49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

October 31, 2007
Nedney contrite after $7,500 bird

Joe Nedney is now $7,500 poorer after his behind-the-head finger flick-off incident in the third quarter of Sunday’s game. The fine was slightly more than former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer ($5,000) received several years ago for a similar gesture and less than what Michael Vick ($10,000) got last year for his double-barreled bird. Nedney said the fine he received in the mail included language about how the league’s new conduct policy is cracking down on those types of actions.

Nedney was appropriately contrite, and said that he was absolutely steamed after his kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Saints the ball at the 40 yard line. Coming off the field, he threw the kicking tee, tossed his helmet and then kicked the bench with his kicking foot. One of the fans behind him said something nasty (let’s just say it involved the F-bomb) and Nedney reacted by “scratching” the back of his head with his middle finger. It was caught on tape.

“You’re supposed to have the thickest skin on the team – kickers and quarterbacks,” Nedney said. “Apparently, I need to go out and buy some skin-thickening cream.”

In other mid-Wednesday news ….

Alex Smith said he “definitely” thinks he’ll be ready to play in Sunday’s game in Atlanta. He said his roughed-up right shoulder felt better than it did Sunday evening but not necessarily better than it did last Wednesday. He said he would tape his shoulder tight for practice, something he did not do last week in practice or at the beginning of Sunday’s loss to New Orleans.

How tough is Smith? Forget about him absorbing all those hits in the Saints game. The dude was watching “Gone Baby Gone” with his girlfriend in a San Jose area movie theater last night when that “moderate” earthquake hit. He said other people got up and ran out of the theater. He and his gal pal, however, didn’t budge and stayed through the rest of the movie. By contrast, I reacted by running full sprint out my back door and into the courtyard of my downtown San Jose condo complex. In my underwear. Go ahead, laugh at the cowardly east coaster who until that point had not experienced an earthquake. Let's see you guys deal with a dreaded Virginia summer. Oh, the humidity!

I saw Jonas Jennings in the locker room! Why is this big news? Well, we reporters had not seen hide nor hair of him in the last week and a half, prompting some to ask Mike Nolan whether he was still with the team. Nolan reacted surprised to the questions, saying that Jennings was rehabilitating a high-ankle sprain. Jennings’ unexplained absence a few weeks ago may have prompted the suspicion.

Some of you are laboring under the misperception that the Patriots’ spy scandal cost them the first-round draft pick they obtained from the 49ers last April. That’s not correct. While the Pats forfeited their own 2008 first-round draft pick (No. 32?), they’ll get to keep the 49ers’ first-round pick (No. 4?).
-- Matt Barrows

October 30, 2007
With the third pick, the New England Patriots select ...

Huge mistake by the 49ers trading next year's first-round pick, right? As of this moment, it's looking like a sure-fire Top 5 selection, and to add insult to injury, they sent it to Foxboro, Mass. Now the Patriots will go undefeated, win the Super Bowl, go into the record books as the Best Team Ever AND get to select Chris Long or Glenn Dorsey or Darren McFadden to boot. The rich get richer. The 49ers get poorer.

The rest of the teams in the AFC East certainly have a complaint. But I'm not sure 49ers' fans do. The player the 49ers traded the pick to obtain - rookie Joe Staley - had an excellent game against the Saints' Charles Grant, and aside from one bad half against Michael Strahan, he has been one of the few offensive bright spots this season. He's smart, tough, quick, and by the end of the season, I'll bet he'll be much better than any offensive lineman the 49ers could have picked up in the first round of the upcoming draft.

The 49ers, of course, have the first-round pick that belongs to the Colts. That pick, I'm predicting, will be pick No. 30 - perfect for a guard or a 'tweener linebacker the 49ers' desperately need.

Some other thoughts from Sunday's game ....

* Mike Nolan complains the 49ers "play young." Two such culprits on Sunday were Larry Allen and Walt Harris, 30-somethings who made the Pro Bowl in February. Allen allowed defensive tackle Brian Young to get by him and force Alex Smith to fumble in the second quarter. While Smith was on the ground, defensive end Will Smith hit him in the back, forcing the QB's shoulder into the ground. That hit seemed to the one that really put Smith out of sorts on Sunday.

* The 49ers get nothing on screen passes and short passes. There always seems to be a linebacker or safety immediately on the receiver with nary a blocker in sight. Their inability in that area contrasted sharply with the Saints' ability to spring Reggie Bush on nearly every short pass they threw his way.

* I thought Michael Robinson gave the 49ers a nice lift when he substituted for injured Frank Gore in the third quarter. On one play, Robinson spun away from five New Orleans tacklers, one of the best runs the 49ers have had this season. The play seemed to really fire up the offensive line. How did the 49ers use that momentum? Well, they killed it by calling timeout before the next play.

* On the same drive, the 49ers were within sight of the end zone when they called a play in which defensive end Will Smith came unblocked and hit Alex Smith just as he threw. It was very reminiscent of the Osi Umenyiora play from a week before. It seems to me that only bad things happen when they call that play. I suggest Jim Hostler makes like Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" and rips that page right out of the book. I want to hear ripping, gentlemen!
-- Matt Barrows

October 29, 2007
Faint praise for Smith's efforts

I tossed Mike Nolan a softball during his afternoon press conference. With his team floundering and in desperate need of something to latch onto, I asked whether Alex Smith's effort Sunday could be something that rallies the troops. After all, the guy took a pounding to his injured shoulder and never came out of the game. His right shoulder and clavicle - his livelihood - were being held snug not by his own ligaments but by medical tape, and he continued to play. No one would have blamed Smith if, down 24-0 and with the Saints' ears pinned back to rush the quarterback, he watched the second half from the bench. But he didn't. Surely, this is something that could galvanize a 49ers' locker room that's in dire need of a spark.

"Possibly," Nolan said. "I know that after the game when we huddled up some players called out his name as far as being the leader on this football team."

And that's all he said on the subject before moving onto the next question. It was the same sort of lukewarm reaction he gave immediately following the game that caused at least two columnists to write today that Nolan had thrown his quarterback under the proverbial bus.

Nolan certainly is not abandoning Smith. He's never had a bad word to say about the quarterback and he has lauded Smith's intelligence and toughness too many times to count. Drafting Smith was the first major move Nolan made as head coach, and the success of one man is tied to the other.

Which is why Nolan's lack of praise for Smith following Sunday's game is so puzzling.

You can easily imagine another coach turning Smith into a latter-day Willis Reed. You can easily imagine another coach masking the ineptitude of his team by discussing the heroics of its quarterback. If nothing else, it would have been a masterful pr move to celebrate Smith as much as possible.

You can easily imagine another coach pointing to Smith's toughness and saying, "This is why we're going to pull out of this five-game skid - because our quarterback has guts."

Instead, Nolan said his hope lies in the fact that the 49ers have so much integrity, work ethic and character in the locker room, never mind the fact that Joe Nedney, a team captain, was caught giving the fans the bird and that helmets were tossed all over the field Sunday in frustration.

"We have a lot of character on the football team," Nolan said. "We have a lot of work ethic on the football team. We've got some talent on this football team. We need to maintain our health better than we have but for those reasons, that's what gives me hope."

Nolan doesn't need to speak in generalities. The most important player on the team embodies all of that, and he showed it in Sunday's game.

Other tidbits:

* After the game, Smith said he was certain he'd start Sunday against Atlanta. Nolan, however, wasn't as certain and said the quarterback's shoulder will first be evaluated this week before he commits to a starter. "He felt better this morning than he did when he left the game," Nolan said. We reporters have not yet spoken to Smith today.

* Nolan also said he spoke to Nedney about his one-finger salute but that he won't discipline the kicker. The league, however, likely will do so with a fine.

* Nolan liked how Jason Hill performed both on offense and on special teams and said the rookie could see more playing time in coming weeks

* Jonas Jennings will not lose his job at left tackle despite how well Adam Snyder plays in his absence. Jennings has a high-ankle sprain, and it is not yet known when he will return

-- Matt Barrows

October 28, 2007
Walker's return questionable

Tight end Delanie Walker injured his right shoulder on the first play of the game and his return is questionable. Walker separated the same shoulder during the 2006 preseason in pretty much the same part of the field. The injury forced him to miss all of the 2006 season.
-- Matt Barrows

October 28, 2007
Jennings, Jackson inactive for game

The 49ers' inactives for today include left tackle Jonas Jennings, who has a high ankle sprain, and receiver Darrell Jackson, who has a strained quadriceps. Adam Snyder will start for Jennings; Ashley Lelie will step in for Jackson. Linebacker Parys Haralson will start his second straight game at linebacker.
The other inactives are receiver LeRon McCoy, cornerback Tarell Brown, safety Keith Lewis, guard Tony Wragge and defensive end Atiyyah Ellison. Shaun Hill is the third quarterback.

October 27, 2007
The worst 49er ever

*Barrows' note: After writing about former kicker Owen Pochman last week, I asked for nominations for the worst player ever to suit up in a 49ers' uniform. Here are some of the contenders:

Question: Worst ever Niner??? That's easy. OJ Simpson. Heard of him?? Cost the Niners two first round picks that turned out to be very early picks. And for what?? Had maybe three decent games, nothing more, then got hurt. Talk about lost years. In 1978, I couldn't give my tickets away, even if I bought them beer at the game. Would rather clean the garage, they would say.

Ray, Davis

Answer: Sure, but O.J.'s made up for it in his post-football quest to find the real killers, who apparently are hiding out on a golf course somewhere in the greater Orlando area.

-- Matt

Question: Worst Niner ever. For me that is an easy one. He was a GM. I think his name was Joe Thomas. He was just before Walsh. Donahue is right behind him. The difference is Donahue was just inept, Thomas was destructive. And he threw out most of our history. Lucky for us, a worker pulled most of the memorabilia out of the trash and returned it when Thomas left. A note on Pochman, we also had a terrible punter. His biggest problem was holding the ball on kicks. His name was Bill LaFleur.

Berger, Reno

Answer: La Fleur means 'the flower' in French. Bill LaFleur's punts certainly had "pansy" written all over them.

-- Matt

Question: Hey Matt-- great work as always. I have to agree with Spencer about Lawrence Phillips being worse than Pochman. After all, he is a KICKER. You can't trust a kicker. All of them will let you down sooner or later. How about a fumble that cost us a three peat? Could one play destroy a lifetime of on field achievements? NFC Championship game in the Meadowlands 1990 ROGER COUGHS IT UP. Matt Barr hits a long field goal. Giants win. I'm still bitter. If Craig is not the worst then he's the worst of the GREAT Niners.

