Confident 49ers are gearing up
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers are cleared for takeoff. They will travel more than any other NFL team this season — 10,000 miles more than the next-closest Seattle Seahawks — as San Francisco's schedule includes road games in Atlanta, Charlotte and Green Bay, and a "home" game in London.
And while we can calculate precisely how far the 49ers will go (35,219 miles), we cannot truly know how far they have come.
Coming off their 8-8 record last season, when all but two of their losses were by a touchdown or less, are they a team on the verge of busting through?
Or is this another tease, like in 2007, when the 49ers showed a lot of promise and thought they might be the NFC West team to beat and instead wound up 5-11?
Predictably, there is precious little wavering on the subject at 49ers training camp, where some players are teeming with optimism as they head into coach Mike Singletary's second full season. It is August, after all, the most hopeful of months in the NFL.
"Keep your eye on us," fourth-year safety Dashon Goldson said. "This is going to be a breakout year for the Niners."
Linebacker Takeo Spikes, who after 12 seasons with four teams has the advantage of even more perspective, is similarly upbeat.
"Last year we went into uncharted waters," he said, referring to Singletary's first full season as coach. "As a team, we didn't know what to expect. Now we do. We realized after the hard work we put in last year, we were 8-8 but we easily could have been one of those 10-6 teams.
"This year is different. We've got stability on the offensive side of the ball. We damn sure have it on the defensive side. Now we don't just understand what we have to do, but we understand why. And when you understand 'why' as a group, then people's true talent comes out. You can say, 'OK, I know I can gamble on this because I know he has my back.' That's big." Like the balance of their 8-8 record, though, the 49ers can point to reasons for hope and hand-wringing this season.
Hope: Look around the NFC West. The three other teams are in major flux. Arizona is adjusting to life without Kurt Warner, Seattle is transitioning to Pete Carroll, and St. Louis is bracing for the growing pains of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.
Meanwhile, San Francisco is coming off a 5-1 division record and a sweep of the eventual champion Cardinals. The 49ers haven't won a division title since 2002, back when Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens were on good terms and tearing up defenses. This could be the season the 49ers make their way back to the top of the standings, where they resided comfortably throughout most of the 1980s and '90s.
Hand-wringing: The 49ers are in the midst of a major overhaul of their offensive line. They used first-round picks on tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati this spring and are looking to do what the New York Jets did in 2006 when Gang Green made the playoffs with rookie first-round picks Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson on the offensive line.
Prospects became even more challenging for the 49ers this week when center Eric Heitmann, a fixture on the line since 2002, suffered a broken leg and will be sidelined for six to eight weeks. That means the starting center likely will be David Baas, who has played one career game at the position four years ago.
Hope: The 49ers are solid against the run (ranked sixth last season) and have an elite linebacker in Patrick Willis, who predicts they can be a defense ranked in the top three.
Hand-wringing: The secondary is not very strong. The team opted to concentrate on the offensive line with its first-round picks, passing on some respectable corners. The 49ers did take USC safety Taylor Mays in the second round, and he could be good although he wasn't a playmaker in college. It will be telling to see how the 49ers fare against quarterbacks Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers this season.
Hope: For the first time in his career, Alex Smith will have the same offensive coordinator in consecutive years. He says that familiarity is huge for his confidence and comfort level. Smith also spent a lot of time this offseason working with second-year receiver Michael Crabtree, who held out as a rookie until October but was outstanding when he finally joined the team. Despite missing all that time, Crabtree still led all rookies in receiving yards per game.
Hand-wringing: Back to the travel. Not only are the 49ers logging all those miles, but they also lose a home game when they play the Denver Broncos on Halloween at Wembley Stadium in London. Giving up a game at Candlestick Park is no small consideration for a team that was 6-2 at home last season and 2-6 on the road.
Not surprisingly, Spikes isn't swayed by those challenges.
"I don't even like to think of us as a team on the verge," he said. "America might look at us that way. People on the outside might look at us that way. I like to look at us as the team."