NFL: How much substance to 49ers’ big hopes?
By Daniel Brown
San Jose Mercury News
After the San Francisco 49ers’ final game last season, owner Jed York drew raucous cheers in the locker room by telling players that Mike Singletary had signed on to return as head coach.
In making the announcement, York bellowed: “This is the last time our season ends in December.”
York is guaranteed to be correct this season because the 49ers play the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 3.
What York really meant, of course, is that the 49ers would finally reach the elusive postseason after a six-year absence.
Forgive some 49ers fans if they greet that brashness with skepticism. It’s a promise they have heard before.
Mike Nolan annually pledged to win the division but instead amassed an 18-37 record in 3 › seasons.
Before that, General Manager Terry Donahue predicted greatness for Dennis Erickson, saying, “We have found what we were looking for in a new coach: a leader, a motivator and a teacher.”
For all the bluster, the 49ers haven’t had a winning record beyond Week 3 in five years.
Now, it’s Singletary’s turn. He has optimism running high thanks to his spirited practices, Hall of Fame credentials and unwavering player loyalty.
The hard part? Delivering on expectations.
The 49ers’ ability to do so hinges on their ability to answer these five questions starting with the first practice Saturday in Santa Clara.
1. Who is the quarterback?
The safe money remains on Shaun Hill, whose smart play at the end of last season is one of the reasons Singletary got his job. Singletary’s first major act as coach was yanking J.T. O’Sullivan in favor of Hill, who responded with 13 touchdown passes, eight interceptions and one helmetless run on “Monday Night Football” that cemented his status as a locker-room leader.
In roughly half a season, Hill posted an 87.5 passer rating, which ranked ahead of such notables as Jay Cutler (86.0) and Ben Roethlisberger (80.1).
With Hill, though, it’s usually best to throw out the individual stats. The phrase “all he does is win” should be embossed on his business card.
Hill is 7-3 as a starter; Alex Smith is 11-19.
Somehow, though, questions remain about whether Hill has the physical tools to carry the 49ers to an elite level. His starting record comes against teams with a combined 44-68 mark. Hill’s only victory over a playoff team was against a 2007 Tampa Bay team resting its regulars for the postseason.
Smith, meanwhile, showed glimmers during spring workouts that he might be growing up at 25. Healthy after shoulder surgery, he demonstrated newfound accuracy and confidence.
Hill is likely to win the job. But it’s not a slam dunk.
2. Can Jimmy Raye save the day?
In a preseason questionnaire with the NFL, Singletary was asked to list the most overrated aspect of football. “Offensive geniuses,” he responded. “There are none. Only great teachers.”
With that as the backdrop, say hello to Jimmy Raye, the 49ers’ seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons. The well-traveled, longtime assistant brings none of the glitz that accompanied predecessor Mike Martz. Instead, he brings a reputation as a stickler for fundamentals.
Raye, 63, was hired after an extensive search that included a rejection from Scott Linehan. The 49ers want him to instill an old-school toughness, but the coordinator warned not to interpret “toughness” as “running game.” Raye wants balance.
During his previous nine seasons as an offensive coordinator, Raye’s teams finished in the bottom third of the league in scoring five times.
Raye inherits an offense without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. The team drafted Texas Tech sensation Michael Crabtree in the first round, but rookie receivers rarely make an immediate impact. Even recent mega-talents such as Larry Fitzgerald had fewer than 800 receiving yards in their first seasons.
3. Is there a pass rusher in the house?
Elite teams understand the value of an effective pass rush. Last year, the NFL’s top five teams in sacks combined for a 53-26-1 record (.669), with four of the teams advancing to the postseason.
The 49ers know they need to get better, but they’ll have to do it without any major off-season acquisitions. The staff insists the 49ers will get more heat on quarterbacks as their familiar faces grow more comfortable with the system.
“It’s just like a basketball team,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “If you know where the guy is going to be and you’ve been working with them a long time, you get better and better.”
Once the team settled on a 3-4 base package under Manusky, outside linebacker Parys Haralson became a threat. He had 8.0 sacks and 14 hurries a year ago.
The 49ers also expect outside linebacker Manny Lawson to boost his totals after just 5.5 sacks in his first 32 career games. Lawson is healthy again and hopes 10 pounds of extra muscle will help him shed blockers.
4. Can the defense take it away?
Patrick Willis, who knows something about defense, says the 49ers are on the verge of joining the NFL’s elite.
“Not only top 10 — top five, if not No. 1,” he said.
That’s a big leap for a unit that finished 13th a year ago.
To make the jump, the 49ers will need to play take-away more often. That’s part of the reason rangy Dashon Goldson will take over for free safety Mark Roman, who went the two previous seasons without an interception.
A year ago, the top five teams with the best turnover differential — Miami, Tennessee, Baltimore, New York Giants and Indianapolis — made the playoffs with at least 11 wins and combined to go 59-21 (.738).
The 49ers’ ability to join that class hinges on a new-look secondary. Veteran Dre’ Bly and third-year man Tarell Brown will compete to replace starting right corner Walt Harris (torn ACL).
5. Can the O-line toe the line?
When Joe Staley signed a six-year extension in June, he locked up the left-tackle job through 2017.
If only the rest of the line were so clear-cut.
The 49ers gave up a staggering 55 sacks a year ago, 23 more than the league average. Much of the blame goes to Martz’s offense, which exposed the quarterback, and to O’Sullivan, who had a hard time sensing pressure.
But the line needs to get better. The need to improve up front is so acute that on draft day the team spent at least a second considering mammoth tackle Michael Oher, even with Crabtree on the board.
Instead, the 49ers signed Marvel Smith, a 30-year-old with a history of back problems, to man the side opposite Staley. If Smith can remain healthier than Jonas Jennings did — not exactly a tall order — he represents a major upgrade.