Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC West [Print without images]

Thursday, July 24, 2008
First mailbag is for you, 49ers fans

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

An editor asked me recently whether I'd like to schedule mailbag columns for a certain day each week. My thought: Why limit them to a single day? Interacting with passionate NFL fans is one of the highlights of blogging for me. I've been in your shoes. I've been a die-hard fan thirsting for information and insight from people lucky enough to enjoy access.

I grew up following the Rams in the 1970s before getting hooked on the Raiders through the 1980s and well into the 1990s. I've been a season-ticket holder who flew to games from two states away to watch his team get pummeled in the pouring rain. Walking out of that stadium a loser hurts, but you keep coming back because it's what real fans do.

Covering sports for a living takes the fan out of you, no question. I have great memories of the players I enjoyed watching years ago, but the loyalties to any one team are long gone. The loyalty I feel now is to all the fans who can't get enough. With that in mind, let's dive into our first NFC West mailbag, dominated by 49ers fans sick of watching their team wallow in sub-mediocrity.


Rene from San Francisco writes: "Hey whats up Sando, I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding the 49ers and their repeated failure to improve the offensive line through free agency. I believe the offensive line was the teams greatest area in need of improvement last season and it appears that they will be even worse off this season with the loss of Larry Allen and injury proneness of Jonas Jennings and David Bass. Do you think they did enough to improve the o-line?"

Mike Sando: The 49ers expected more from their line last season. The moves they've made this offseason haven't made a believer out of me just yet. They watched Justin Smiley leave in free agency. It's tough to say he wasn't one of their five best linemen. They lost Baas to a pectoral injury that could keep him sidelined until the regular season. They are counting on Jennings to play well in a new position. A lot of things must go right for this line to reach the 49ers' expectations. We'll have a better idea once training camp gets going.


Adrian from Watsonville, Calif., writes: "How will the San francisco defence be different this year now that a coupple of key additions have been added in Justin Smith, Dontarious Thomas and snd some draft picks also that Manny Lawson is back?"

Mike Sando: The defense was already pretty good. I think the defense improves this season as the 49ers become more competent offensively. The 49ers still have issues on offense, but I'm convinced they'll avoid the perfect storm that doomed them on that side of the ball last season. A better offense takes pressure off the defense. I see the 49ers forcing more turnovers and improving their pass rush.


Andrew from Sacramento writes: "I really think Alex Smith will win the QB battle in S.F., if and when he does how good do you really think he can be in Martz's offense this year?"

Mike Sando: I also think Smith wins the job. The 49ers need him to trust his protection enough to become comfortable. The pounding he took last season made him skittish. He struggled getting to his second read. Smith has been through quite a bit in a short period of time. He might need a full season of improved protection before he gets comfortable enough to realize his potential.


J in San Jose writes: "Alex Smith is going to be fine with good coaching; last year was screwed by Norv's defection. The Niner pass rush has been missing for about 13 years. Does a healthy Lawson make a difference? Is Justin Smith really going to work in the 3-4 (not just when they show a "4-3")? What do you know about Ray McDonald? He's got a nice first step..."

Mike Sando: A healthy Lawson will help. I'm not yet sure how healthy he'll be, or how comfortable he'll be. Lawson hasn't tested the knee in contact situations. And sometimes players need more than a year to regain top form following that type of injury. Lawson is young, so he might come back more quickly. We simply cannot know based on the available evidence.

As for Smith, the 49ers are investing in more than production. They want him to set a standard for the rest of the front seven, the way Bryant Young did for all those years. Smith will do that credibly as long as he produces on the field. The position change is intriguing. I don't have a great feel yet for how that might go. He's never been prolific at sacking quarterbacks, and he'll hear about that after signing the big contract.

McDonald hasn't played much. He projects as a backup. I haven't seen enough of him to know whether he'll become more than that.


Benjamin from New York writes: Do you think that the Niners have shot to improve with all there free agents and draft picks even if they have questions with there QB?

Mike Sando: I expect the 49ers to improve almost by default. Their offense was horrendously horrible last season. There's almost no way I can envision the offense approaching that level of futility for a second consecutive season.



Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Mike Martz has his work cut out for him in San Francisco.
Ryan from Chandler, Ariz., writes: "Mr. Sando, The 49ers schedule looks brutal and only 5-7 wins possible, am I just being pessimistic with the recent failures of my favorite team or am I a realist and that is about as much as 9er nation can expect? Thanks, Ryan"

Mike Sando: You have the right attitude, Ryan. Few things are worse as a fan than having your high hopes dashed in spectacular fashion. If I were a fan of a team, I would be tempted to bet against my team as insurance. My team wins, great. My team loses, I collect. You might be right projecting no more than seven victories, too. We're all anxious to see what Mike Martz means to the offense. In some ways, the lower expectations work in the 49ers' favor. They have so much to prove.