Jason, Sacramento.

Answer: Roger Craig starring in "The Unforgiven."

-- Matt

Question: Matt - do us all a favor and ask Nolan if he is worried about his job. This team (after 3 years of rebuilding) is worse than the Erickson era. No pass rush, big gaping holes in the "3-4" Nolan thinks he knows how to run, no pass protection, no offense (the Rattay pack of college all-stars in '04 looked better) to even speak of. Nolan looks pretty, dresses pretty, talks big, but sucks as a head coach. Let him know the fans (a lot of us) want him fired. Sorry you have to cover this piece of dog doo-doo team every day.

Lebowski, Los Angeles

Answer: With 10 games to go, it's hard to predict what will happen with Nolan. If the 49ers don't win another game, for instance, it will be the end of the Nolan regime. If the 49ers somehow make the playoffs, they'll be minting his image on coins. My guess is that the end result will be somewhere in the middle, 7-9 perhaps, and that Nolan keeps his job. I remember a conversation I had with Jed York this summer in which he seemed to have a very realistic view of the 49ers. He said in many respects the 2006 squad had overachieved and that it was possible that the 2007 version would be better but finish with a similar record. Let's see if Nolan can pull off another mid-season resurrection before we steel-toe him out of town.

-- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, first and foremost, great blog and columns as being on the east coast they are just what I need to keep with my team. Question with my quote, unquote team is that are we falling apart at the seams from Nolan to the players and does this team have enough to make the run like they made last year and maybe build on it rather than blow it away like they again, did last year. Just curious as I hope this isn't going to be another re-building year.

Shannon, Methuen, Mass.

Answer: They should make a run considering that they are more talented than last season and have a favorable second-half schedule. And that run should begin tomorrow against the Saints.

-- Matt

Question: With all of the talk about play-calling this year, I am very interested in Nolan's role in the process. I didn't get to see the recent "mic'ed up" feature on NFL.com. Could you explain in more detail how Nolan was influencing Hostler's play calls on the sidelines?

Tom, Santa Rosa

Answer: The mic'd up segment was only 12 or so minutes long. I'd love to get my hands on what ended up on the cutting-room floor because I think it would be a great look into Nolan's influence/interaction with his coordinators. The snippet that had everyone buzzing last week involved the final drive of the Ravens game. Nolan approached Hostler - and I'm paraphrasing here - and told him that a field goal would win the game. Almost as an aside, he said that Hostler could keep passing the ball if he wanted to. As we all remember, the 49ers' ran the ball on third down to set up a very long field goal that Joe Nedney missed.

-- Matt

Question: I have come around from blaming Hostler for everything to blaming Nolan for what he allows Hostler to call. The half dozen fairly long passes last week seemed to open up the run, especially wide right behind Staley. But Nolan's overcautiousness seems to be intruding on other areas, like playing rookies. Clayton showed explosiveness in the pre-season, but now that Gore may be out they've got two relative slowpokes. Does Nolan always eat the same thing for breakfast?

Bob, Pacifica

Answer: I have to agree. I call it the "Umbrella of Caution." And it explains everything from why Alex Smith seems to be lagging behind his contemporaries at quarterback to why Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill have seen scant playing time thus far.

-- Matt

Question: Come back, Kwame! All is forgiven! Did you see Jay Cutler on Sunday night? While Alex Smith is "making progress" as an NFL quarterback, Cutler has arrived...in his second year.

James, Lincoln

Answer: I like Cutler. Anyone who could stand up behind that string-bean Vandy offensive line a few years ago has to have guts. But it also should be noted that Cutler has far more license to operate in Denver than Smith has had in San Francisco.

-- Matt

Question: It appeared that the OL performed better with Baas & Snyder. What are the chances that they take over at RG & LT?

Ken, Salem, Ore.

Answer: I think the chances are good, or at least better than they've been in years. Snyder will start for an injured Jennings tomorrow while Baas will rotate with Smiley.

-- Matt

Question: Is Kwame Harris getting any time learning the guard position? He's a fine run blocker, fast enough to pull, and his pass blocking inconsistency would be minimized at guard. Robert Gallery is one of several people who've successfully made the switch. Seems like a smart thing to try - but Nolan doesn't seem to do anything the least bit unconventional. Could you ask? Thanks.

Craig, Ben Lomond

Answer: Harris has been seeing time at left tackle, but not guard. That's mostly because the 49ers feel they have very good back-ups at guard in Baas, Snyder and Wragge. They are not as deep at tackle. In fact, Harris will be the No. 1 back-up at both tackle positions against the Saints.

-- Matt

Question: Hi, Matt. I am wondering why Nolan doesn't use his younger backup quarterback, Shaun Hill. He is more mobile than Dilfer. Defenses know they can key on Differ and catch him. A faster quarterback can give receivers more time to get downfield. I have had this question ever since watching Dilfer in his first game. Win or lose they would be more entertaining to watch.

BJ, Roseville

Answer: The answer is that Nolan feels that Dilfer gives the team a better chance to win than Hill. You're right, the 49ers would be more entertaining with Hill under center since Hill is an excellent scrambler. At this point Nolan has more trust in a 14-year player than one who has never thrown an NFL pass. Is he right? Who knows - Hill is an unknown quantity.

-- Matt

October 26, 2007
Gore probable, er, questionable

Not to pat myself on the back too hard, but my prediction yesterday -- that Frank Gore would be listed as questionable for Sunday's game -- proved correct. Coach Mike Nolan originally had listed Gore as probable but changed the designation shortly after Friday's practice. That doesn't necessarily mean the running back has taken a step back. He went through his second straight limited practice on his injured right ankle, and afterward said he thought he'd be ok to play against the Saints.

As for other injuries, Jonas Jennings, Darrell Jackson and Keith Lewis are all doubtful. Jennings has a high-ankle sprain, which means he could be out for a while. Adam Snyder will fill in at left tackle on Sunday and Kwame Harris will be the back-up at both tackle positions. Ashley Lelie will fill in for Jackson at receiver. Bryan Gilmore will be the No. 3 receiver and rookie Jason Hill could also suit up for the game.

Other odds and ends:
* Alex Smith won't throw on Saturday in order to rest his shoulder. He'll also curtail his pre-game routine, which usually involves warming up three hours before the game. He doesn't want to tire out his still-recovering arm.
* Jim Hostler again will call the offensive plays from the coach's booth. Nolan said he'd probably remain there all season.
* Observed today in the locker room: Larry Allen wearing the Helix High School basketball jersey of Bill Walton. Size Xtra Massive. Sunday, of course, will be the rematch of former Helix grads, Reggie Bush and Alex Smith.
-- Matt Barrows

October 26, 2007
Smith, Banta-Cain off the injury report

Any lingering questions about Alex Smith's availability for Sunday were wiped away this morning when the quarterback was taken off the injury report. Smith is expected to go through his third straight practice when the 49ers take the field at 11:30 a.m. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (ankle) also has been taken off the injury list. Meanwhile, running back Frank Gore (sprained right ankle) is going through a limited practice today and probably will be listed as probable on the injury report. I say 'probably' because today's practice will have a bearing on his designation. I'll have more on that after practice.

Practice squader Damane Duckett was released from Stanford Hospital last night after suffering severe cramps after Thursday's practice. He's back at the team facility but isn't practicing. The cramps caused quite a scare yesterday -- complete with fire trucks and ambulances. As it turns out, the 49ers' team doctor was on call at Stanford at the time, so the team rushed Duckett there. No word on how many IV bags it took to get the 320-pounder back on his feet.

I posted this yesterday, but I figured it's important enough to have two days in a row:

I e-mailed Alex Smith's mom, Pam, today to see if we couldn't stir up some donations toward the wildfire efforts in Southern California. For those of you who don't know, Pam Smith is the Director of Aging Services for San Diego County's Health and Human Services Dept. That means she's in charge of taking care of the thousands of seniors -- in skilled nursing centers, assisted living facilities, etc. -- who have been displaced. Everthing's been going remarkably well, Pam reports, but those who want to help can visit the following sites:



Fans also can help out prior to Sunday's game. The 49ers Wives (coaches and players' wives) will be collecting cash donations that will benefit the American Red Cross. Look for the Wives (who will be dressed in their husbands' jerseys) at gates around the stadium.

-- Matt Barrows

October 25, 2007
Gore sees some action in practice

Running back Frank Gore went through a limited practice today and said his injured right ankle is getting better day by day. Gore said he's confident he'll play Sunday against the Saints, but it's clear from his body language that the injury is bothering him. He injured the ankle during Sunday's loss to the Giants when another player fell on the ankle, but despite limping noticeably, he remained in the game. Afterward, he had to be propped up by team trainers as he was taken for an X-ray. He said today he's never had to deal with an ankle injury before. My guess is that he'll be listed as questionable when official injury designations are released Friday.

In other injury news, Mike Nolan officially declared Alex Smith the starter for the Saints game. Smith went through his second full practice and didn't appear to show any arm fatigue from Wednesday's session. Trent Dilfer will be his back-up and Shaun Hill the No. 3 quarterback, Nolan said. Jonas Jennings and Darrell Jackson did not practice - Jennings spent time on an exercise bike - and will be listed as doubtful for Sunday's game. Safety Keith Lewis (hamstring) probably won't play either. As for Jennings, the left tackle was injured during the game. Nolan said he was encouraged that Jennings - who hasn't exactly been an iron man since arriving in San Francisco -- continued to play despite the injury. Safety Keith Lewis (hamstring) probably won't play either.

Apparently, there was a bit of commotion at 49ers HQ this afternoon, complete with fire engines and paramedics. As it turned out, offensive tackle Damane Duckett suffered full body cramps in the locker room and was rushed to Stanford Medical Center. A team spokesman said he's ok, but that the episode gave everyone quite a scare.

There was a Joe Cohen sighting today in the lockerroom. The fourth-round draft pick out of Florida tore two ligaments in his right knee and sprained the third in the exhibition finale in San Diego and was placed on injured reserve. Cohen seemed to be walking around without any problems as he chit chatted with teammates.

And now the big news ... the 49ers will wear their throwback duds again on Nov. 18 when they play the St. Louis Rams. No word yet on whether the Rams will wear the old cream and navy duds of yesteryear, which, IMHO, are infinitely better than the gold and blue they wear today.

