Commentary

San Francisco brimming with confidence

Thanks to an infusion of talent offensively, the 49ers now seem ready to challenge the Seahawks in the NFC West, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: August 11, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The 49ers operate in a facility located outside the parking lot of Great America, a thrill-a-minute theme park. After three years of building back their talent base, the 49ers are prepared for their best thrill ride in years.

Optimism abounds at the team's headquarters. Alex Smith appears ready to step into the hierarchy of top NFC quarterbacks. Frank Gore has established himself as perhaps the NFC's top runner. Owner John York continues to chip away on a new stadium project that would be located in the parking lot between Great America and the 49ers headquarters.

Observation deck
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If all goes according to plan, the 49ers could be playing their games in Santa Clara by 2012 and be closer to 50 percent of their fan base. In the meantime, Mike Nolan is set to strap on his seat belt, lean on the protective rail and embark on the team's roller-coaster ride into the wild, wild NFC West.

In his three years in the NFL, no player has ridden the pro football roller coaster harder than Smith.

He came out of Utah as the supposed savior of a franchise that appeared to be years away from competing. Smith's rookie season was brutal, as he was hampered by the lack of talent around him.

Nolan -- a first-year coach in Smith's rookie campaign of 2005 -- inherited an aging team burdened by salary-cap problems and bad drafts, and his first season the 49ers ranked 32nd in the league on both sides of the ball. As a result, Nolan and bright personnel chief Scot McCloughan started to build back the roster.

Smith now drops back each day in practice and sees something he had not seen since coming to this team. Finally, he's surrounded by professionals at the skilled positions. At split end, he can either throw to former Seahawk Darrell Jackson or heave a deep throw to Ashley Lelie. He can also hand off to Gore, perhaps the toughest pure runner in the NFC.

Vernon Davis is a big, fast target who is settling in at the tight end position. The offensive line is coming together. The offense has come a long way since Smith first arrived.

"As a young quarterback, it's great to now think about the good matchups we can create," Smith said. "Before, I had to think about how guys matched up against defenders. I'd think, `Does this guy know what he's doing? Is this guy going to get open?' Now, there is one less thing I have to think about. It's great because now you don't have to worry and you can start cutting loose."

(21) Frank Gore
Kyle Terada/US PresswireFrank Gore is one of the NFL's top running backs.
During Smith's first two years, the lack of talent made it almost impossible for him to be consistent going through his progressions. If the first option was covered, there was no telling what the second or third guy would do. As talented as Davis is as a receiver, he spent his first year trying to figure out where to line up, as opposed to just beating the guy covering him.

The addition of Jackson is perhaps the most fascinating. For years, he was Matt Hasselbeck's favorite target, the guy he would throw to in crucial times. Amazingly, he wore out his welcome so much with Seattle's front office, general manager Tim Ruskell was willing to trade him to an NFC West rival.

Although the Seahawks might still be the team to beat in the division, it will be interesting to see if Jackson's arrival, along with other offseason addition, closes the gap between the two teams.

"Mike Holmgren drafted me and I have a lot of great memories in Seattle," Jackson said. "But they've let a lot of people go, myself, Joe Jurevicius. I thought he should have been there. They let Steve Hutchinson go. He should have been there. I had seven good years there. If you look at the numbers, you have to look at Seattle, but it all depends on how you jell."

Jackson sees a lot of the same positives with the 49ers he witnessed in Seattle. He compares Smith to what he saw in Hasselbeck as he grew in Holmgren's system. Receiver Arnaz Battle's competitiveness reminds him of himself in his younger days.

Perhaps the biggest confidence boost for the 49ers is fact that they swept the Seahawks last season. Gore rushed for 356 yards on 53 carries in the two games against Seattle.

If the Seahawks try to gang up on Gore with their defense this season, Smith can attack deep with a play-action pass to Lelie, or hit Jackson or Battle with an intermediate pass. He can also find Davis in the seam with a deep pass over the middle.

Unfortunately, the news hasn't been all good. Gore broke a bone on top of his right hand during the first week of camp. Although the injury won't eliminate him for the opener against the Cardinals, it's a mental setback for a runner who likes the work.

Members of the staff spotted Gore crying in the locker room after learning about the break. Gore simply loves to play the game. Missing practice -- even though it will keep his body fresher for the regular season -- has him flustered.

"It's tough, real tough, real tough," Gore said. "I'm not out there supporting my team. I'll be working out every day to stay in shape. But I need to be out there to get a feel for the runs. I like to get my looks and feel comfortable running."

Gore should be ready to resume some work within two weeks. He wears a cast now to help the healing while he's on the field. He favors carrying the ball with his right hand, so that might be a problem as he enters the season.

The broken bone didn't break his thoughts of a 2,000-yard season, however. He rushed for 1,695 yards last season, so Gore bases his 2,000-yard goal on the fact that he has improved during each step of his career.

"The more I play, the better I get," Gore said.

Losing offensive coordinator Norv Turner to the San Diego Chargers was another setback to the offense. Jim Hostler, the quarterbacks coach last year, takes over for Turner. The result should be a more controlled passing game with fewer downfield throws. Turner loved to throw deep. Hostler hopes to get Smith into the 60-percent completion range this season, which would put this offense over the top.

It should be an interesting ride.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer