It’s much too early to predict how the 49ers will do this season, but we do know this: The passing offense will be much better.
The top story line in the first week of training camp was how quarterback Alex Smith was hooking up with free-agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant, and the two combined again for a 50-yard scoring strike near the end of Saturday’s controlled scrimmage.
But the biggest thrill for the 3,000 fans at the open practice, one of 10 such planned by the 49ers this summer, was an early 60-yard pass play with rookie tight end Vernon Davis, who had streaked down the right side of the field and then cut to the middle to take a perfect spiral from Smith at the goal line.
Significantly, as coach Mike Nolan pointed out after the scrimmage, Smith was throwing into the teeth of a wind as vigorous as any he’ll face at Candlestick Point. That play alone should answer any questions about Smith’s ability to throw deep.
Of course, quarterbacks do not get hit in practice, so it’s difficult to measure how Smith will react under game-day pressure. But he was rushed hard on a couple of plays and spun away from the pressure to complete short passes on the run.
Though Smith has much better receivers than last year, with veteran tight end Eric Johnson joining the mix after being on injured reserved last season, there are two other important factors: The offensive line and the running game.
Nolan kept veteran free agent Larry Allen out of Saturday’s scrimmage, ostensibly to give other guard candidates more plays but also because he didn’t want Allen beating up on his teammates. Allen is incredibly strong.
In a 1-on-1 drill with 332-pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga last week, Allen just stopped Sopoaga dead in his tracks with a block. The 49ers haven’t had a guard who could do that since … well, maybe forever.
Nolan will have to settle on a starting unit soon so the linemen can learn to play together, a vital component of a good offensive line. That group should be Jonas Jennings and Adam Snyder at tackle, Allen and Justin Smiley at guard and Jeremy Newberry at center if he can stay healthy, Eric Heitman if he can’t. That could be a strong unit, capable of both protecting Smith and blocking for the running game.
The running game didn’t look good Saturday, though Nolan looked at the bright side: “That means our run defense was good, and that’s been a concern.”
One running back who did look good was rookie Michael Robinson, who is being converted from a college quarterback to a third-down back. Robinson drew cheers when he hit hard across left tackle for about a 5-yard gain. Later, when the offensive unit was on the 1-yard line, he drove for a
“Normally, he wouldn’t be in there,” Nolan said, “but we
weren’t in a goal-line formation at that point, so he got the call. He will stick his nose in there, which is a good sign.”
It’s easy to be optimistic in training camp, before the injuries and losses accumulate, but the 49ers seem to be on the way back — and the offense will lead the way.