I e-mailed Alex Smith's mom, Pam, today to see if we couldn't stir up some donations toward the wildfire efforts in Southern California. For those of you who don't know, Pam Smith is the Director of Aging Services for San Diego County's Health and Human Services Dept. That means she's in charge of taking care of the thousands of seniors -- in skilled nursing centers, assisted living facilities, etc. -- who have been displaced. Everthing's been going remarkably well, Pam reports, but those who want to help can visit the following sites:



-- Matt Barrows

October 24, 2007
Smith makes it through practice; looks like the Sunday starter

Alex Smith threw short. Alex Smith threw deep. Alex Smith made it through a full practice Wednesday and it looks like he'll be the starter Sunday against the Saints. Mike Nolan and the 49ers haven't quite committed to that and likely will list Smith as probable later in the week. If he didn't start, Trent Dilfer would lead the 49ers' offense for the third straight week. Smith said he was more confident than he was at this point last week. "As the day went on, my arm felt better and better. And I think it will only feel better tomorrow. It did feel good."

Smith's right shoulder isn't the only thing he's worried about. The San Diego native has been on the phone with family members who are scrambling to deal with wild fires in the region. He said his older sister and her husband had to evacuate their home and that his parents are on voluntary evacuation. Smith's mother, Pam, is the deputy director of health and human services for San Diego county and has been working through the night on fire-related issues. "It's been strange to think what can happen and how out of control things are," Alex Smith said. "It's a little scary in that sense, kind of getting your mind going as far as what could happen. They're doing well."

The role of Reggie Bush this week has gone to return man Michael Lewis. It's only fitting. Lewis is one of the few players on the 49ers' roster who can approximate Bush's quickness. And of course, Lewis is quite familiar with Bush having played alongside him last year.

-- Matt Barrows

October 24, 2007
Smith to lead practice today

Alex Smith will lead the first-team offense during the 49ers' practice this afternoon. Of course, Smith got the first few reps of last Wednesday's practice, too, but Mike Nolan decided that his shoulder and psyche were not quite where they needed to be. Just like last week, offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, personnel chief Scot McCloughan and the team's medical staff watched Smith throw on Monday and determined that he was OK to practice this week and play in Sunday's game.

In other injury news, Jonas Jennings has an ankle injury and is questionable for the Saints game. Adam Snyder will start in at left tackle if Jennings can't play. Wideout Darrell Jackson also is questionable with a quad strain. Ashley Lelie will start at split end if Jackson can't play. Running back Frank Gore will not practice today on his sore right ankle but Nolan thinks he will return to practice later this week and be probable for Sunday's game.

-- Matt Barrows

October 23, 2007
Great Expectations; Paradise Lost

After six games, the 49ers have exactly the same record they had at this point last season. So why are the Faithful abandoning ship - and pointing fingers at the officers - as if it just slammed into an iceberg? Because of great expectations that, in hindsight, probably shouldn't have been so sky high.

Yes, the season-ending win in Denver was cause for celebration, a truly signature victory for Mike Nolan's regime. And that fourth-quarter rally in Seattle showed great toughness and resolve. Conveniently forgotten, however, were lackluster losses to Arizona (at home) and Green Bay (at home) that, had they been wins, likely would have put the 49ers in the playoffs. Even harder to forget - yet pushed aside nonetheless - were horrific losses to Kansas City, San Diego and Chicago in which it was difficult to imagine the 49ers ever winning a game again.

They did. After falling to 2-5, the 49ers pulled together and won three straight, a string of victories that put them back in playoff contention. Nolan no doubt will touch upon that turnaround this week. The 49ers next four games are against New Orleans, Atlanta, Seattle and St. Louis. If they win three out of four, they'll be back at .500 with six games to go. In the ho-hum NFC West, that means they'll have a realistic shot at the playoffs.

But it will be more difficult this year than last. The one thing you could say about Nolan's teams, even amid the abysmal performances and laughably lopsided outcomes, was that they stuck together. There was a sense, to a player, that despite bumps in the road things were moving in the right direction. They believed Nolan's message.

That will be a tougher sell this season. The 49ers should have made progress since that Denver game. Instead, as their record shows, they're stuck in the same spot they were in last year and have actually regressed in key areas. As Frank Gore revealed Sunday afternoon in New Jersey, doubt has slithered into the 49ers' locker room. How Nolan handles that doubt will determine whether this season of great expectations can be salvaged. Is it paradise lost? Not yet, but time is running out to save it.

-- Matt Barrows

October 21, 2007
In Hostler we trust? Apparently not

Frank Gore is the last person you'd expect would say something controversial. And there's a very good chance he didn't intend for his words to be controversial. What Gore said following the 49ers' fourth straight loss on Sunday afternoon is that the 49ers' players need to stop worrying about the play calls and start playing with more -- what was the word he used over and over? -- trust. Uh oh.

The implication, of course, is that the 49ers are worried about the play calls and don't trust offensive coordinator Jim Hostler. In fact, Gore said that wasn't an issue last season because Norv Turner had so much experience and so much success in the league that players followed him blindly. Mike Nolan said he's still fully behind Hostler, whom he has defended since nearly the start of the season. He again gave a thumb's up to the game plan following the loss to the Giants. But watch what he does, not what he says. Nolan sent Hostler into the coaching booth for today's game despite the fact that Hostler, as recently as Wednesday, said he preferred to coach from the sideline. Nolan is starting to choke up on the leash. Billy Davis will tell you what that feels like.

Is there an insurrection afoot in the 49ers' lockerroom? Not outwardly anyway. All the players, from Joe Staley to Trent Dilfer, continue to say that the team is together. In fact, Dilfer said he's been on plenty of teams that had begun to come apart at the seams. When he stood in front of the media back then, Dilfer said Sunday, he would tell them that everything was just fine when in reality the situation was tense and the lockerroom fragmenting. Dilfer said this as a way of telling the assembled media that, as far as 49ers' unity is concerned, everything is just fine. We should believe him ... right?

-- Matt Barrows

October 21, 2007
Hostler heads up

Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler will get a bird's eye view of today's game. Hostler, who called plays from the 49ers' sidelines during the first five games, will be in the coaches' booth today. Quarterbacks coack Frank Cignetti presumably will be on the field.

The decison appears to be Nolan's. On Wednesday, he implied that Hostler could be in the booth for today's game but said the two would talk later. That same day, I asked Hostler about the situation and he said he was certain he'd continue to call games from the field where he was most comfortable. "Our inability to get it done on offense has nothing to do with where I call the plays," he said at the time. Hostler also added, however, that it ultimately was not his decision to make.

In my view, it's a good call. Trent Dilfer,a 13-year veteran, certainly doesn't need as much hand's-on coaching as Alex Smith, so it's a good game for Hostler to get accustomed to the booth. Being up also gives Hostler a chance to get away from Nolan. As anyone who watched the recent "mic'ed up" feature on NFL.com can attest, Nolan can have quite a bit of influence on the play calls. Nolan certainly will continue to chime in via his headset, but being on high ought to give Hostler a bit more independence.

The inactives for today's game are WR LeRon McCoy, CB Tarell Brown, S Keith Lewis, G Tony Wragge, T Kwame Harris, DT Atiyyah Ellison and WR Jason Hill. Alex Smith is the third QB.
-- Matt Barrows

October 20, 2007
The Unwatchables

Question: I read the Niners have been held under 200 yards 39 times since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, with 13 of those coming in Nolan's 37 games as coach. How can they expect to keep their " fan base" with such a boring, predictable offense? I know the name of the game is winning, but the Niners are no fun to watch, even when they do win!

Glen, Orangevale

Answer: If the NFL held an "Ugliest Game" contest, I would nominate the Niners' loss to the Ravens last week. That game was to football what "Rules of Engagement" was to cinema.(For shame, Tommy Lee Jones!) You could argue that it's a consumer issue. Fans pay hefty sums for tickets to be entertained. The Ravens-49ers wasn't entertainment, it was torture. Then again - the 49ers beat the Vikings last year 9-3 and I didn't hear anyone complaining.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Hi Matt-It seems that everyone is in agreement that for the most part, Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan have done a good job choosing personnel in both the draft and free agency. It also seems that most are in agreement that Nolan is too conservative and appears unlikely to ever be a head coach that is anything more than marginally successful. Do you think that the York/DeBartolo's would consider bumping them into the front office as GM and Director of Player Personnel and choosing another head coach at the end of this year?

Gil, Woodside

Answer: I don't think the Yorks would pull the plug on the Nolan regime after this season because of the reasons you mentioned. I do think, however, that if the 49ers finish last in offense, John York will demand changes. The guy has a stadium initiative to sell, after all. And as I alluded in the above Q&A, no consumer/taxpayer will want to pay for the ugliest show on earth. As far as Nolan in the front office - no way. The guy would go stir crazy. He loves/needs to coach.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Matt, what is all the paranoia about? As fans we have gone from applauding the revival under Nolan to calling for his head in 6 weeks. Has Sean Payton gone from offensive savant to idiot in 6 weeks? No. The Niners need several more players at several more positions before the playoffs become an expected certainty. If this turmoil is all it takes for someone to jump off the bandwagon in hysteria, Good riddance!

Jeff, Fletcher, N.C.

Answer: I hear you, Jeff. But at the same time, this offense is on pace to set all sorts of records for futility. And you can't argue that the 49ers have the least-talented offense in the league. Not anymore. Even Tim Rattay and his band of merry men put up better numbers in '04.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Bryant Young has been a phenomenal player and leader for the 49ers for 13 years now. How would you assess his play so far this year? Is his back in good shape and feeling fine? What probability would you assign to his return for still another season next year? Thanks, Matt, and keep the excellent 49ers coverage coming.

Paul, Alameda

Answer: Young has been playing very well, in part because the 49ers hardly used him in the preseason and because they give him plenty of rest in games. In recent years, BY has played better at the start of the season than at the end. It will be interesting to see if, with more rest, he has better staying power this season. If he does, we may hear a chant of "BY in '08."

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Matt, with Smith not being able to play, why do the 49ers insist on playing Dilfer? Our running game is ineffective therefore forcing the quarterback to throw. Dilfer has no mobility and when forced to throw he turns the ball over. Why not start a mobile Shaun Hill? And do you think that Dilfer has hindered the growth of Alex Smith with his boring style of quarterback? I think so...

