San Francisco 49ers 2009 Preview

ChiCitySports .ComCorrespondent IJuly 3, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 07:  Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers runs against the New York Jets during an NFL game on December 7, 2008 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
2008 Summary:
The 49ers entered 2008 a year after making a significant wave in the 2007 offseason, leading many to christen them as the team to watch that season.

Instead, the 2008 season unraveled at the seams, as the Niners would finish that year 5-11 leaving many fans to write them off again a year ago.

And for awhile, that seemed to be the appropriate thing to do.
J.T. O'Sullivan inherited the starting job at quarterback because in large part, he was one of few quarterbacks available on the open market with experience in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme. Alex Smith, the first overall pick of the 2005 Draft, was all but written off heading into camp and then a re-aggravation of a shoulder injury that knocked Smith out for much of the season before would wind up being the perfect excuse for Nolan (believed to not like him as a player) to shelf Smith for the rest of the season.

So with this disarray at the most important position of an offense, especially one as complex and dependent on the pass as Martz's, many people did not believe the Niners were much of a threat in the weak NFC West.

That prophecy seemed to be dead on, until the Niners dismissed head coach Mike Nolan in the middle of the season for assistant coach Mike Singletary. And with that coaching change, the entire culture of the 49ers seemed to change with it.

Following the first game Singletary would coach for the Niners—a 34-13 blowout loss at the hands of rival Seattle—the Niners would finish the second half of the season 5-3 behind new starting quarterback Shaun Hill, and had it not been for heart wrenching losses to Arizona and Miami, the Niners may very well have snuck in the back door of the postseason with a division championship.

The coaching change seemed to be exactly what the 49ers needed.
Singletary immediately got on the players that Mike Nolan didn't seem to ride hard enough—namely tight end Vernon Davis. He also demanded the team played more sound football and limit their mistakes, and with this philosophy, he clashed with offensive coordinator Mike Martz to a large degree.

But Singletary's philosophy worked. The results were seen in the second half of the season. It was Singletary that benched ineffective J.T. O'Sullivan mid-game against Seattle in favor of Shaun Hill, and Hill would throw for over 2000 yards and 13 touchdowns in the nine games (nine started) he played in. The most important thing Hill was able to do was protect the football. In the nine games Hill played in 2008—he only turned the ball over 10 times. In O'Sullivan's eight and a half games played in—he turned it over an astonishing 22 times.

Defensively, the Niners played much better after the coaching change as well—and after finishing 2007 ranked 22nd against both the run and pass, the Niners became a Top 10 unit against the run and the 13th best unit against the pass—and this number could have been much higher had the defense not played as poorly as it did at the start of the season when they surrendered 28 points or more in six of their first eight games.

Suddenly what seemed like a coaching change just to get to the end of the season, may have revealed itself as the beginning of a turnaround to a franchise that's been relatively meaningless to the football world this decade.

2009 Free Agency Additions:
DE Demetric Evans (Washington)
T Marvel Smith (Pittsburgh)
FB Moran Norris (Detroit)
WR Brandon Jones (Tennessee)
DE/LB Marques Harris (San Diego)
CB Dre Bly (Denver)
QB Damon Huard (Kansas City)

2009 Trade Acquisitions:

2009 Offseason Departures:
WR Bryant Johnson (Detroit)
TE Billy Bajema (St. Louis)
NT Ronald Fields (Denver)
OT Damane Duckett (New England)
CB Donald Strickland (NY Jets)
DE Tully Banta-Cain (New England)
FB David Kirtman (Seattle)
S Keith Lewis (Arizona)
QB JT O'Sullivan (Cincinnati)
TE Sean Ryan (Kansas City)

2009 NFL Draft:
1-10. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech
3-74. Glen Coffee, RB, Alabama
5-146. Scott McKillop, ILB, Pittsburgh
5-171. Nate Davis, QB, Ball State
6-184. Bear Pascoe, TE, Fresno State
7-219. Curtis Taylor, FS, LSU
7-244. Ricky Jean-Francois, DE/DT, LSU

2009 Outlook:
Mike Singletary will begin his first full season as head coach in San Francisco, and he will oversee a roster that is full of young talent on both sides of the ball.

Singletary's calling is on the defensive side of the ball, and the starting middle linebacker of the 49ers seems like a spitting image of Singletary, and that of course is franchise player Patrick Willis. Willis has been nothing short of sensational in his first two seasons in San Francisco, and may already be the best inside linebacker in the game. Playing alongside Willis is veteran inside linebacker Takeo Spikes. After being released by the Eagles, Spikes panned out to be a tremendous surprise for the Niners and put together a great year for the 49ers.

Since Singletary comes from the old 46 roots and the Baltimore Ravens train of thought, he will run a hybrid 3-4 base defense and the anchor of the defensive line will once again be Justin Smith. Smith finished his first season as a Niner with seven sacks, which was great for a guy primarily assigned to freeing up blockers from the playmakers at linebacker—but he will need more help in getting to the quarterback for Singletary's defense to really flourish in 2009.

If the Niners are able to harness a more consistent pass rush out of Ray McDonald, Manny Lawson, and Parys Haralson, their secondary could become quite formidable with standout corner Nate Clements and hard hitting safety Michael Lewis being the highlights there. The Niners did also add veteran corner Dre Bly to replace Walt Harris, who sustained an ACL injury during an offseason workout program.

Offensively the Niners will have an open competition at quarterback between incumbent starter Shaun Hill and former starter Alex Smith. Whoever winds up winning the job will have quite an array of weapons at his disposal with Frank Gore being the explosive running back behind him and first round pick Michael Crabtree being the highlight of a younger wide receiving corps. Crabtree will be teamed up with longtime St. Louis Ram Issac Bruce, young Josh Morgan, and free agent acquisition Brandon Jones, formerly of the Tennessee Titans.

On the offensive line, the Niners will need Joe Staley to rise to the occasion and be their answer at left tackle. They added veteran blocker Marvel Smith to play right tackle and will hope he is able to avoid the injuries that have plagued him much of his career.

2009 Schedule:
Sun 9/13at Arizona
Sun 9/20Seattle
Sun 9/27at Minnesota
Sun 10/4St. Louis
Sun 10/11Atlanta
Sun 10/25at Houston
Sun 11/1at Indianapolis
Sun 11/8Tennessee
Thu 11/12Chicago
Sun 11/22at Green Bay
Sun 11/29Jacksonville
Sun 12/6at Seattle
Mon 12/14Arizona
Sun 12/20at Philadelphia
Sun 12/27Detroit
Sun 1/3at St. Louis

2009 Prediction:
The 49ers appear to be a team that is extremely close to being a bonafide playoff contender out of the NFC West. The only thing that really seems to be an issue right now for the Niners is at quarterback—and if Shaun Hill can fill that void this could be a team that can make a lot of noise in 2009.

This is not a team without several questions however. The quarterback issue is the obvious question, but questions about Frank Gore's health, cornerback depth behind Nate Clements and a very skittish pass rush will also come to the forefront as the season progresses.

I think Hill can be a good enough game manager to keep the Niners in games, and I think the Niners defense is good enough to keep its team in games and from time to time steal a victory it really didn't have any business stealing—I just don't know if I can buy into this team being consistent enough over the course of a 16 game season to get into the playoffs.

2009 should be the bridge to a run at a division crown in 2010. The Niners will be good, just not good enough to sneak into the final 12.

Predicted Finish: 8-8, T-2nd NFC West
Hassellbeck - VSN Writer


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