Mike Nolan may have looked snazzy on the San Francisco sidelines wearing a suit, but in his fourth season as the 49ers coach, with a 2-5 record, management decided that he didn't "suit" their organization any longer. The Niners sent Nolan packing and chose to hand the coaching reins over to defensive coordinator Mike Singletary rather than offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
Removing ineffective J.T. O'Sullivan from the quarterback position and inserting Shaun Hill in his place, the 49ers went 5-4 over the remainder of the season, including wins in four of their last five games. Singletary was rewarded with a new four-year deal and Martz was given his walking papers, replaced as coordinator by Jimmy Raye, a former running backs coach for the Jets.
So what should we expect from the 49ers in 2009? Clearly, the hiring of Raye means the 49ers are going to focus more on a ball-possession, grind-it-out attack with a huge emphasis on keeping the rock in the hands of Frank Gore. Further proof of this de-emphasis of the high-flying attack favored by Martz was the drafting of running back Glen Coffee out of Alabama, as well as the re-signing of fullback Moran Norris, who had been a solid lead blocker for Gore in the past.
That's not to say the 49ers are going to forget the pass altogether. However, Isaac Bruce is no spring chicken. At 36, he's more than a decade older than fellow wide receivers Josh Morgan, Josh Hill and first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree. Brandon Jones was brought in from Tennessee to add a little bit more experience to the young group, just in case Bruce has nothing left in the tank. While this unit may well shine several years down the line, we're not sure 2009 is going to be all that bright, especially with the leadership under center being so unclear going into camp.
On the defensive side of the ball is where this team's true nature should reveal itself. It has the strong veteran presence of players like Nate Clements, Takeo Spikes, Dre' Bly and Michael Lewis to go alongside the youthful exuberance of players like Patrick Willis, all led by the vision of a head coach who knows what it takes to be a Super Bowl-caliber defensive unit. Don't be surprised to see this team finish ranked in the top 10 in terms of yards allowed in 2009, and if the offense is successful at shortening the game through effective use of the run, a top-5 finish isn't completely out of the question.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles
Alex Smith or Shaun Hill. That's the million dollar question heading into the preseason for San Francisco. On the one hand, you have Hill, whose success on the field in the wake of Mike Singletary's promotion to interim head coach was the primary reason that the team was willing to give Singletary a long-term contract. However, it's going to take more than "loyalty" for Hill to get the job in 2009. Singletary has gone on record as saying Smith has a chance to win the job, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, "I have two quarterbacks I feel very confident about. I don't have one great guy. I have two good guys and somebody is going to step up and the next guy has to be ready." Smith hasn't played in a regular-season game since the middle of the 2007 season, but it appears for now he's on level ground with Hill. Veteran Damon Huard is also on the roster, but it's clear he is there only in a backup capacity and shouldn't factor into this competition.
Glen Coffee won't be competing for the lead back spot. We know that's going to Frank Gore. However, in today's NFL, one running back simply isn't enough to get you through a season, and there's going to be opportunity for the third-round pick to, forgive us, "get a cup of Coffee" in the lead back role -- if he impresses in the preseason, that is. He won't simply be handed the job; Thomas Clayton and Kory Sheets will also be in the mix. Clayton has been a fan favorite who has spent the past two years on the practice squad, while Sheets has speed and kick-return ability that may well land him a roster spot as a special teamer.
Isaac Bruce didn't come back for one more season to not start, so we know he's got the No. 1 slot pretty much nailed down. As for the No. 2 spot, one could well assume that the job is Michael Crabtree's to lose. After all, you don't spend a first-round draft pick on a wide receiver -- the 10th pick overall, no less -- and then have him stand on the sideline all season. But don't forget about Josh Morgan, who was plagued by injuries last season yet still averaged 16 yards per catch. Also there is Jason Hill, who had 30 receptions last season, coincidentally all coming after Mike Singletary took over as head coach. Hill might make "fitting in" a little more difficult for free-agent signee Brandon Jones, whose lack of speed probably makes him a similar type of possession receiver.
Defensive end Demetric Evans comes over from Washington to balance out Justin Smith on the 49ers' D-line. The move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme may take some getting used to for Evans, but if he provides stability on his side of the field, it should help the linebacker corps, with newcomer Marques Harris, Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson -- now two years removed from ACL surgery -- to get a lot more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
On the line
Sacks. 55 of them, to be exact. That's what the humiliated 49ers offensive line has been thinking about all offseason. 55 sacks. Will this year be different?
The personnel certainly isn't: Joe Staley, David Baas, Chilo Rachal and Eric Heitmann all are back for another season. So why is there such optimism in 49ers camp? Again, it comes down to having Mike Singletary as coach. No longer will this line be expected to pass-protect for 60 minutes straight as their quarterback drops back for pass after pass in a Mike Martz-led offense. They've also added right tackle Marvel Smith, who spent the past nine seasons in Pittsburgh, blocking for Willie Parker and The Bus, Jerome Bettis. By focusing more on the run, where this line actually performed pretty well last season -- when they were tasked with blocking for it -- they should leave fans with a far better taste in their mouths in 2009.
The bottom line
Because of the division they play in, the 49ers could well finish 8-8 and still possibly end up in first place. However, any success at all hinges on the play of Frank Gore. If he can return to his 2006 form, rushing for more than 5 yards per carry and avoiding the fumble-itis that plagued him last season, this team might well be able to find its way back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The fear is, though, that the team could get off to a slow start with three divisional matchups in the first four weeks and we would be treated to more tirades on the sidelines and hear tell of zany locker room "antics" from a coach who just might not have the patience to wait a few seasons for his team to improve and become a consistent contender.