Tabrez, Elk Grove

Answer: I think Dilfer has suffered through the same thing that hindered Smith in the first three games - a sleep-inducing offense. Let's see what he does tomorrow in New Jersey before we start calling for Hill.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: If Dilfer were to lead the 49ers to victory, an idea that seems highly unlikely, do you think the 49ers would keep him as their starter next week? Was there one thing in particular, i.e. timing, being tentative etc that guided this decision or was it simply Mike Nolan's great offense-oriented "gut" at work.

-Steve, Portand, Ore

Answer: Steve is asking whether Alex Smith's shoulder might continue to be bothersome (hint, hint, nudge nudge) should Dilfer come through with a big game. Dennis Erickson went down that road in 2003 when Tim Rattay played well in place of Jeff Garcia when Garcia went down with an ankle injury. That injury, which was supposed to last a couple of weeks at most, took a suspiciously long time to heal as Rattay won one game after another. As soon as Rattay foundered, Garcia's ankle healed instantly. It's magic!

But I don't think that will happen with Smith. The Nolan coaching regime is very much tied to the young quarterback. Erickson et al. had no allegiance to Garcia. As far as Smith's shoulder, the feedback was that Smith simply was not yet totally comfortable throwing the ball. Remember, the injury was supposed to take four to six weeks to heal. If he had started against the Giants, that would have been three weeks. I look for him to be back next week against New Orleans.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Why isn't Smith used in the shotgun more often? He comes from a shotgun offense in Utah and can move around, roll out to keep away from the rush up the middle. Most of your top QB's--Brady, Peyton, Favre, etc, use the shotgun extensively. Seems like they're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. What happened to the slant pass, quick out or 3 step drop? Don't they know that you can't execute when 5 guys are trying to block 7-8 on running plays. Thanks for your blog, love it.

Mike, Sacramento

Answer: These are all great questions, Mike, and I predict you'll start to see some of your suggestions in play. Your overall point, however, is that the 49ers need to make better use of their talent, i.e., put them in situations in which they'll excel. It seems like a very basic rule, but one the 49ers have been guilty of breaking thus far.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: More of a comment than a question...While Owen Pochman may have been the last straw that broke the proud 49er dynasty's back, Lawrence Phillips was by far the worst 49er ever. It was his missed block on Aeneas Williams that led directly to Steve Young's last concussion, forcing him to retire and essentially starting their slide from Super Bowl contender to laughingstock of the league (before Mike Nolan started to turn the team around).

Spencer, Sacramento

Answer: Don't usually post statements (this is a Q&A, after all) but Spencer has a good point. I'd like to hear everyone's nomination for "Worst Niner Ever!" Cue to ominous music ...

-- Matt Barrows

October 20, 2007
Navies waived; Keasey bumped up

Hannibal Navies won't be assigned to cover tight end Jeremy Shockey tomorrow. Why? The veteran linebacker was waived today and fullback Zak Keasey will take his spot on the active roster. Keasey was active for two other games this season, playing mostly on special teams.
Navies, meanwhile, had been doubtful for tomorrow's game against the Giants because of a knee injury. Another player, special teams ace Keith Lewis, won't play because of an injured hamstring. The roster move likley was done to bolster the 49ers' special teams unit.
-- Matt Barrows

October 18, 2007
Dilfer to face Giants

The handwriting was on the wall when Trent Dilfer, not Alex Smith, was the No. 1 quarterback in team drills yesterday. For the last week and a half, Smith had circled the Wednesday practice on his calendar. If he was able to practice that day, he would play against the Giants. Well, he didn't. And he was watching from the periphery again today while Dilfer led practice. So afterward, Mike Nolan made the announcement - Dilfer will start against New York, a team he once beat in the Super Bowl.

Smith, of course, is disappointed. He made a Herculean effort to repair his injured right shoulder and Nolan said that he is healthy enough to be in uniform on Sunday. But Nolan said he sensed that Smith wasn't quite at full confidence regarding his shoulder. The coach couldn't quite put his finger on what is was that told him that. A coach just knows.

Said Smith: "There is a fine line for going out there and being competitive and trying to play. .... It's tough because I'm competitive and I think I can do it. But to not have practiced for a couple of weeks and go out there and not be 100 percent confident in your arm and what it can do - it probably wouldn't be the best thing for this team in the big picture."

-- Matt Barrows

October 18, 2007
The Wrath of Pochman

Lost amid all the talk of cautious offenses and starting quarterbacks yesterday was this juicy little nugget: Owen Pochman has written an autobiography. I probably don't need to refresh your memory, for every long-suffering 49ers fan will recall the name "Pochman" the way Capt. Kirk remembers the name "KAHN!!" Owen Pochman, you see, could very well be the worst 49er. Ever.

I know what you're thinking. What about draft busts like Reggie McGrew or players who committed catastrophic blunders like Preston Riley? Sure, arguments can be made, but you'd be wasting your time. For no player has created so much destruction in as short amount of time as Pochman, who was picked up midseason in 2003 to replace Jeff Chandler. It should be noted that Chandler had made 6 of 7 field goals that season before getting the hook.

Oh, it started well for young Owen. He made four field goals in a 13-12 loss against the Browns in Week 3. Then things went a tad askew. He missed a field goal in one-point loss to the Seahawks, missed another the following week against the Detroit Lions and then missed three in a win over Tampa Bay.

The spectacular flameout, however, came the next week in Arizona. He missed two field goals and an extra point against the lowly Cardinals and, oh yeah, his kickoff in overtime went out of bounds. He also managed to alienate the 49ers' lockerroom in just six little weeks. Chidi Ahanotu, at the time a 33-year-old defensive lineman, said Pochman used the team's hot and cold tubs as if he was vacationing at Club Med and there even were reports that he used them while in the buck, a no-no in NFL lockerrooms.

The late Roger Phillips (he's not dead, just no longer on the beat) joked that, in just a matter of weeks, Pochman managed to tear down a franchise that Bill Walsh spent a quarter-century building up. If Pochman makes a few field goals, maybe the 49ers squeak into the playoffs. Instead, they limp to a 7-9 record that year, the triumvirate of Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia and Garrison Hearst is banished and the 49ers haven't had a legitimate offense since. Maybe Rog was right.

Anyway, Pochman's book is called "I'm Just a Kicker." He published it himself, which explains all the spelling errors. Dan Brown, another former beat writer who was covering the 49ers that fateful season, reviewed the book yesterday in the Merc. Heck of a job, Brownie. So pick up (or rip up) a copy of "I'm Just a Kicker." It might make a good Christmas present for that Cowboys, Raiders or Rams fan in your life.

-- Matt Barrows

October 17, 2007
Will Smith play? Check back later

If you had asked me yesterday whether I though Alex Smith would play Sunday against the Giants, I have said, 'Bet on it.' Good thing you didn't ask because today I'd advise you to keep your money in your pocket. Smith certainly hasn't suffered a setback. And he threw again at practice, taking part in individual drills. But coaches and trainers didn't want him taking part in team drills, which for the last week or so had been Smith's goal. You could tell he was a little crestfallen by the decision.

"A little bit," he said when asked if he was disappointed. "We'll see. I still was able to do a lot of individual stuff today and throw a lot of those routes, which was good. It's better to be out here than sitting in the training room."

If the training staff didn't want Smith taking part in a non-contact, no-pads practice on Wednesday, it's hard to imagine them giving Smith the green light to play in a real game Sunday on an artificial surface against a defense that leads the league in sacks. If Smith sits out team drills again Thursday, you might as well write Trent Dilfer's name into the starting lineup. But you'd better do it in pencil just to be safe. And don't bet on it.

Mike Nolan went into Mr. Mysterioso mode when asked whether OC Jim Hostler might start calling games from the coaches' booth. "We've spoken about it, but we'll wait until game day before we say anything more about it." The comment made it sound as if, yes, Hostler would indeed be heading upstairs for the rest of the season. Hostler, however, said that wouldn't be the case. He decided early on that he is more comfortable on the field where he can talk to his offensive players, and that hasn't changed. "Our inability to get it done on offense has nothing to do with where I call the plays," he said.

How many times did the offensive lineman-needy Redskins call the 49ers this season about Kwame Harris? Not once. In fact, the phone was mostly silent on Tuesday, the NFL's trade deadline. The only team that was wheeling and dealing was the Dolphins, who ultimately shipped receiver Chris Chambers to San Diego in exchange for a second-round draft pick. The 49ers need some pizzazz at receiver and they like Chambers. But a second rounder was too steep for San Francisco, and Chambers' $5.5 million salary was a little pricey as well. It was a deal only a team on the verge of a Super Bowl could make and the 49ers are not that team.

-- Matt Barrows

October 17, 2007
Wait and see for Smith, Davis

Alex Smith and Vernon Davis will go through a limited practice today but Mike Nolan is not yet ready to say they'll start Sunday against the Giants. Both will go through individual drills and Nolan said he'll see how much both can handle. Practice starts at 11:15 a.m. Nolan reiterated that the fact the team is playing the New York Giants, who have more sacks than any other team in the league, has no bearing on whether Smith will start. "If the doctors say he's healthy to go, that's the decison I make," Nolan said. The only other player with injury issues is special teams ace Keith Lewis who has a hamstring strain.

Nolan also said there would be no change in the starting lineup at receiver. Darrell Jackson will start at split end and Arnaz Battle will start at flanker. As for Ashley Lelie, "He'll have a role in the things we're doing."
-- Matt Barrows

October 16, 2007
Clock strikes one -- Harris still a Niner

The trade was as obvious as a neon red sign in the middle of a desert. After losing two starters on the right side of their offensive line at the beginning of the season, the Washington Redskins lost three more o-lineman on a slippery field in Green Bay Sunday. Meanwhile, the 49ers' roster is practically bursting with offensive lineman, and they have one good one, former first rounder Kwame Harris, sitting fallow on the sideline. The Redskins can't run to their right. Harris excels at run blocking. Harris is from a town in Delaware that is less than two hours away from the district. The 49ers and Redskins have been trade partners in the past (See: Lloyd, Brandon; Rumph, Michael) and the Redskins have no qualms about giving away draft picks. (See: Lloyd, Brandon).

And maybe that was the rub. Maybe Scot McCloughan and the 49ers burned the Redskins so badly with that Brandon Lloyd deal (Lloyd is to the Redskins lockerroom what Rosie O'Donnell is to Trump Towers) that the 'Skins are hesitant to make a deal. Or maybe Washington doesn't want to trade for a guy who becomes a free agent in March. Or perhaps the 49ers' asking price -- a fifth rounder that can improve to a fourth -- was too steep.

