This is a weekend for dreaming. Free agency has opened for business in the NFL, giving every 49ers fan the chance to make out their offseason wish list. The Cactus League is up and running, and everything to do with the Giants has that nicely buffed shine of spring. Even college basketball fans are deep into things like possible brackets and seeds.
Most importantly, after a season of progress that saw Frank Gore reach the Pro Bowl and Alex Smith make nice strides toward solidifying the quarterback position, this appears to be a critical time for the 49ers to add a cornerstone player or two.
Wouldn’t a defensive stud or a big-time wide receiver kick dreams of the playoffs into high gear? It’ll be tough sledding, however, thanks to a big jump in the league’s salary cap that has more than the usual number of teams making big-money shopping plans.
I love the way the 49ers navigated through the first two years of Mike Nolan’s tenure. Looking back over the eradication of the blight we called Donahue, it feels as if Nolan decided to take his lumps early, simply getting through his first two seasons with his team’s health and his sanity in tact being enough.
And now, here he is, with some promising young players on his rosters, and $30 million burning in the 49ers’ pockets. Talk about a time to go shopping!
Year 3 of the Nolan era brings a new set of challenges, mostly from the ever expanding expectations aimed at the 49ers that Nolan so readily welcomes whenever he’s asked about them. Remodeling a young, improving team into a playoff contender may be the toughest jump of all, but that’s what Nolan and his staff must do.
This offseason has already been stamped with what’s come to be recognized as Nolan’s no-nonsense style.
Bryant Young, as key a figure as there may be on the roster, is back with a one-year deal. Antonio Bryant, more trouble and talk than on-the-field contribution, gone.
Next on the agenda? Some shopping, and the NFL’s most coveted defensive free agent — Baltimore Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas — has already been linked the 49ers.
The connection to Nolan when Nolan was Raven’s defensive co-ordinator is obvious, but this guy appears to have every attitribute Nolan values in a football player.
Thomas is a big reach and will be very expensive, but could very well be the cornerstone player around which the 49ers can build their 3-4 defense. Isn’t that what shopping is all about?
» A quick lesson anybody looking to take that next step up in their career can be learned from the 49ers promoting Jim Hostler from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Even though his job was to coach the quarterbacks, Hostler always took time out to make out an offensive game plan for that week’s opponent.
That extra effort gave Nolan the opportunity to see how Hostler wouldhandle the responsibilities, enabling him to edge out several other members of the 49ers’ coaching staff. What one does in his or her current position earns the next one.
Filling Norv Turner’s shoes? Now that’s another matter altogether.
» No matter what the Giants do the rest of this spring, can you think of anything more important than removing five years’ worth of question marks surrounding Matt Cain? Count on Cain surplanting Barry Zito as the Giants’ ace sometime over the next six months.
» There’s nothing like watching NHL teams alter their rosters for the playoffs, perhaps the most physical two-month grind in all of sports. There were 25 trades leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline, and grit and hard noses were on the move.
As usual, the Sharks represented nicely, adding veteran Bill Guerin to play with Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, a stern defenseman in Craig Rivet.
Even better, the Sharks gave up nothing special to make the two additions.
So, fasten your safety belts, Sharks fans, no matter how tough a stretch the Sharks have gone through the last month or so, they’ll have the rest of the NHL looking over their collective shoulders come the playoffs.
Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner.