49ers determined to get back to the playoffs
SANTA CLARA – Mike Singletary has felt a sense of urgency like never before since the interim tag came off his coaching title with the San Francisco 49ers to begin last season.
Now everybody around the organization knows exactly what has to happen this year: get back to the playoffs. Feeling like they should have been there after 2009, Singletary and his players won’t stand for anything less than a trip to the postseason.
San Francisco has reason to be optimistic. Every key member of a talented defense is back, led by star linebacker Patrick Willis. Quarterback Alex Smith is again in charge of an offense featuring second-year pro Michael Crabtree at receiver and tight end Vernon Davis, ready to build on his 2009 Pro Bowl season. Smith, the 2005 No. 1 pick out of Utah, is in a contract year and has been proclaimed the man – and his NFL future is largely riding on this make-or-break year. Frank Gore will handle the load at running back and the 49ers signed Brian Westbrook to give him a capable relief man.
Singletary’s top two offseason priorities were upgrading the offensive line and return game. The 49ers have rookies Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in starting roles on the line and Ted Ginn Jr. eager to resurrect his career with a strong showing on special teams returning kicks and as the team’s third receiver.
“It’s a very good feeling to know that there can be some continuity. I think that would be the word that connects everything that we did last year and take in the positives and beginning to build on those things and let this be a continuation of building and learning, rather than something new where you are trying to learn plays. So that’s a very good feeling,” Singletary said. “It was more difficult last year because there were so many unknowns.”
Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye returns for a second season – the first time in eight years there hasn’t been a new person in the job. With injured center Eric Heitmann on the sideline for up to eight weeks with a broken left fibula, the Niners are counting on David Baas being a quick learner in the position he hasn’t played regularly since his senior year in college.
The 49ers endured an interesting offseason, during which former general manager Scot McCloughan abruptly left the franchise in March in what team president Jed York called a “mutual parting.” In June, McCloughan landed as a top executive with the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks as right-hand man to general manager John Schneider. Trent Baalke ran the 49ers draft for the first time and is a regular presence on the practice field as the new head of the team’s football operations.
One of his big moves: locking up Willis for the long term.
In May, the inside linebacker signed a $50 million, five-year contract extension with the Niners that takes him through the 2016 season and includes $29 million in guaranteed money.
Willis has made his impact felt already, flattening Brett Favre on a sack for a 10-yard loss in the 49ers’ 15-10 exhibition win over the Vikings on Sunday night.
San Francisco wasted no time blitzing.
“That’s how our defense is judged. We go out, we are not just approaching it that it’s just preseason,” Willis said. “We’re going out to get better.”
Willis, the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Mississippi, has led the Niners in tackles in each of his first three seasons and has made 48 straight starts. Singletary is counting on him even more.
He has plenty of options around him for what should be a productive offense.
“I think it’s easy to say, just because it looks good on paper,” Smith said. “We have to go get this right. … But yes, I mean the possibility is there. It’s fun being a quarterback and having all those weapons outside.”
Smith threw for 2,350 yards and 18 touchdowns last season but also had 12 interceptions and was sacked 22 times. He took over for Hill at halftime Oct. 25 at Houston and started the rest of the way for San Francisco, which finished 8-8 and ended a franchise-worst stretch of six straight losing seasons.
The Niners started talking playoffs after a 3-1 start last season only to lose their next four and five of six. They also dropped six straight road games, five in a row by a combined 19 points, before winning their season finale at St. Louis.
This season, Smith is showing he’s more comfortable and confident. It doesn’t hurt having such a good supporting cast.
Davis’ 13 touchdown receptions last season tied Antonio Gates’ NFL record for a tight end. Not only did the 26-year-old Davis have a breakout year that earned him his first Pro Bowl roster spot, he was named a captain by Singletary – a sign of how far Davis had come in a year’s time since having his share of run-ins with teammates, his coach and opponents.
“I definitely expect it to be different than last year because we have a lot of guys who are willing to step up to the table this year,” Davis said.
“There will definitely be a lot more playmaking.”
Having Crabtree in camp this year has been important, too. The 49ers’ 10th overall draft pick last year didn’t show up and sign until Oct. 7 after missing 71 days.
He went on to catch 48 passes for 625 yards and two TDs in his shortened rookie campaign. With him, fellow wideout Josh Morgan, Gore, Davis and Smith, the 49ers have talent on the offensive side – if the line hold up its end of the bargain.
“Our offense is striving to be a balanced attack. We want to be physical when we pass the ball, when we run the ball,” Singletary said. “I want our team to get the message that we want to be physical, regardless whether we are running or passing.”
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.