49ers depending on Martz to rejuvenate offense

Former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith has struggled in his three seasons in San Francisco. Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Four consecutive losing seasons have turned the San Francisco 49ers into an inviting target.

Since 2004, they have a total of 18 victories. New England has that many victories in the past six months.

Their head coach and franchise quarterback have scored most of their points jousting in the media.

In 2007, the 49ers ranked last in points scored and yards gained for the first time since 1963 and the second time in their history, which dates back to 1946.

Alas, three years into the Mike Nolan era, the first NFL franchise to win five Super Bowls finds itself chasing Bill Bidwill's Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West.

And now this: Despite apparent deficiencies on offense, the 49ers watched the first wave of free agency come and go without adding a single long-term starter on that side of the ball. The signings of running back DeShaun Foster, 35-year-old receiver Isaac Bruce and quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan generated little buzz.

What are the 49ers thinking?

The answer lies not only in what they have done in free agency, but in what they have left undone.

By leaving the core offensive talent largely unchanged, Nolan and general manager Scot McCloughan are betting big on new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. There is no other plausible way to explain why a team unlikely to find immediate offensive firepower in the draft -- San Francisco picks 29th -- would take such an approach.

The 49ers opened the free-agent period by watching guard Justin Smiley sign with Miami. They secured no visits with Bernard Berrian or any of the other high-profile offensive free agents.

Instead, the 49ers upgraded their defensive front seven by investing $7.5 million a year in former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Justin Smith. They also signed linebacker Dontarrious Thomas from Minnesota. Thomas, Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson give the 49ers three young linebackers with speed.

And on offense, the 49ers have ... Martz.

Not that free agency offered a bounty of attractive prospects this year.

Twenty-seven of the first 57 unrestricted free agents to switch teams started at least eight games last season, but only 14 of them played offense. Three of the 14 -- guard Jacob Bell, guard Alan Faneca and receiver Jerry Porter -- changed teams after starting all 16 games last season.

Free agency can be overrated.

San Francisco's slide from 7-9 in 2006 to 5-11 last season affirmed the folly of projecting NFL success based on offseason activity levels.

The 49ers loaded up on free agents in 2007, leaving the impression they would build on a promising finish to the previous season. San Francisco won road games against Seattle and Denver during the final three weeks of the 2006 season. Adding Nate Clements and Michael Lewis in free agency, and receiver Darrell Jackson by trade, was supposed to push the 49ers into the ranks of playoff contenders.

As the 49ers' offense faltered early last season, McCloughan said the talent was there to compete and improve. The season slipped away after Seattle's Rocky Bernard drove quarterback Alex Smith to the ground, damaging Smith's throwing shoulder.

Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, who lost his job after one season, took the blame as the defeats piled up. But Nolan's mishandling of Smith's injury might have done more lasting damage.

"He came out and said some things to the team," Smith told the San Jose Mercury News last season. "I felt it was trying to undermine me with my teammates."

The 49ers are counting on Martz to handle their quarterbacks more effectively. They also hired Chris Foerster, a former assistant to Brian Billick in Baltimore, to help coach the offensive line, which struggled last season.

Martz will choose between Smith and Shaun Hill at quarterback. Smith, still only 23, won't get the job just because he was the No. 1 overall choice in the 2005 draft. Throwing his first regular-season passes in six NFL seasons, Hill passed for five touchdowns in two-plus games late in the year.

There could be other changes.

Joe Staley, the 49ers' first-round pick in 2007, might move from right to left tackle, switching places with Jonas Jennings. Left guard Larry Allen, 36, is a free agent and might retire. Smiley was the most proven option at right guard, but the 49ers made little effort to keep him after injuries cut short his 2007 season.

The 49ers' receivers underperformed as much as any unit on the team last season. Jackson caught 46 passes. (His career low was 38 in 2005, when he missed 10 games.) The 49ers cut Taylor Jacobs, their third receiver, after the third game, never a good sign.

Enter Martz. The former Rams coach and Detroit Lions playcaller is the 49ers' fourth coordinator in as many seasons, following Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner and Hostler.

Turner's sudden departure 13 months ago set back the offense significantly.
Martz has kept most of the terminology in place from Turner's tenure, which should make the transition easier. But it's fair to question whether the 49ers have the personnel to execute an offense that has traditionally placed great pressure on quarterbacks.

Although the 49ers obviously think they do, a Martz-led offense hasn't produced a winning record since 2003, when the Rams finished 12-4 and Marshall Faulk scored 10 touchdowns for the last time.

"He'll adjust to what our talent level is and what our personnel is," McCloughan said recently.

In Martz they trust.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.