Mikaela from Sonora, Calif., writes: "Now i know that the 49ers were suppose to be big time sleepers last year, an we all know what happened to that ... but what I want to know is whether with the addition of Mike Martz an a fully recovered Many Lawson, do they have a chance at competing in or for the west this year?"

Mike Sando: I expect the 49ers to become more competitive, but I do not expect them to challenge for the division title. The 49ers could be dangerous at home, particularly if a team such as Seattle takes them for granted (sort of the way the Seahawks stumbled in Arizona last season). As I advised Ryan from Chandler, Ariz., keep those expectations low. The 49ers have to earn your trust at this point.


Rod from London writes: "Is Alex Smith capable of winning the starting job ,keeping it and making the 49ers competitive?Or is that asking too much of any man let alone one of the guys in camp?Smith has obviously shown potential at times,but is San Fran the right team for him?

Mike Sando: Smith is definitely capable of winning the starting job. I think Mike Nolan is sending a message to his team that jobs are handed to no one. But I fully expect Smith to emerge as the starter. I also believe the 49ers can become competitive if Smith can trust his
offensive line a little more. It's too early to say whether the 49ers are the right team for him over the long term. It might be harsh to call him damaged goods at this point, but he's been through a lot physically and emotionally over the last three seasons. Another tough season and he might need to start fresh somewhere else.


James in San Jose writes: "Mike, I think if Alex Smith can learn Mike Martz's playbook and stays healthy, the Niners will have a shot at the Divsion. Also, can Patrick Willis repeat with back to back MONSTER years?"

Mike Sando: I think the 49ers have a shot at becoming relevant in the division, but I'd be surprised if they entered the final week of the season with a shot to win it. As for Willis, I fully expect another great season from him. He's the truth.


Tom from Bellevue, Wash., writes: "Good to see you have your own blog again. I have been a long time fan of your writing from the TNT blog days. I would have to say you are not very photogenic, I am sure you look better than that in person. The picture looks like a stoned version of the 40 year old version. You could probably substitute a picture of Brad Pitt and no one would notice. Good luck with the blog."

Mike Sando: Thanks so much for the beauty tips. Seriously, I'm just happy at this point that someone interrupted the 49ers therapy session. A few more questions from dispirited 49ers fans and I would have expected Jim Hostler and Marc Trestman to walk through the door.


Sean from Los Angeles writes: "Hello Mike, Can you please somehow look into a crystal ball and tell me my Niners are going to win a game this year? I would greatly appreciate it."

Mike Sando: The 49ers are going to win a game this year. Take it to the bank, Sean.


Bruce from parts unknown writes: "Everybody's sexy pick last season was the 49ers... Quick and to the point. Was it all just a year a head of time? Is the time Now for the 9ers?"

Mike Sando: I think you are onto something. I raised the possibility during a conversation with Trent Dilfer before last season. At the time, the 49ers reminded me of an earlier Seahawks team that fell a bit flat amid inflated expectations. Teams that haven't experienced success can become vulnerable to the hype because they don't know what it takes to break through. I'm still a bit skeptical, but I do expect the 49ers to become relevant in the division again.


Ronnie from Connecticut writes: "the 49ers will make the playoffs this year. they are a team that is under the rader which is a good thing for the young players they have. alex smith has been a good quaterback for them when he is healthy, just look at the numbers and he should thirve under the mike martz offense. with that said, look at the pieces around him on offense, the 49ers have the possibility of being in the top ten in the league for offense. now take a look at their defense. the defense should easily be in the top ten in the league if not better. the niners will take the nfc west back by going 10 - 6 or 11 - 5!"

Mike Sando: I do think the underdog status works well for the 49ers. But if they win 10 or 11 games this season, Martz instantly becomes a head-coaching candidate, at which point the 49ers might be looking at their fifth offensive coordinator in five seasons.



Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
The Rams are hoping to see a healthy Orlando Pace this season.
Ruben from Highland, Calif., writes: "Mike, When you are visiting the Rams camp, can you look into the status of Orlando Pace's injury. Are the Rams worried about his slow recovery or not? Could you also focus on the changing of the guard at wide receiver. Will Bennett be of any value? Will either of the 2 draft choices be able to contribute this year?"