Whatever the case, nothing happened. The trade deadline passed at 1 p.m. and now it looks like Harris will be a 49er for the rest of the season.

It's puzzling to me. As anyone who watched the Redskins-Packers game will tell you, Washington is a legitimate playoff contender. They outplayed Brett Favre and the Packers in Green Bay and only lost because receiver Santana Moss had a devil of a time holding onto the football. (Lloyd, by the way, has chipped in with one catch for nine yards this season.) You wonder, though, whether Washington can stay competitive in the rough and tumble NFC East without addressing the right side of its line.

-- Matt Barrows

October 15, 2007
Alex Smith goes 55

It's looking more and more like Alex Smith will be under center when the 49ers play the Giants on Sunday. Smith hung around headquarters this weekend and on Saturday threw close to 100 passes to tight end Billy Bajema, who was rehabbing an ankle injury. The longest passes the threw, Smith said, were between 50 and 55 yards. Smith said he expects to practice Wednesday, and once he gets an OK from the doctors, he will be cleared to play against the Giants. One of the team doctors visited with Smith on the practice field today and said his separated shoulder looked good. Smith now has a full range of motion, which he demonstrated to the press corps that had assembled in front of his locker. Impressive indeed.

Several readers have been asking about Jason Hill. The rookie looked good in practice today, catching several deep balls including one in which he did a nice job of keeping his toes in bounds. But he said that his hamstring injury, while improving, is not yet healed. Hill, who when healthy is one of the fastest 49ers, remains optimistic that he'll soon get his shot. "My freshman year (at Washington State) I went the whole year without a catch and broke the record my sophomore year," he said.

Like Smith, Vernon Davis seems likely to return against the Giants. Davis took part in individual drills today and says he's ready for full participation Monday. Davis went home to Washington, D.C. this weekend to meet his two-week-old baby boy, Jianni. Will the youngster be a 49ers fan or a Redskins fan? "He'll be a 49ers fan," Davis said. "Wherever his daddy is."

The 49ers filled the open spot on their practice squad with guard Tavares Washington.

-- Matt Barrows

October 13, 2007
Readers: Nolan on notice

Question: 'Mooch' also stuck to his ways - where is he now? The Niners' latest game strategy copied Cleveland-they are not the Browns. Your best guess, Matt - do you think Nolan would actually sacrifice this whole season trying to prove his ultra conservative ways (offense & defense) will work eventually? Is he that obstinate? Please ask them why ours is the only 3/4 that never gamble's with the blitz? Honestly Matt, does Nolan seem to you to really even care what we fans are thinking?

Sammy, Sacramento

Answer: I think he understands the fans' increased expectations. Does he listen to everything the fans say? No, and that's usually a good thing considering how fickle and reactionary most fans are. But this Ashley Lelie saga is a real puzzler. Everyone - fans, media, etc. - has been wondering since the preseason why Lelie has not been playing more. And yet it took the comments of an opposing coach - Baltimore's Rex Ryan - to nudge Nolan into giving Lelie a chance. It's very hard to figure out why it's taken this long.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: I don't see why Nolan doesn't get off his high-horse and start Lelie in Jackson's spot and move Jackson to Battle's spot. It is obvious that Jackson can't beat anyone deep but I think he would be more effective against a number 2 corner in the slot?

Larry, Lincoln

Answer: As of now, Nolan only has said that Lelie will see more playing time. It remains to be seen if he'll start. If he does, it will be very interesting to see if Battle or Jackson starts opposite him at flanker.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Hi Matt. It is obvious Nolan plays "Not To Lose" instead of playing "To Win". Your comparison of our game against the Ravens and the Bears/Packers game was a perfect example. Do you plan on asking Nolan if he saw the Bears game and noticed that they won and we didn't? I believe he is too worried about mistakes, but isn't it better to make a couple of mistakes and score 20 points instead of making no mistakes and scoring seven? Don't you think our defense looks good enough for our offense to be able to play looser?

Berger, Reno

Answer: That's the irony of the 49ers this season. With the defense playing so well, you'd think the 49ers could afford to take more chances on offense. Instead, the solid play of the defense has had the reverse effect.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Don't you think Nolan should learn something from Bills? I know they lost and threw an interception, but it was pretty sweet to see their offensive flow in final minutes. They kept passing even on obvious running plays. I was pretty amazed how the Bills were running their offense. Can't Nolan learn something from them?

Harsh, Berkeley

Answer: The Bills have something the 49ers don't have (or haven't used) - speed at receiver.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: "Our mistakes, our errors thus far, I believe are correctible. But do I have them exactly identified yet? No." That's a quote from Nolan. My question is simply how can you know a problem is correctible if you don't know what the problem is? There's a big gap in logic there!!

Jerry, Sonora

Answer: Ha! You've got a glimpse of what it's like to cover a 49ers' press conference.

-- Matt Barrows


Joey, Modesto

Answer: This will sound wishy-washy, but I think the offense has stalled for several reasons. The over-arching one, however, is that the 49ers have been content with a safe, ball-control strategy. Until they start taking shots farther downfield, opposing defenses will continue to be the aggressors.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: I fear Nolan will not give Jason Hill a chance this year due to his need to justify the moves he's made to add receivers. He can't keep them all IMHO. I assume he won't place Hill on the practice squad; but getting him playing time looks doubtful. If he's not given a chance this season, we may well put doubt in his mind and questions over what the team sees in his future. Not getting practice time with Smith also limits chance of game success. Do you think Nolan will get Hill some playing time this year?

Robert, Sacramento

Answer: I think Hill will see playing time - after all, he was ready to get some two weeks ago when he suffered his hamstring injury. But it's interesting to see other teams playing and having success with rookie receivers - James Jones, Dwayne Bowe - while the 49ers keep their third-rounder on the bench.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Why didn't the team keep Marcus Maxwell or bring him back to the team after cutting Brandon Williams? I thought he would've given the team a more physical presence blocking (if I remember correctly he ran a 4.4 in the 40) to compliment Arnaz Battle and stretch the field. The hamstring injury he sustained in TC didn't help his cause. I know this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. But he deserved a better shot especially after refusing an offer from another team and possibly starting. Have a nice weekend.

Mike, Washington, D.C.

Answer: It's an interesting question. At the time Maxwell was released, the 49ers seemingly had a very deep group of receivers and it was easy to see why Maxwell might not fit into the mix. Those other receivers, however, don't strike any fear into opposing defenses. Suddenly, the 49ers need a big, fast wideout who can make plays downfield - which is exactly what Maxwell did in NFL Europe. I'm not saying Maxwell is the missing piece in the 49ers' offense. But you do wonder whether, if he was still on the team, he'd be getting his chance right now. Maxwell, by the way, is now a member of the Bengals' practice squad.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Hey Matt, I was just wondering if you noticed that, on the 3rd & 9 play leading to the FG attempt for the lead (against the Ravens), the offense was set up on the right hash mark and the play call was a draw with Gore set up on Dilfer's right. With a left-footed kicker wouldn't it be smarter to line Gore on the left of the QB on that play to get the ball to the center of the field? That particular call puzzled me, and would love to know what our coordinator was thinking.

Derek, Phoenix

Answer: I, too, thought Nedney would want to kick from the center or even the left. But Nolan said after the game that Nedney preferred to kick it from the right hashmark. Nedney, of course, heaped all the blame on himself and said he pulled it. It seemed to me, however, as if there was a problem with the snap-hold exchange.

-- Matt Barrows

October 12, 2007
It's never too early to play GM

Question: What up, Matt. Awesome blog, by the way. It's the first thing I read every day. If I have time, maybe I read Maiocco's. My question is this - I know the 49ers have played only five games, but is it too early to start thinking about free agency and the draft? Also, I'd like to add that your mug shot, while perhaps too large, makes you look particularly handsome.

Matt Barrows, San Jose.

Answer: Hi, Matt. Thanks for the kind words. Coming from someone as handsome as yourself, that is truly a compliment. To answer your question, it's never too soon to talk about ways the 49ers can improve the team. In fact, I'll give you my Top 5 areas where the 49ers need help.

-- Matt Barrows

1. Receiver. I've written about this ad nauseum. The failings of the 49ers' ground game are as much a result of a listless passing attack as they are an ineffective offensive line. Opposing defenses have been so unimpressed by the 49ers receivers that they primarily have used single coverage, sending their extra defenders to stop Frank Gore. Perhaps the big, fast wideout who makes defenses tremble is already on the team. But if Ashley Lelie or Bryan Gilmore or Jason Hill or LeRon McCoy fail to make an impression this season, it has to be priority No. 1 come March and April.

2. Outside linebacker. If the 49ers are to run an effective 3-4 defense, they have to stock up on outside linebackers just as the Baltimore Ravens do. All it took was one injury this season - Manny Lawson's ACL - to expose this part of the 49ers' roster. I thought that Lawson's counterpart, Tully Banta-Cain, had his best game of the season last week against the Ravens, but he hasn't been the consistent pass-rush threat the 49ers need at his position. He has 1 1/2 sacks so far this season and his full sack - which came against Seattle's Walter Jones - came by accident.

3. Guard. The 49ers have done a good job at building depth here, but by March that depth could evaporate like a puddle on a hot summer's day. Both Larry Allen and Justin Smiley are in the final years of their contracts and it's hard to imagine that either will return. Adam Snyder likely would take over for Allen and David Baas for Smiley. Snyder, however, would be the top fill-in at both tackle positions, especially if Kwame Harris is not re-signed. The 49ers could use their first-round pick, which comes courtesy of the Colts and which I predict will be pick No. 30, on one of the best guards available.

4. Inside linebacker. It seemed like one of the team's deepest positions this offseason. But for some reason Brandon Moore doesn't have the confidence of the coaches and Derek Smith is slowing down. (Although I thought he had a nice game against the Ravens). One guy to keep an eye on is practice squader Mark Washington, who has nice size, handles blocks well and is intelligent.

5. Defensive line. You might wonder why this isn't a higher priority, especially if Bryant Young retires. The team seems to be ok at right defensive end between good-looking rookie Ray McDonald and Marques Douglas, who probably will be resigned. The question mark comes at Young's position - left end. It seems to me one possible solution would be to stick Isaac Sopoaga there. The team almost certainly will offer him a contract extension and he seems to have the size-quickness combination to excel at that position.

