Just 48 hours ago, the biggest obstacle facing the San Francisco 49ers seemed to be the continuing holdout of nose tackle and franchise player Aubrayo Franklin.
Unfortunately, after a dearly disappointing series of events on Monday, that now may be the least of the team’s worries.
Head Coach Mike Singletary called off the final 20 minutes of the morning practice session on Monday, following what the Sacramento Bee and San Jose Mercury News both described as a sloppy session lacking focus and execution. According to a mid-day press conference, Coach Sing said he gathered his players together and gave them the option of ending the session early and returning in the afternoon. Perhaps to their credit, the players turned the offer down, but Coach Sing did not like what he saw as drills resumed and he dismissed the players until the afternoon.
Coach Sing stated that the team had hit a proverbial wall in their preparations for their preseason opener Sunday morning against the defending AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts, and he was not pleased with the way they reacted to it.
It is fair to say (as Coach Sing did) that it was better the 49ers experience this challenge now, as opposed to after the start of the regular season (which may have been what happened in the Week Five game against Atlanta last year). Nonetheless, that is little more than wishful thinking until the players prove they can rebound from this performance. There was little information available on how they managed in the afternoon session.
Any potential rebound will be made more difficult by additional injuries suffered in the Monday morning session.
Center Eric Heitmann, the most consistent and solid performer for the 49ers offensive line the last several seasons, suffered a leg injury which the San Jose Mercury News later confirmed to be a broken left fibula. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks. While this timetable could see Heitmann back on the field in time for the Week Two battle with the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, it is much more realistic to expect the 49ers will be without his services for several weeks to start the regular season.
Heitmann’s absence leaves David Baas, Cody Wallace, and Adam Snyder—a tandem with a combined five career starts at center—vying for playing time snapping the ball to Alex Smith.
News of Heitmann’s injury overshadowed what should have been a very positive day for the offensive line, as first-round draft picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati were both named starters moving forward. Coach Sing said that he, offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, and offensive line coach Mike Solari had seen enough potential and solid performance to install the duo on the top offensive unit indefinitely.
I think this should bode very well for the 49ers moving forward. In just nine days of padded practice, the two have gone from a questionable status where many experts felt Davis especially had virtually no chance to start Week One, to designated starters. If they can show this much progress so quickly, the entire offensive line may be able to gel very early, becoming a formidable force and spurring offensive production and dominance.
That is, as long as they can stay healthy (knock wood).
Martail Burnett became the fourth 49er linebacker with a significant injury, when he suffered what the team described as a knee sprain forcing him to leave the morning practice. He joins Ahmad Brooks, Travis LaBoy, and Scott McKillop (who is likely gone for the year) on the sideline as the 49ers linebacking corps continues to suffer setbacks.
Even probable No. 2 wide receiver Josh Morgan was not immune to the injury bug, as a reportedly questionable hit by free safety Dashon Goldson left him nursing a neck stinger. Luckily, according to the Sacramento Bee, Morgan is not likely to miss any time.
The rash of injuries has forced the 49ers to make some difficult roster decisions, starting with the release of kick returner and cornerback LeRoy Vann. After watching Vann in action Saturday afternoon, I thought he had a great shot to become the primary return threat for the 49ers. However, with injuries putting an even larger than usual premium on roster spots, and Vann’s 5’-8” stature making him a defensive liability, the 49ers decided they could not afford to retain the dedicated specialist. I expect him to catch on elsewhere.
This leaves Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr., and perhaps newcomer Kevin Jurovich as the prime candidates to return kicks and punts in 2010. From what I have seen, Williams seems to have an edge in this area.
The mounting injuries may also spell the end of Brandon Jones’s short tenure in San Francisco. Jones has been sidelined much of camp fighting a sore hamstring, after recording just one catch for 18 yards last season—having lost eight games to a fractured shoulder. With the expected return of Aubrayo Franklin, and reinforcements likely needed at linebacker and on the offensive line, I expect Jones’s first catch as a 49er to be his last.
Many fans and analysts, including myself, spoke highly of the apparent depth on the 49ers roster this offseason and how it could serve the team well over the course of the coming campaign. Now it seems that in light of recent events, this theory will get a very early, and very rigorous test. Hopefully, we were right.
Coach Sing has five practice days left to right the ship before opening exhibition play. It will be interesting to see how the 49ers respond to their first significant adversity of the offseason.
Keep the Faith!