Article Title: Part One: Off-Season changes inspire hope for 49ers.
The (5-11) 2007 San Francisco 49ers are now an afterthought that has a lingering burning thought of both depression and misery. Since then though we have seen glimmers of change and hope radiate from the inner sanctums of the Santa Clara headquarters facility and via the owners and new and improved General Manager Scot McCloughan. NFL experts and scouts are anticipating that the 49ers will not only be aggressive in free agency but in the draft as well.
Since the tune-up that took place after the 2007 season came to a close with management being re-evaluated with the promotion of Scot McCloughan and the exorcising of some of head coach Mike Nolan’s powers, the San Francisco 49ers are now looking at all of their coaching staff and individual personnel with big decisions to be made and have introduced a new line of blood in some instances.
The off-season following a disappointing regular season is a sanctuary of hope for all dedicated football fans. It is a place that we all go with new dreams of inspiration of what is and what still could be with a little alteration here and there. We all entrust that the owners and management will learn from such a devastating season and make the necessary repairs and plot a new course of direction for the franchise to be competitive once again in the battle for supremacy in their collective divisions.
The San Francisco 49ers are no different from this. The 49er faithful continue to wait and anticipate what will be in 2008 with a yearning for new coaching assignments, free agents that make the difference and a successful draft that helps solidify depth and experience all along the front lines of our battle formations to come. Having not made the playoffs since 2002 signals an immediate hunger for someone’s heart the same as a new deer hunter is supposed to do with his first ever kill.
I want to make some comments and observations on the start of the off-season thus far and entertain you with my opinion for what its worth. I was a Mike Nolan supporter right from the very beginning when he replaced Dennis Erickson and then General Manager Terry Donahue both of which dragged this franchise down to the pits of Hates in more ways then one. Nolan inspired change and hope and promised to bring back the undisputed legacy of what were the 49ers of old during the days he remembered with his father and former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers Dick Nolan who just recently passed away.
Then there was the passing of the Godfather of the San Francisco 49ers in former head coach, General Manager and President Bill Walsh. He was the architect of this franchise and brought it immense glory and recognition that is still revered right up and until this day today. Nothing could’ve been more tragic then to see his passing as he was always available to the franchise with a never ending comment and or a suggestion.
Mike Nolan since then has been an enigma that really hasn’t happened just yet? We are all waiting to see the impact he is yet to manufacture amidst the rebuilding years that have turned into the “same old song and dance.” There is no question in my mind that he is a football guru and he has nothing but the most positive intentions towards resurrecting what was here in the Bay Area. But patience is wearing more than just thin nowadays.
The off-season brings with it opportunities to evaluate talent on the college level as the draft approaches. The San Francisco 49ers under Mike Nolan went to Mobile, Alabama for the third consecutive time to coach the South squad of this years annual Senior Bowl. This was a perfect time like the last two to evaluate the cornucopia of college talent that is preparing to enter the professional ranks of the NFL. Within the last two years ten former Senior Bowl players, are now on the 49ers roster. I expect more of the same.
The hiring of Mike Martz as the new offensive coordinator is a blessing and a concern I guess on my part. Anything other than Jim Hostler is a vast improvement. Mike Martz has been an arch rival of ours for quite sometime now, so to have him on our side of the field will be an interesting twist of fate. Martz brings a lot of knowledge and experience to the table and is seen as a pass happy no need for a tight end kind of guy?
Remember The Greatest Show on Turf was not that long ago in St. Louis and his Super Bowl victory to boot is enough for me to give this guy consideration. The only downside of this is he isn’t a West Coast Offense kind of tactician so the principles of the old will be canceled out with some new phases of attack. If it resurrects an offense rated dead last in every conceivable category from last year then so be it for change is what I say.
One of the greatest reasons Mike Martz was brought in was to diagnose and fix an offense that had multiple problems from start to finish last season. With Alex Smith at quarterback and being knocked out for the season on September 30th, due to a separated right shoulder and later veteran Trent Dilfer falling to a severe concussion the 49ers discovered rarely used quarterback Shaun Hill. With his three-game spectacular performance he has catapulted himself into open competition for the starting position in training camp opposite Alex Smith. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Hill.