I am hesitant to give free publicity to an organization that one day may cost me my job. But the NFL had microphones on 10 players and coaches during Sunday's Ravens-49ers tilt, and the NFL Network will air it tomorrow (Sat.) night at 8 p.m. There's a brief preview on NFL.com that makes it look pretty cool. One of the miked players is Ravens LB Ray Lewis, who in one clip sheds (easily) a block by Eric Heitmann to make a tackle on Michael Robinson.

Used the day off today to expand the old noggin. I saw the Body Worlds exhibit at the Technology Museum in San Jose. Anyone who is still unclear about Alex Smith's shoulder injury ought to go because you'll get the most thorough anatomy lesson you'd ever want to have - shoulders, spines, kidneys, duodenums, etc. etc., and they're all from real people who donated their bodies for the exhibit. Want to see what a coal miner's lung looks like? Go see the exhibit. Want to see why your liver hates it when you drink too much? Head to San Jose. It's like going through eight years of medical school in 45 minutes. Fascinating stuff, but only for those with strong stomachs.

-- Matt Barrows

October 11, 2007
Get ready for more Lelie

The legions of Ashley Lelie backers out there are likely to have mixed reactions to the following. After Sunday's loss to the Ravens, Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan approached Mike Nolan and told him that if the 49ers had played Lelie more, the Ravens were prepared to double team him. How many times did the Ravens double-team the 49ers' other receivers? Not often, which is one of the reasons the running game has struggled so much.

The good news for the Lelie Fan Club is that the 49ers intend on giving the lanky speedster more playing time when their season resumed on Oct. 21. After all, if every other team deems Lelie as big a threat as the Ravens, it will mean more running room for Frank Gore, fewer double teams for Vernon Davis and fewer corner and safety blitzes for Alex Smith. And no, I don't mean Trent Dilfer. Every day it seems as if Smith is more and more likely to take back his starting role on Oct. 21. He said he'll throw some this weekend and then go through the 49ers' non-contact practice Monday. If that goes well, he's hoping to take part in the padded practice Wednesday, which in turn, means he's almost a lock to play Sunday.

Lelie's emergence, however, isn't good news for another player. At one point, the 49ers were poised to give rookie Jason Hill his shot in a game. However, Hill injured his hamstring at that point and missed the following two games. In that interim, the team welcomed back Bryan Gilmore, signed LeRon McCoy and decided to give Lelie a bigger role.

"Had (Hill) been healthy, maybe I wouldn't have brought Gilmore back," Nolan said today.

-- Matt Barrows

October 10, 2007
Nolan has Antonio Bryant on the brain

Antonio Bryant is on Mike Nolan's mind. The coach told me today that he's been thinking about Bryant at least once a week for the last four weeks. And why not? The 49ers need a big, powerful receiver who can stretch the field and Bryant fits that description to a T. He's also familiar with the offense and could step in right away. The problem with Antonio Bryant is that he's Antonio Bryant - headstrong, outspoken, volcanic, a tempest in football cleats. When Nolan cut ties with him this winter, he told Bryant that their paths could cross again and that Bryant could even play for Nolan at some point in the future. But Bryant would have to change to make that happen.

Has Bryant changed? Nolan is not convinced, or else he would have brought him back. Bryant has served his two-game suspension relating to last year's wild ride in San Mateo County, and he has worked out for a couple of teams. But no one, including Nolan, is ready to take a leap of faith with him.

"There's a reason I did what I did," Nolan said. "And that won't change unless he changes. But I'm fond of the guy. I really am. I know he's got some demons like all of us do."

Instead of Bryant, the team signed LeRon McCoy, a receiver who looked good to Nolan when McCoy was with the Cardinals two years ago. Asked today if he could still run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, McCoy smiled and said "Aw, that was a long time ago." McCoy said he weighed about 195 pounds when he ran at the scouting combine in 2005. Nowadays he's about 215 pounds ... and slightly slower.

Alex Smith spent practice tossing the ball to Vernon Davis and to fellow quarterback Shaun Hill. And maybe "tossing" isn't the right word. Some of the throws had nice zip on them. Nolan estimated that Smith would be questionable for the Giants game on Oct. 21.

-- Matt Barrows

October 9, 2007
Big, fast receiver? Yes, please

The 49ers signed a new player to their active roster today and ... drum roll, please ... he's not a former Baltimore Raven. Instead he's a former player at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which is where both offensive coordinator Jim Hostler and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti played ball.

But that's not why they signed LeRon McCoy. The 49ers are hoping that he just might turn out to be the big, deep threat they don't seem to have right now. McCoy has size - 6-1, 219 pounds - and in 2005 ran a 4.41 at the scouting combine. Troy Williamson, Jerome Mathis and Courtney Roby were the only receivers who ran faster that February. The Cardinals took a chance on him in the seventh round. When injuries hit their receiving corps in 2005, McCoy started four games and finished the season with 18 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown. Not too shabby for a rookie. He was placed on injured reserve with a thumb injury in 2006. This summer, he just didn't impress new coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff. The report out of Arizona is that McCoy isn't the hardest worker in the world and that fellow receiver Anquan Boldin, who is a hard worker, often admonished the youngster about his work ethic.

My take - it's worth a shot. The 49ers desperately need someone who can put pressure on defenses and McCoy can do that if he can recapture some of his 2005 magic. The 49ers, of course, have two other players who, along with McCoy, will be given an opportunity to be the "dangerous" receiver they have not yet had. Ashley Lelie, however, can't seem to win over the coaches' confidence. Jason Hill, meanwhile, can't seem to shake a pesky hamstring injury that has sidelined him the last two games.

While the 49ers were picking up a former Arizona Cardinal, the Cardinals were returning the favor. The team picked up quarterback Tim Rattay, who will join the quarterbacking corps now that Matt Leinart is out with a broken collarbone. It seems like a good fit. Rattay was very accurate when he was healthy (and upright) and he'll have a lot of nice targets in Arizona. And who knows - given Kurt Warner's injury history, the 49ers might be seeing a lot of Rattay when they travel to Glendale, Ariz. on Nov. 25.

-- Matt Barrows

October 8, 2007
Caution: bumps ahead

If Mike Nolan has one word to explain his team's offensive stupor, it's this - "inconsistency." Unfortunately for anyone who follows the team and is desperately searching for answers, it's the same word Nolan used during the preseason and after the team's first game against Arizona. It's a catch-all word. It's vague. It doesn't point fingers. It's an easy explanation. The truth is that Nolan doesn't know what's ailing the offense, which is quickly growing into an embarrassment. At various times during a half-hour-long press conference today Nolan said, "I think the execution needs some work" and later "could be scheme" and before that he said, "Our mistakes, our errors thus far, I believe are correctible. But do I have them exactly identified yet? No."

My sense after five games is that the San Francisco 49ers are terrified to make mistakes. This makes them overly cautious. And caution makes them predictable. Nolan is like a fretful nanny who keeps his young charges cooped up in the house all day for fear that they'll scrape their knees. And they're suffering because of it. Over the past two seasons, it was hard to blame the coach for the safe approach. The talent level on both sides of the ball was so poor that the 49ers had to play a ball-control game to have any chance at a victory. That's not an excuse anymore. The 49ers are far better-stocked - on offense and defense - than they've been in years and 49ers fans expected much more this season, especially on offense. They've gotten less. In fact, what they've gotten is more caution. Why? Because the defense is so much better, it enables the 49ers' offense to play even closer to the vest.

The player most stifled by this umbrella of caution is Ashley Lelie. The 49ers have had a dearth of big plays this season and yet they have a receiver who has averaged 17.5 yards a catch sitting on the bench. On the rare occasions that he does play, Lelie is asked to run short and intermediate routes. That is, the same types of gritty, five-, eight-, ten-yard routes that Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson run. That's not what Lelie does best, and if the 49ers signed him to a $4.3 million contract this offseason to run those routes, they made a mistake. Asked today why Lelie hasn't played more, Nolan went from cautious to coy.

"Good question," he said. "We've got a week to work on that.

-- Are you saying he could see more playing time?

"I'm saying, 'Good question. We've got a week to work on that,'" Nolan said. "Good question."

-- Why hasn't he been in before?

"Good question. We're going to work on that this week"

-- Do you think he should have been in before?

"Another good question."

For two years Nolan has enjoyed nearly universal adulation in San Francisco. The only time he truly rankled the Faithful's nerves was last year when, deep inside St. Louis territory, he elected to kick a field goal on fourth and one instead of pushing for a first down and a game-clinching touchdown. The fans screamed that Nolan's caution cost the 49ers a win. This year, it could cost far more than that.

-- Matt Barrows

October 8, 2007
Jonas is in the building

Just got back from Mike Nolan's Monday press conference during which the coach was asked time and time again about the floundering offense. More on that later. For now, however, there are a couple of news items. Jonas Jennings evidently has taken care of his personal issues and Nolan said he will be the team's starting left tackle on Oct. 21. The coach also hopes to have Alex Smith and Vernon Davis back for that game. He said Davis would be "at worst questionable." As far as Smith, Nolan said he actually should have activated Smith for the Ravens game and made him the third quarterback. After all, he said, if the third quarterback had to play, he merely would have handed off the football.
-- Matt Barrows

October 7, 2007
Sunday night deep thoughts

With the 49ers facing third and nine from the Baltimore 36 on their potentially game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, I turned to my colleague, Paul Gutierrez, and said: "I see a draw coming on this play." Lo and behold - the 49ers ran a draw to Frank Gore that picked up two yards. Am I clairvoyant? Well, ever since I fell out of that tree I have been able to predict rain. But more to the point, the 49ers are predictable. And cautious. And boring. Mike Nolan said later he was hoping that play would give the 49ers five or six yards. That still would have left Nedney with a 48 or 49-yard field goal, hardly a gimme, even for Nedney. Facing virtually the same situation tonight, the Bears went play-action, threw a touchdown pass to the tight end and ended up beating previously unbeaten archrival Green Bay in the final minutes.

After the game, Trent Dilfer said the 49ers spent a lot of time looking at last week's Cleveland-Baltimore game, which the Browns won 27-13. Dilfer said the Browns were particularly effective at running the ball on obvious passing downs, which is why the 49ers did the same.
"Teams that have had success against them run when (the Ravens) think they're passing and pass when they think they're running," Dilfer said.
The Browns, in fact, attempted just 18 passes against the Ravens. The 49ers attempted 19. The difference? The Browns have a receiver, Braylon Edwards, who caught three of those passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers' top receiver was Arnaz Battle, who had three catches for 36 yards and a touchdown. The Browns also hit tight end Kellen Winslow four times for 96 yards. The 49ers did not even attempt a pass to their lone tight end, Delanie Walker. Injured Vernon Davis is set to return in two weeks.

