Have 49ers improved enough to become winners?

Have 49ers improved enough to become winners?


We’ve already witnessed the final preview for the 2009 San Francisco 49ers. Do you like what you’ve seen?


The players coach Mike Singletary envisions as key components to this year’s squad – at least early in the season – are going to have short nights. So don’t tune in late for the 7 p.m. start against the Chargers or you’ll miss them.


Therefore, what we saw on the field in those first three games is about all we have to try to gauge how the 49ers will fare this season.


Singletary on Thursday expressed his satisfaction with the first offseason and training camp under his command.


“First and foremost, it’s been a great offseason, in my mind, from start to finish,” he said.


I’m sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to agree with him. From a personnel standpoint, I don’t see how the 49ers will be better when the club takes the field next Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.


After all, the two most glaring weaknesses from last year’s team – offensive line and pass-rusher – have less depth than a year ago at this time.


The 49ers surrendered 55 sacks in consecutive seasons. While the offensive line certainly was not responsible for all of those sacks, it’s still an alarming number. And the 49ers did not address the situation in the offseason.


The team’s pass rush was the other area of concern. Again, the 49ers did not add anybody it expects to get after the quarterback.


As it turns out, the 49ers’ hopes rests on improved play this season from right tackle Adam Snyder and outside linebacker Manny Lawson. Snyder had a very good training camp before being sidelined for a week with an Aug. 22 knee injury (he’ll be back in the starting lineup tonight). But Lawson has yet to show any flashes of being a productive NFL pass-rusher.


I asked Singletary what leads him to believe the offensive line and pass rush will be better this season. He said he is confident the run game will be much-improved, and I certainly agree with him on that point.


“We’re going to have to be able to run the ball in order for us to be successful,” he said. “I think we were able to accomplish that.”


But to believe the 49ers’ pass rush is going to show a significant upgrade takes a leap of faith.


“I’ve said all along, I have total confidence in our ability to get after the quarterback,” Singletary said. “But it’s more than meets the eye. I think it’s the total 11 guys on defense playing together at one time.”


In the first three exhibition games, the 49ers’ only sack came when a quarterback tripped over the feet of an offensive lineman and fell. Sure, the 49ers have not game-planned for an opponent during the exhibition season. But you would think there would be enough talent that the defense could produce a legitimate sack on a pure one-on-one move.


“Let’s revisit that in a few weeks, and then ask me again and I think I’ll have a better answer for you,” Singletary said. “But I don’t want to go into speculating, and this and that and all that other stuff. I have my reasons. In a few weeks, let’s revisit that.”


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In the weeks leading up to training camp, I trumpeted the team’s improved corps of wide receivers. That area, too, has not shown as much as I thought it might. Here’s what I saw from that unit:


Isaac Bruce: He’s the only receiver on the roster who looked better than expected. Watching him daily was a treat. Certainly, at 36, he’s past his prime, but he’s still pretty good. He is smooth, precise and professional. He’s more than a little quirky, but not in a diva-like way. He’s stays to himself and does as much as he can to avoid added attention.


Josh Morgan: He is expected to have his breakout season. He opened camp strong, but then seemed to plateau. He has great ability, but he has yet to showcase it consistently.


Arnaz Battle: This is a player all 49ers fans should appreciate. He’s been given nothing, and he continues to work hard and play hard. Part of the reason he’s battled injuries throughout his career is because he does not shy away from the physical part of his job. A lot of teams can do far worse than having him as their No. 3 receiver. I’d say, he’s the team’s second-best receiver right now.


Jason Hill: He proved he can play. The third-round pick of the 2007 draft generally played well when given an opportunity in the second half of the season. But for most of camp, he’s been the forgotten man, losing his playing time to Battle and Micheal Spurlock. He must regain his confidence and be willing to fight for a job.


Dominique Zeigler: He has fantastic hands and is a good route-runner. I’ve seen numerous times when WRs coach Jerry Sullivan will tell the young players to watch how Zeigler does it. In the right situation, he can be a solid complementary receiver. He is the only one of this group that still has practice-squad eligibility, so that might be his ticket – at least initially.


Micheal Spurlock: He has some value as a slot receiver, but his value to the team is as a handy man. He can return kicks. He can play the slot. And the former college quarterback has been offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye’s top choice to run the “Taser.”


And then there are . . .


Brandon Jones: When he signed became the highest-paid receiver on the team when he signed a five-year, $16.5 million contract as a free agent. He was the deep threat to open camp, as he and Alex Smith seemed to be forming a nice tandem. Jones got off to a great start. But then he dove for a pass during a practice Aug. 6 and broke his shoulder. He is expected to miss games through September.


Michael Crabtree: When and if he decides to sign, he will surpass Jones to become the highest-paid receiver on the team. He did not practice during the team’s offseason program, and he remains without a contract agreement.


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To summarize the 49ers heading into the 2009 season . . .


–The run game is better with an offensive line playing to its strengths, and Frank Gore and Glen Coffee looking strong.

–The quarterback play should be more consistent with Shaun Hill.

–The wide receivers haven’t shown as much improvement as expected, making it questionable whether they can keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimage to stop the run.

–Vernon Davis looks as if he’ll be used as a receiver and not just a glorified tackle.

–The run defense looks like it won’t be a problem.

–The pass rush, which is the key to the entire pass defense, is still very, very questionable.

–Special teams should be about the same as it was a year ago.


My kneejerk reaction is that this is a 6-10 team. At least, that’s how the first unit looked to me when I watched the first three exhibition games. This club does not have a lot of margin for error. Things will really have to fall into place – and answers will have to emerge from within – for the 49ers to hover around .500 and be right there to contend for the NFC West.


But I’m willing to implement Mike Singletary’s recommendation.


“Let’s revisit that in a few weeks, and then ask me again and I think I’ll have a better answer for you.”


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A number of former 49ers players have sighed up as ambassadors for a new form of fantasy football that does not focus on just the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. Ronnie Lott, Derrick Deese, Gary Plummer and Brentson Buckner are among the former players who are teaming up with Trench Fantasy Football.


“Fantasy football takes away from the essence of the game,” Buckner said. “You might as well be playing 8-man or flag football. Trench Fantasy makes you watch the trenches. You learn the whole game, and now you’re a football purist.”


Fantasy players can learn more about Trench Fantasy and register through Sept. 9 to start leagues for the upcoming season at TrenchFantasy.com.


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