to the players to the front office," he says. "Nobody is pointing fingers, saying, 'This is your fault.' There is no panic. We'll keep plugging away."

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