With all the great nostalgia for better days by the Bay that has surrounded the imminent Hall of Fame induction of Jerry Rice, and all the optimistic but valid comparisons of the 2010 San Francisco 49ers to some of the Super Bowl squads of yesteryear, the first week of 2010 training camp has brought with it the shadows of another, more recent, and less heralded chapter in 49er history.
This time last year, the main focus around the 49ers was not about whether Shaun Hill or Alex Smith would capture the staring quarterback job, whether Patrick Willis could continue to build on two strong seasons, or even how Mike Singletary would fare in his first full season as head coach. Rather the primary buzz surrounded a player who was not even on the practice field, the conspicuously-absent hold-out rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
The saga drew on through training camp and the preseason and well into the regular season, amidst constant speculation and misinformation ranging from a signing being imminent to reports that Crabtree was willing to sit out the entire season and re-enter the draft in 2010.
Ultimately, Crabtree joined the team five games into the season and quickly established himself as a rising offense star, despite having foregone the benefit of his formative rookie offseason. However, the journey was not a happy one, and Crabtree's absence may have exacerbated the offensive anemia that doomed the 49ers to another slow start and seriously hurt their shot at a playoff berth.
While there was perhaps a silver lining in the fact that Coach Sing was basically forced to supplant media darling and fan favorite quarterback Shaun Hill with the embattled Alex Smith, spurring a potential renaissance to what to date had been a painfully disappointing career, the publicity and distraction the drama generated did no favors for the young 49er squad and it certainly was something they hoped to avoid in years to come.
It has been one week since rookies reported to 4949 Centennial Boulevard in Santa Clara for their initial orientations prior to camp, and while it came down to the wire for their top four selections—tackle Anthony Davis, guard Mike Iupati, safety Taylor Mays, and linebacker NaVorro Bowman—the 49ers avoided such an issue this year as all rookies were under contract by the start of camp.
All rookies were under contract, but not all players.
Tight end Vernon Davis and linebacker Manny Lawson have been outspoken about their desire to sign long-term extensions with the team this offseason, but each player remains under the final year of his respective rookie contract and neither has breached that contract in favor of a hold-out as both reported to camp on time. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is another story, however.
The cornerstone of the 49ers' three-man pass rush was designated as the team's franchise player this offseason, and—by virtue of the fact that the sides could not reach a long-term agreement—is thereby entitled to slightly more than $7 million this season. Wanting a long-term deal, however, Franklin has not signed his contract tenure and has abstained from all team activities to date.
It is soundly disappointing that Franklin cannot follow the shining example of Vernon Davis and simply go to work and continue to prove his value as he continues to lobby for a new deal. Early reports have not been optimistic about the ability of the 49ers to compensate for the void he leaves on the field. Ricky-Jean Francois and Kentwan Balmer have both reportedly struggled in their attempts to fill in. Finding a solid, pure 3-4 nose tackle is a rarity in today's NFL, with more teams going to a four-man defensive line, making Franklin keenly valuable to the team.
Luckily, though, the story has not been as pervasive in the public eye as "As the Crabtree Turns" of a season ago. Despite the potential difficulties the on-the-field absence might entail, the lower profile of the defensive line position means this drama may not be as large a distraction and therefore may be easier for the 49ers to live with.
Coach Sing did an excellent job maintaining his team's focus through the soap opera that was last summer and fall, but the constant saturation of Crabtree-mania (perhaps the biggest sporting news story since Alex Rodriguez's steroid admission) had to take some measure of a toll. Perhaps the lack of the media circus will allow a more resolute atmosphere in camp this year and help the rest of the team gel with or without Franklin.
Franklin will eventually realize that he is hurting his cause and a prolonged hold-out will do nothing to bolster his value moving forward. We can only hope he has this "epiphany" sooner rather than later, but the team must move forward for now. And the early returns—aside from this singular issue—have been promising.
Major and respected experts like Sports Illustraded's Peter King and ESPN's Chris Mortensen have been to camp and offered high praise and justified enthusiasm for the season at hand. As reported by the 49ers' website, The Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenneger even made an appearance after attending a meeting hosted by team president Jed York on Friday and complemented the players' conditioning (that coming from a seven-time Mr. Olympia).
No matter when Franklin decides to join the party, the 49ers have set the bar high in 2010. Just how ready do they look to meet these expectations? I hope to find out tomorrow at camp! Stay tuned and . . .
Keep the Faith!