I spoke with Alex Smith after the game. I wrote about what he said for tomorrow's paper and I don't want to scoop myself. However, the gist is that he's more encouraged than ever he'll be able to return for the Giants game in two weeks. The question is whether the 49ers will let him. Dilfer was sacked three more times this afternoon and took a few big wallops after throwing the ball. It should also be noted that for all their heroic efforts, the 49ers defense didn't sack Steve McNair, who has all the mobility of a lamppost, once all day. After suffering a couple of injuries, the Ravens at one point had three rookies on the offensive line, including one, Jared Gaither, who was picked up in the supplemental draft.

-- Matt Barrows

October 7, 2007
Heap out for Ravens; Bajema out for 49ers

Just found out the inactives for today's game, and the biggest news is that Ravens tight end Todd Heap will not play. This is good news for the 49ers, of course, because their best tight-end stopper, Manny Lawson, is out for the season.
The bad news is that the 49ers' own tight end, Billy Bajema, also is out with a sprained ankle. That leaves Delanie Walker as the team's only healthy tight end. Or does it? Patrick Estes is active for the game, and he will be wearing No. 88. Hmmmm.
The other 49ers inactives are Tarell Brown, Jason Jill, Tony Wragge, Vernon Davis, Jonas Jennings, Atiyyah Ellison and Alex Smith. The bright spot about Smith -- he was seen making eight-yard throws before the game. Again, maybe his return for the Giants game two weeks from today isn't so absurd after all.
Also out for Baltimore are QB Troy Smith, CB Samari Rolle, CB David Pittman, T Jonathan Ogden, TE Daniel Wilcox, DT Trevor Pryce and LB Edgar Jones.
-- Matt Barrows

October 6, 2007
Keeping a seat warm for Norv

Question: If Norv Turner gets fired after the season what would the chances be that the 49ers would hire him again? Jim Hostler has to go and I think that will be the case.
Cesar, Sacramento

Answer: Well, it certainly would be an easy transition considering that the 49ers' are running Norv Turner's offense. And Alex Smith would welcome Norv back with open arms. (Or open arm as it were). But what would they do with Hostler and Frank Cignetti? You can't have two quarterback coaches, after all. The real question is whether Norv would do any better than Hostler. The 49ers have a huge problem right now in that their receivers can't get open, which has a trickle down effect on the rest of the offense. In my opinion, finding a big, fast, dangerous receiver in the offseason has to be priority No. 1.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: Can you please explain to me why Bryan Gilmore is the num 3 wr again. Cleary he is not qualified for that role as evidenced by him failing in the role last year! Gilmore is easily the least imposing third wr in all the NFL right now! Mike Nolan's fondness for people like this is frustrating. Because he likes his work ethic he plays some guys who are big liabilities! Could this lead to his own demise here?
Frank, San Antonio

Answer: The way I see it, the Gilmore-for-Jacobs maneuver was more of a message to the rest of the team than a solution. No, Gilmore won't turn the 49ers into the Colts, but at the very least he should be able to make the catches that Jacobs dropped in recent games. Still, your point is well-taken. Gilmore doesn't scare defenses. If Nolan really wanted to shake up the team, why did he go with someone as safe and familiar as Gilmore? This was stirred, not shaken. In fact, I was wondering if the 49ers were considering bringing back Antonio Bryant, whose suspension has already been served. Yes, the guy is as crazy as Kathy Bates in Misery, but he'd certainly make defenses sit up and take notice.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: What do you think of running more out of 3 WR sets? Logically it makes sense for us because of defenses emphasis on stopping the run, Gore has seemed more comfortable with no fullback, Moran was great for him last year but I think Frank's touches gotta increase now. Do you have any stats/info on Gore's results in a base pro versus a spread formation? Maiocco recently said that ".500 would be an accomplishment", what do you think? Thanks for your work, being an east coast fan I really appreciate your work.
Sam, Detroit

Answer: Anything that would make the 49ers the aggressors on offense, I think, would be a change in the right direction. As it stands now, the 49ers offense is so blah that it gives the defense confidence and allows them to be creative. As far as how the 49ers will fare this season, all I can do is look at the team at this point last year when they were much worse. At least the current team has a defense. I think the 49ers will rally like they did last year, and it should be noted that their schedule in the second half of the season is very favorable.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: The 49ers recently brought back Bryan Gilmore, does that mean he will immediately start? I want to see what Ashley Lelie can do for our offense. I don't understand why he isn't in there to stretch the field out. In my opinion, the top 3 receivers on the team are D-Jax, Battle, & Lelie. Can Ashley play in the 3 receiver set? What do you hear is the reason he isn't getting some action? Thanks.
-- Eric, Elk Grove

Answer: Lelie is not what you would call a practice superstar. Or even a practice standout. And unfortunately, that's largely how Nolan and co. decides who plays on Sundays. For instance, I asked Nolan the other day why Ray McDonald has yet to be activated. He said that the team likes McDonald but that the rookie hasn't quite shown in practice that he is ready for game action. I don't know whether it's because Lelie is used to merely sprinting downfield or what, but the coaching staff is not yet content with his route running.
-- Matt Barrows

Martin, Fort Worth

Answer: It's a good thought, but I wonder how much it would take to pry a quarterback off another team's roster. I think the 49ers are encouraged by Smith's prognosis and will not be bringing in another quarterback. That is, unless Dilfer gets hurt, which certainly is not out of the question.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: Great blog Matt, thanks. I'm had the misfortune to suffer a grade 2 shoulder separation, and it took months to be close to normal. Do you have any indications of Alex Smith's recuperative powers? And also, once separated, is Alex more at risk to re-injury. Thank you, Dr. Matt!
Tom, Elk Grove

Answer: I'm not a doctor, but I play one on this blog. The fact that Smith is only 23 probably helps in this regard. On Friday, he had taken off his sling and was tossing (gingerly) a football to himself with his injured arm. As far as the risk of another separation - I've had a hard time wrapping my head around this. But the way it's been explained to me is that Smith's shoulder will always be separated. Because the muscles and tendons around the injury are in tact, it shouldn't inhibit the strength in the arm or his ability to throw. But who knows. Smith should prepare for a lot of "Is your shoulder still bothering you?" questions whenever he as an off game.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: An observation: On the play where Marcus Pollard scored the TD to make the score 20-0, It was an empty backfield, we were in the 4-3 and every lineman two gapped. We got no pressure and didn't get close. That is pathetic that the coaches don't have them one gapping for an empty backfield. Rocky Bernard burned us with the one gap technique all day. Which brings me to my question. When Pollard scored he spiked the ball over the cross bar. Isn't that using a prop? Shouldn't that have been a 15-yard penalty?
Berger, Reno

Answer: In my most humble of opinions, the reason the 49ers put scant pressure on the quarterback in the second half was that they essentially had four defensive tackles on the field. Sure, Marques Douglas is technically a d-end, but he'd be a defensive tackle on many other teams. The only pure defensive end they have on the team is Ray McDonald, and he was inactive. Again. As far as spiking the ball over the goalpost, that's still ok in the No Fun League.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: Matt, you've done a good job being positive all season. We really need some of that magic now. Smith got a lot of crap all season, and then when he got knocked out of the game, it was obvious that he is a spectacular QB to have been able to avoid making many mistakes at all behind that offensive line. Should the Patriots begin celebrating a top 5 pick after winning the Super Bowl or do the niners have any hope left?
Corey, El Dorado Hills

Answer: Here's your hope, Corey: New York, New Orleans, Atlanta, Seattle, St. Louis, Arizona, Carolina, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Cleveland. Only two of those teams - Seattle and Tampa Bay - have winning records at the moment.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: Did Hostler used to run a bed and breakfast?
Bob, Pacifica

Answer: All the 49ers need to do is sign Andrew Walter and/or Aaron Brooks and the transformation is complete.
-- Matt Barrows

October 5, 2007
Contract years bring out the best

Two of the best 49ers defenders this season - perhaps not surprisingly --- are in the final year of their contracts. Defensive end Marques Douglas leads the league in a category the 49ers call "stuffs," which they define as tackles behind the line of scrimmage on running plays. Douglas has six stuffs so far this season, one more than Minnesota Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson. Nolan said Douglas' play this season is all the more remarkable because, as the team's right defensive end, he has been matched up against some of the best left tackles in the league, such as Seattle's Walter Jones.

Another defender in his contract year is Isaac Sopoaga, who also has been adept at breaking into the offensive backfield. When the 49ers went to a 4-3 defense Sunday against Seattle, they sat linebacker Tully Banta-Cain on first and second downs in favor of Sopoaga, who played both defensive end and defensive tackle.

The 49ers would like to have both players back next season and both have said they'd like to remain in San Francisco. So far, though, no deals have been made.

"I'd love to have him on the seam for a while," Nolan said today when asked about Douglas. "But for right now, we're putting that on hold as far as that goes. We'll have an opportunity one way or another unless Marques doesn't want to be here."

Alex Smith ditched the sling he has been wearing since Sunday and let his right arm go free. In fact, Smith shook hands with a reporter and was observed on the sideline flipping a ball -underhanded - a few feet in the air. He can raise his arm perpendicular with the ground, Nolan said, but can't yet raise it above his head. Maybe coming back in time for the Oct. 21 game against the Giants isn't so farfetched after all.

Nolan said that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis likes to watch the opposition's middle linebacker, and the coach said he was sure Lewis would have a few words for rookie Patrick Willis after Sunday's game. Nolan said that rookies are often described as showing "flashes." What that means, he said, is that they play well on one play and stink on the next. So far, he said Willis has been consistently good. "I'll be honest with you, I haven't seen a (stink) play."

Practice-squad receiver Dominique Zeigler has made a few Brandon-Lloyd-esque catches in recent weeks, including one today in which he tipped the ball to himself and made the catch on his back. Appropriately, he was named Nolan's practice player of the week.

Tight end Billy Bajema (ankle) went through a limited practice today and is questionable for Sunday's game. Of the two rookies with hamstring issues, cornerback Tarell Brown is probable while receiver Jason Hill is doubtful.

The team captains for Sunday are Douglas on defense, Trent Dilfer on offense and Joe Nedney on special teams.