Shaun Hill was rewarded a new contract after leading the 49ers to victories over Cincinnati and Tampa Bay late in the season. In just 2.5 games Hill went 54-for-79 with 501 yards and five touchdowns and one interception. He opened up a lot of eyes inside the stands of Monster Park during these victories and signaled a significant shift in improving the overall productivity of the offense over to him with his tenacity and ability to make plays happen. His three-year deal lends a security blanket over 2005 first round pick Alex Smith who has struggled to find any kind of positive element inside this offense that has been radically formatted to benefit him.
Alex Smith has seen three different offensive coordinators and Mike Martz will be his fourth. Now he’ll get even more direct attention from newly hired quarterback’s coach Ted Tollner who was brought in by Mike Nolan late in the season to assist then rookie offensive coordinator Jim Hostler as an offensive consultant. Tollner has a proven track record as an offensive guru and a novel quarterback’s coach that will be instrumental in getting Alex Smith back on track in 2008. I think this was a no-brainer and a good move.
Another dramatic turn of 2007 was the announcement from legendary veteran defensive tackle/defensive end Bryant Young towards the end of the regular season that he wouldn’t be back. It was in the 49ers last home game finale that Bryant Young was recognized by his teammates and hoisted up upon their shoulders for the very last time as an active player on the roster inside Monster Park. His retirement from the professional sport signaled the last remnant of the old glory years as he was the sole survivor of the 49ers last Super Bowl back in 1994.
Again I cannot say in words what it was that inspired Bryant Young to be who he was. He made enormous contributions of himself to the Bay Area Community and for his family. The rigors of everyday mental and physical combat on the field and inside the training facility have left him in realization that it was his time to move on. He was and always will be the ultimate testament of what it is to be a San Francisco 49er by going out as one.
In an attempt to bolster depth on the defensive line the 49ers signed free agent defensive tackle Walter Curry who has the skills to play as a defensive end in the 3-4 defensive alignment. Curry has yet to play in a regular season game in the NFL but has been in the league since 2005. He has been seen by scouts as being a prospect with enormous potential after spending various parts of the last three seasons on the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad.
His contract with them came up and expired. He was originally signed from guess where? The Baltimore Ravens as an un-drafted free agent following a promising career at Albany State, where he in fact was a two-time Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Walter Curry is an interesting prospect with a lot to give having been successful over in NFL Europe as well and saw stints with the Berlin Thunder and Rein Fire.
Curry will compete for action among current roster go-getters that include Isaac Sapoaga, Aubrayo Franklin, Ronnie Fields, Atiyyah Ellison and Ray McDonald. He is well known for his ability in NFL Europe for rushing the passer an element sorely needed along the 49er defensive line. Curry in fact played for 49er defensive line coach Jim Tomsula back in 2006 with the Rein Fire. Obviously Jim Tomsula had a greedy hand in getting Curry in and signed to a free agent contract with his performance of old in his mind.
The San Francisco 49er offensive line gave up a club-record 55 sacks in 2007. With the firing of then offensive coordinator Jim Hostler the rational thinking would’ve been to speculate that offensive line coach George Warhop would’ve been the next one to go? However with the hiring of new seasoned offensive coordinator Mike Martz his position on the team was secured based upon their history with one another. Mike Nolan though seemed to indicate a need to push the envelope further by hiring new offensive line coach Chris Foerster from you guessed it the Baltimore Ravens where he has been their offensive line coach since 2005 and acquired the additional title of assistant head coach just last season (2007).
Prior to being with the Baltimore Ravens Chris Foerster was the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2004, a tight ends coach for the Indianapolis Colts (2002-03), offensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1996-2001) and was offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in (1993-95). Mike Nolan made reference to 49er offensive line coach George Warhop after the Super Bowl that his tenure would be determined by the new offensive coordinator. Mike Martz saved him from being the second sacrificial lamb next to Jim Hostler.