Mike Sando: I'm scheduled to attend Rams camp at the beginning of August. Perhaps Pace will be back on the field and cleared to participate in the scrimmage set for Aug. 2. I'm not sure that will happen, but he's definitely a guy I'll be watching. The Rams have their fingers crossed on Pace, no question. They feel reasonably confident that his injuries are not of the chronic variety, but they also know he's missed a lot of games over the last two seasons.

The receiver situation in St. Louis will also be on my radar. An injury there or at linebacker could really hurt the Rams. Depth is an issue.

Chris Long should definitely contribute. Donnie Avery will have a harder time just by the nature of the position. I'm not going to sit here and pretend I've analyzed his game the way a scout would, but he'll most likely need time to master the intricacies of a big-time pro offense. I'd be surprised if he hit stride right away.


Carlos from Whittier, Calif., writes: Do you see the 49ers having an improved season from the last two? ... if not do you believe more changes besides the quaterback will be made? thank you."

Mike Sando: I think the 49ers will improve. I'm not sure if they'll improve enough to avoid wholesale changes. The organization needs to emerge from this season with hope at the quarterback position.


Nick from San Francisco writes: "Do you think Alex Smith can rebound after having to learn a new system yet again? or do the 49ers have Martz's next Warner prototype in Shaun Hill? Do the 49ers have any shot at the playoffs if Defense performs and they get some consistency at QB?"

Mike Sando: Kurt Warner was a once-in-a-lifetime shot for the Rams. If the 49ers had any inkling Shaun Hill were that guy, they'd be signing him to an extension right now. I do think Smith can rebound as long as the 49ers can keep him healthy, but he might need a full season to heal the emotional scars.


Elliott from San Francisco writes: Dude, I dont even know who you are, but how do u feel about the niners this year? Do you think we will finish above or below 500? What do you think about our draft picks? Also, who do you think is the most talented player(s) on our team offense and defense (2 players)."

Mike Sando: If pressed, or even if asked by a guy who doesn't know who I am, I'd take the under on the .500 proposition. That is subject to change once camp gets going and we have more evidence to work with.

I'd be reaching to analyze the draft picks before they put on the pads. I've spoken with scouts from other teams who didn't think Kentwan Balmer would justify the first-round pick. But scouts are guessing to an extent, too.

Vernon Davis and Frank Gore get my votes for the 49ers' most-talented offensive players. Patrick Willis and Nate Clements get the votes on defense.


Joe from San Diego writes: "In looking at the niners schedule, If they stay healthy, there's no reason they cant win 8 or 9 games. I know this largely depends on Alex Smith's ability to grasp the offense, as well. But,what do you think?"

Mike Sando: Let's go with 7-9 for now.


Patrick from Albany, N.Y., writes: "As a huge Rams fan, I saw how the lack of depth on the O and D line last year killed the Rams hopes at a reasonable season, did they do enough this off-season to keep another 3-13 egg from being laid?"

Mike Sando: I'd be stunned if the Rams lost 13 ga
mes again -- unless, of course, injuries knocked out Orlando Pace and, say, Will Witherspoon. The Rams' depth remains tenuous in a few key areas. Losing Claude Wroten for the season didn't help. Al Saunders is determined to keep Marc Bulger healthy this season, no matter what. If he can do that, the Rams will become relevant in the division again.



AP Photo/John Froschauer
Matt Hasselbeck needs to be able to rely on more than Bobby Engram at receiver.
Steve from Seattle writes: "Mike, I heard Deion Branch could be ready by week 1, if he is not how is John Carlson and the young WR corp looking? thanks."

Mike Sando: Bobby Engram came back quickly from ACL surgery during his days with Chicago, but I'd be a little surprised if Branch were ready to contribute significantly right away. Seattle's medical staff tends to be cautious in these situations.

Mike Holmgren is a veteran coach. I think he'll figure out a way to patch up the receiving situation. The key there is making sure Matt Hasselbeck can trust people other than Engram. Hasselbeck isn't as effective when worried whether his receivers know their stuff. I don't blame him, either. We all remember what happened when Alex Bannister ran his route the wrong way in that Green Bay playoff game featuring the coin-flip bravado.

I want to see John Carlson in exhibition games. He missed some time at minicamps and hasn't been in the system long enough to develop a rapport with Hasselbeck. I know Holmgren is excited about having an all-around player at the position.


Carlos from Denver writes: "What do you think of the Bronco's chances this coming season? adn will jay make hat next step we all know he can and finally be recognize as he best young QB and the best one (all around) out of the 2005 draft?"