-- Matt Barrows

October 4, 2007
J. Jennings out for Ravens game

The hits just keep on coming for the 49ers. Today, they learned they will be without left tackle Jonas Jennings who will miss Sunday's game because of what Mike Nolan termed a "private matter." Nolan said he wasn't sure when Jennings will return. "He has a private matter he has to deal with this week," Nolan said. Adam Snyder, who filled in for Jennings last year, will start at left tackle against Baltimore. The 49ers have a bye the following week.
After the morning walk through, I saw an upset Jennings standing by himself outside the team facility. He later was joined by Nolan and the team chaplain Earl Smith. Nolan said Jennings would not be going to his Atlanta home but would remain in the Bay Area.
-- Matt Barrows

October 4, 2007
Thursday shoulder update

After a talk with noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews this morning, Alex Smith is encouraged that he might be able to start throwing again next week and begin practicing in two weeks. A Grade 3 shoulder separation is no small injury, but Smith’s appears to be better than most because the muscles around the separation kept everything in place. In fact, Smith’s shoulders looked normal to the naked eye today and he said the injury wasn’t expected to leave him with any physical deformity, which is not always the case with a Grade 3 separation. Right now, Smith continues to have his right arm in a sling and is continually icing down the shoulder in an effort to reduce the swelling. Smith’s goal is to make it back for the Oct. 21 game against the New York Giants.

October 3, 2007
This just in re: Smith's shoulder

Dr. James Andrews, the noted orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham, Ala., today confirmed the team's original diagnosis on Alex Smith -- he has a Grade 3 shoulder separation and does not need surgery. The team sent Andrews the results from Monday's MRI.
-- Matt Barrows

October 3, 2007
Serenity now -- Dilfer lets go of his anger

Trent Dilfer apologized to Ravens coach Brian Billick today. For years, Dilfer has held a white-hot burning lump of coal in the pit of his stomach regarding Billick's decision to remove Dilfer in favor of Elvis Grbac following Baltimore's Super Bowl season. Said Dilfer in February: "He grossly misunderstood the talent of that football team, myself specifically. I totally agree with so many things he did. But to this day, I am so sad I didn't have the chance to face the challenge of repeating." Despite playing the Ravens several times since his departure in 2001, Dilfer has never spoken with Billick. That will change Sunday.

"I plan on seeing him on Sunday and making sure that he sees me face to face and let him know that I let that go and that I understand he had a decision to make and the organization had a decision to make and it's not my place to question the decision anymore," Dilfer said. "I can disagree with it but I don't want to hold the bitterness any more. He's been the man, I've been the child and it's about time I fixed that."

Before talking to Dilfer, we spoke to Billick on a conference call. Billick said that it was an organization-wide decision to go with Grbac that season but that he understood Dilfer's disappointment.

Mike Nolan today on the ESPN report that Alex Smith is seeking a second opinion from James Andrews and might have season-ending surgery: "Anything you've heard about Alex is incorrect. You don't need to waste your breath on it." Nolan did say that a physical examination of Smith's right shoulder would be conducted later today by team trainers. If anything changes regarding the QB's diagnosis and prognosis, you can find the facts here. For alternative theories, projections, guesswork, etc. click onto ESPN.

With Taylor Jacobs out of the picture, Nolan declined to say who his new No. 3 receiver will be. Bryan Gilmore, however, didn't mince words: "I believe I'll be in that role. That's what I'm preparing for," he said. Gilmore worked out with three teams - Houston, St. Louis and Oakland - and was ready to give up on his chances of playing this season when the 49ers called Monday.

Nolan said he thought tight end Billy Bajema (ankle) would be doubtful for the Ravens game. That would leave just one healthy tight end, Delanie Walker, although newly signed tackle Patrick Estes has some experience at tight end.

-- Matt Barrows

October 3, 2007
49ers want second opinion on ESPN report

Don't panic about that ESPN report regarding Alex Smith's shoulder. Smith is not seeking a second opinion from noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews at Stanford as ESPN reported last night. Instead, the team's head trainer, Jeff Ferguson, is friendly with Andrews and has sent Andrews a copy of Smith's MRI results, which were taken Monday. It's standard procedure at this level.

I thought the ESPN piece seemed funny when it mentioned the serious tendon damage Smith had suffered. Instead, Smith suffered torn ligaments, which are expected to scar over and heal on their own. Smith certainlly suffered a serious injury and his collarbone is detached from his shoulder. But the collarbone is essentially in the right spot -- if it weren't, there would be a need for surgery -- and Smith is expected to make a full recovery.
-- Matt Barrows

October 2, 2007
Receiving corps deserves blame, too

Fire the offensive coordinator! Reshuffle the offensive line! Mike Nolan didn't follow the fans' advice and take either action on Monday. Instead, he turned his attention to his receiving corps and cut ties with under-performing Taylor Jacobs.

Jacobs arrived here last year from Washington with a reputation as a practice Superman who turns into Robin on game days. This time, it seems like the Redskins pulled the wool over the 49ers' eyes because that's exactly how things turned out. Jacobs dropped passes on Sundays. He ran the wrong routes. He didn't scare defenses one bit.

But the same can be said about the rest of the team's receivers. They're dropping passes. And worse, they aren't getting open. Alex Smith wasn't holding onto the ball because he was frozen in fear the first three weeks. He couldn't let go because his receivers were surrounded.

Said Mike Nolan on the subject: "We have had a difficult time defeating the one-on-one match-ups and winning those match-ups."

No wonder Frank Gore is averaging 3.7 yards per carry and is the 20th-best rusher in the league this year. Opposing safeties don't fear the 49ers' receivers so they crowd the line of scrimmage.

Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson are good, and they are certainly the best receivers the 49ers have. The problem is that they have the same skill set. They are both flanker receivers at heart who excel at short and intermediate routes. They catch the ball well in traffic and neither is afraid to go over the middle. But neither can stretch the field. Sure, the 49ers send Jackson deep every once in a while, but he has yet to catch anything close to a bomb and you get the impression that defenses don't respect the deep pass at all.

What's the answer? It's certainly not Jacobs's replacement, Bryan Gilmore, who is a solid, dependable guy but who isn't a game-changing wideout as shown by his meager eight-catch, 150-yard output last year.

The only player on the roster who can scare defenses - or at least give them pause - is Ashley Lelie. After all, he entered the season averaging 17.5 yards per catch over his career, the best in the league. But he hasn't won the coaches' trust in practice. And when he has played, the coaches have never sent him deep. It's like buying a Ferrari - a $4.3 million Ferrari, if you will -- and using it only in stop-and-go city traffic. Or worse, keeping it in the garage.

-- Matt Barrows

October 2, 2007
Niners waive Jacobs, sign Gilmore

At the end of the preseason, the 49ers had a decision to make at wide receiver: Do we keep Taylor Jacobs, who had been the golden boy of the offseason sessions, or Bryan Gilmore, last year's third receiver who was a favorite of assistant coach Jerry Sullivan? The 49ers went with Jacobs at the time. But the former Florida receiver has not delivered in games, dropping several passes, including one in Sunday's loss to Seattle.
On Tuesday, the 49ers cut ties with Jacobs and brought back Gilmore, who had modest production last year as the team's third receiver, catching eight passes for 150 yards. The 49ers also signed tackle Patrick Estes, who was cut earlier in the season, and cut fullback Zak Keasey.
“It is always a difficult decision to make roster moves during the season, and we did put considerable time and effort into making these moves," coach Mike Nolan said in a statement. "Taylor has exceptional skills, but we were not getting the production we needed at that spot. It was a tough decision to waive Bryan Gilmore at the final cut. I said at that time, that it was probably the most difficult decision I had to make in the two years being here because he is everything you are looking for in terms of work ethic and commitment. When we released Patrick prior to the first game I said I hoped at some point we could bring him back to help our offensive line.”

October 1, 2007
Saints game more realistic for Smith's return

I just finished talking shoulders with Dr. Richard Marder, who knows a little about the subject considering he is the head of sports medicine at UC Davis Medical Center. In discussing Alex Smith’s separated shoulder, Marder explained that there are six degrees of separations that essentially look at the relation of a person’s clavicle with his acromion. This forms the AC joint you hear so much about. Grades IV-VI are usually associated with a high-impact trauma such as a car crash and require surgery.
A grade I separation means that there is no displacement between the two bones (clavicle and acromion), Marder said. Grade II separations mean there is some contact between the two bones and that one of the ligaments between the two might be torn. A grade III separation – which is what Smith has – means there is actual separation between the two bones, but that the clavicle is still stable. It also means that the ligaments connecting the two have been torn. The bad news is that it’s painful (Smith verified that today) and that the shoulder looks funny. Because the clavicle is no longer attached to the acromion, it looks like it’s sticking up in the air, and Smith said there appeared to be a big bump on his shoulder.
The good news, Marder said, is that the ligaments will scar and heal on their own and that Smith likely will not need surgery. In fact, Matrder said recent studies showed that 'throwing' athletes (quarterbacks, pitchers, etc.) tended to do better when surgery was not involved. Marder said it’s entirely possible that Smith could resume throwing in two weeks and be ready for action in four weeks. He said a full recovery is usually a four- to six-week process. Four weeks would put Smith on the field for the Oct. 28 home game against New Orleans. Six weeks means he’d be back for the Nov. 12 game against, gulp, Seattle.
-- Matt Barrows

October 1, 2007
Polamalu apologizes to Davis

Talked to Vernon Davis today about the hit that put him out of action a couple of weeks. Davis thought Steelers safety Troy Polamalu’s shot that left him with a sprained medial collateral ligament was a bit of a cheap shot. But he said he’s not angry with Polamalu, who called him a couple of days after the game to apologize.
“I don’t know how he got my number, but the guy called me and apologized for hitting me that low,” Davis said.
What was his reaction: “It’s cool. That’s alright. That’s what happens. It’s part of football.”
Davis is not yet running on the knee but said he’s been doing some low-impact weight lifting in the training room. He said he aims to be back for the New York Giants game Oct. 21. Now if only he can get an apology from Gerry Austin ...

October 1, 2007
Smith has grade three separation

The MRI results are in: Alex Smith has a grade 3 separation to his right shoulder and has been ruled out for Sunday's game. The best case scaneraio, Mike Nolan said minutes ago, is that his quarterback returns for the Oct. 21 game against the New York Giants. Nolan said that surgery is not required. I'm told that we will get to talk with Smith later in the day, at which point I'll know more details about his injury. Nolan also said he would meet with Scot McCloughan today about the possibility of adding another quarterback to the roster while Smith is out.


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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