Chris Foerster’s title remains the same as George Warhop’s and both will coach together as a team so it has been described. Both men were interior offensive linemen back in college and will bring a wealth of knowledge sorely needed to reinvigorate this pathetic offense in San Francisco. Mike Nolan is not taking another chance at seeing this go wrong as the hiring of Foerster indicates he expects and wants proven results on the field from the most important contingent on the field being the offensive line.
It is without question that the key to success for any season is a direct result of a unified and productive offensive line. Mike Nolan has made reference to this numerous times and believes in it. Bringing in Chris verifies that and I expect to see real changes taking place along the line and the best man will win each position based upon durability and overall performance. We continue to see the problems arise as the season wears on with injuries and under-performing linemen. It is time to step-up the tempo and hold individuals accountable.
The San Francisco 49ers made another move that will assist the offensive line and the productivity as a unit by tendering a contract offer to tight end Billy Bajema. Billy was drafted out of Oklahoma State by the 49ers in the 2005 NFL draft in the seventh round and has been one of the best blocking tight ends within the league. He has been seen on special teams and never misses an assignment given to him. He was a scheduled restricted free agent this season and I see this as a very positive sign and an additional shot in the arm for our offense.
Finally in this Part One article I’d like to talk about the release of veteran strong inside linebacker Derek Smith. This was the consummate professional in everything he did as a teammate and his love for the game. The decision to waive him was based upon age, salary cap, wear and tear on his body and the decline in production he was experiencing over the past two seasons with injuries being a part of that.
Smith, 33, was drafted out of Arizona State back in 1997 as a third round pick of the Washington Redskins. He played there up and until 2001 when the San Francisco 49ers signed him as a free agent and he became an instant sensation almost overnight by becoming one of the most productive linebackers ever in a 49er uniform. Smith accumulated at least 100 tackles in his first nine seasons with the NFL, including the first five seasons he had as a 49er.
Over the past two seasons however his production became tainted due to injuries as he battled clouded vision in his left eye for much of the 2006 season that was corrected surgically and cost him his first 100-tackle type season benchmark or even lead the 49ers in tackles like he so typically did five seasons in a row. The weakness in his left eye via depth perception attributed to his decline in tackling. The surgery he had was slow to correct the problem as the symptoms lingered well into the 2007 season.
His role further diminished with the emergence of rookie phenomenal Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis. This was the last year in his contract with the 49ers an obligation he still wanted to fulfill but anticipated late last December that they wouldn’t due to business reasons. He was scheduled to earn $3.28 million in salary from this year’s player payroll and the 49ers want to get younger and more productive so his exit was inevitable.
Candidates on the roster that can replace Derek Smith already are Brandon Moore and Jeff Ulbrich rising star veterans that continue to produce when called upon to do so. Mike Nolan though indicated that the decision was still one of the toughest choices he had to make because of Derek Smith’s impact on the team in that he served as a veteran mentor to many of his younger teammates. His work ethic spoke volumes of itself and he maintained a consistency each and every season he played.
I have nothing but the up-most respect for him both as a humanitarian and as a gifted athletic football player that laid everything on the line each and every game for us as a San Francisco 49er. But the mean business world in the NFL is always relative to everything and seeing players come and go a common occurrence inside the league each and every season. The San Francisco 49ers benefited because of him for seven seasons and will carry his words of inspiration and sprit for many more to come.
He had the full acknowledgement and love of the entire coaching staff here with the 49ers. He never blew an assignment that was given to him, he always executed it. In his 11 seasons as a football player he has 13.5 sacks, four interceptions, six forced fumbles and 13 fumble recoveries in his career, coupled with the nine straight 100-tackles or more he has had on top of all that. Derek Smith was signed by the San Diego Chargers shortly after his release, I want to Thank Derek for his honored years of service as a 49er.
Although I could continue I understand that the length of this article compels me to end now. I will continue on with my off-season evaluations and perspective in Part Two of my series as free agency has already blessed us with talented pro personnel that will bring excitement and promise to our team as we set our objectives and articulate our goal of being competitive and successful within our division. God Bless the San Francisco 49ers.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.