Mike Sando: I researched Cutler last season and every scout I spoke with loved him. One scout told me he thought Cutler would become the face of the league. The Broncos should be optimistic about Cutler now that his diabetes is under control, but I think it's going to be tough for Denver overall because their defense is old. I was also puzzled when they brought in special-teams star Niko Koutouvides as a potential starting linebacker.


Keri from Manchester writes: "How many more years can the seahawks dominate this conference? With Jim Mora taking over what are the odds that when Mike Vick is finally cleared up that he could come out to seattle?"

Mike Sando: We take these seasons one at a time here at the Blog Network. The feeling here is that Seattle will miss Holmgren once he leaves. Holmgren has an impressive ability to weather tough situations and pull people together. He handles the media well during times of trouble. I'll be interested in seeing how the post-Holmgren Seahawks would handle a rough start to the 2009 season.

As for Vick in Seattle, forget about it. GM Tim Ruskell isn't about to add a notorious convict to his roster.


Aaron from Redmond, Wash., writes: "I'm wondering if you can clear up why the Seahawks dropped behind Green Bay in the latest ESPN rankings. I understand the Browns dropping due to injuries since the last poll, but the only thing at all that has changed between Green Bay and Seattle that I am aware of is the whole Farve thing. Since Green Bay has made it clear that Rodgers will still be the starter and Brett being a Packer next year is unlikely, why did this boost the Packers past the Hawks?"

Mike Sando: The power rankings are far from a science. The composition of the voting panel changed from then to now. That probably changed the results more than anything.


Kyle from St. Louis writes: "I've really enjoyed your work on ESPN.com so far, and I'm glad you'll be covering the West (and it seems like you're not a 'Hawks homer, which is great). I would love for you to watch the Rams rookie WR's (Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton) closely when you are at their camp and give us a report. And also how Jacob Bell is fitting in at left guard, and the battle for the strongside LB spot, probably b/t Chris Draft and Quentin Culberson. You wanted ideas, you got 'em. Thanks."

Mike Sando: Consider it done, Kyle. And thanks for the kind words. I've always felt privileged to cover football for a living. You'll never hear me complain about it.


Tom from Sammamish, Wash., writes: "Every year we hear about the incredible catches Logan Payne makes in practice and in camp, but how much will that actually translate to playing time this year?"

Mike Sando: Deion Branch's injury and D.J. Hackett's departure could finally force one of the young guys onto the field when it matters. I'm also interested in seeing how playing-time allotments change now that Keith Gilbertson has succeeded Nolan Cromwell as receivers coach. Strange as it might seem to those who think head coaches manage everything, Holmgren generally relies upon his assistants to determine which players are in the game from play to play. Gilbertson might not favor the same guys Cromwell favored in every situation. It's possible young guys could benefit.


Eugene from Fremont, Calif., writes: "Will the 49ers continue to waste Vernon Davis insane talent on blocking?"

Mike Sando: I'm not sure if they wasted Davis in particular last season. Davis caught 50-plus passes. The offense was so inept, however, that Davis wasn't able to make much happen down the field. I think his numbers could spike if the 49ers become even average on offense. I'm also curious to see how Martz uses him. Martz generally hasn't featured tight ends in his offense, but he's never had a tight end with Davis' abilities to get down the field.


John in Downingtow, Pa., writes: "I created this Google map last night - I thought you might like to put a link to it on your site or blog... I hope the link comes through cleanly - the text box is causing it to wrap oddly."

Mike Sando: Consider it done, John. And thanks for taking the time to map every training-camp site in the league. Very cool.


S.D. from parts unknown writes: "You ranked the Cowboys sixth? Your football knowledge (or lack there of) is HIGHLY suspect. A team with 13 pro-bowlers, that added a top flight corner and return man and went 13-3 and you rank them 6th?? I have a suggestion for you. The NHL is looking for someone to report on their sport. Why dont you try hockey reporting and analysis. That way when you make stupid mistakes like ranking a top flight team sixth, nobody will care because nobody is watching in the first place!"

Mike Sando: I count 17 current and former Pro Bowl players on the Cowboys' roster, but no playoff victories since the 1996 season. The teams I ranked ahead of the Cowboys have proven themselves in the postseason. This could be the season Dallas breaks through the way Jacksonville and San Diego did last season. The Cowboys strike me as the type of team that could be one postseason victory away from winning it all. In other words, one postse
ason victory could send them on their way. Until then, they'll have as many postseason victories in the NFL over the last decade as your Dallas Stars.