SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers call it taking ownership.
Coach Mike Singletary sets aside a portion of practice for players to step forward and coaches to step back. Quarterback Alex Smith gets to call whichever offensive play he thinks will work for the situation. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis makes the call on defense.
"Good ownership, Alex," Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis hollered as he ran back upfield after snatching Smith's 40-yard pass in the back of the end zone Friday. "I like that ownership. You're part of the team now, baby!"
Smith isn't nearly as outspoken, but in his own way, he made sure Willis, the 49ers' Pro Bowl linebacker, knew which side's play call prevailed. And if anyone remained unsure, all he had to do was consult Davis, one of the brashest and most freakishly athletic players anywhere. Davis, and his mouth, always seem to be open.
"Vernon brings an attitude now that we're going to out there and we're going to make plays and we're going to shove it down your throat," Smith said. "And when we make plays, you're going to hear about it. We're going to be hooting and hollering. I'm not going to do that, but those perimeter guys are. You love that attitude."
Even the 49ers' defensive players love it. They know how hard Davis works and, besides, this team is tight. For all the offensive coaching changes the 49ers have endured -- five coordinators since Smith entered the NFL in 2005 -- the team's core players have been together for at least three seasons in most cases.
All the key components are back from a team that finished 8-8 last season. An improving offense and questions elsewhere in the division give the 49ers their clearest shot at a playoff berth since the days of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens. Just ask Davis.
"You have Ted Ginn outside with a lot of speed and you have to keep an eye on him," Davis said. "Then you have [Michael] Crabtree, who is just like a cat in the night. I mean, he just runs his routes so well. Then you have to worry about Josh Morgan. When all of us are on the field and Frank Gore, I mean, they can't stop us."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. How will Frank Gore's role evolve? Gore rushed for 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, so it's not like he wasn't a big part of the offense. Still, perceptions linger that Gore and Smith weren't particularly compatible. Smith seemed most comfortable operating from looser formations. Gore has always preferred running behind a fullback out of a more traditional offense. To answer the question, though, check out Gore's stats over the final four games of the 2009 season. He averaged 23 carries for 113 yards in those games. Expect the 49ers to continue feeding Gore as long as the running back holds up physically. That was where the offense was headed in December.
2. What impact will Ted Ginn Jr. have on the offense? Forget about what Ginn accomplished -- or failed to accomplish -- with the Miami Dolphins. In Miami, Ginn was measured against expectations for a first-round draft choice. The expectations aren't the same in San Francisco, where the 49ers already have established offensive stars (Davis and Gore) and one of the better up-and-coming wideouts in second-year pro Crabtree. All Ginn has to do for the 49ers is use his speed to attract safety help against the deep ball. Ginn has been able to do that in practice. His speed is obvious, and it should lead to more favorable coverages for the other receiving targets, notably Davis and Crabtree.
3. Will the offensive line improve? The three hottest questions in 49ers camp concern the offense. That is fitting for a team whose defense has held up its end in recent seasons. While the 49ers are excited about adding first-round linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, both players face learning curves as they transition to the NFL. The 49ers play three of their first four games on the road, where communication can be difficult and experience helps a great deal. Iupati and Davis will upgrade this line over the course of the season, but the line could face some issues early on.
Nate Clements. The veteran cornerback seems like his old self: confident, outspoken, having fun. He's been bantering with Davis and seems to have moved past a difficult 2009 season. Clements spent his offseason training in Arizona, with an emphasis on fundamentals. He looks good so far.
Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' franchise player remains unsigned. It's a given that Franklin will report before the regular season. Singletary has confidence Franklin will report in good condition, so there won't be any Albert Haynesworth-style conditioning issues. But with the team setting aside $7 million for Franklin this season, it would be nice to have him in camp.
Shawntae Spencer could be the best cornerback on the team even if Clements regains past form. He played well last season and should gain momentum in his second season back from knee surgery.
Cornerback-turned-safety Reggie Smith is getting significant reps as an extra defensive back in camp. I'm not sure what that means for rookie second-round choice Taylor Mays, but it would be foolish to think the 49ers will not find playing time for Mays this season. It's just a matter of how quickly they feel comfortable working him into the defense. There's no rush to make Mays a starter as long as veteran Michael Lewis is healthy.
Brandon Jones has a chance to make the situation at receiver more interesting. Crabtree and Morgan are the starters. Ginn appears likely to earn a spot among the top three or four. Jones, a disappointment last season after an injury set him back, has the talent to become more of a factor. He seems to be having a good camp so far.
The 49ers' low-stakes gamble on Travis LaBoy suffered a setback when the veteran pass-rusher suffered a concussion early in camp. Concussion problems factored into the Tennessee Titans' decision against re-signing LaBoy years ago. The 49ers might not have an elite pass-rusher, but they ranked third in the NFL for sacks last season, and their outside linebackers have very good quickness. Diyral Briggs has stood out recently and could provide depth for a group featuring Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson and Ahmad Brooks.
One upside to Franklin's absence: Ricky Jean-Francois is getting significant reps at nose tackle. As Franklin proved, the 49ers can develop players at that position.
Singletary drew national attention for physical practices last summer when he unveiled nutcracker drills in which players rammed into one another. That storyline has run its course. Singletary has modified the drills and limited reps for linemen, who are already doing plenty of hitting. Technique is the primary point of emphasis in the drills.
Spread passing games in college have made it tougher to evaluate inside linebackers for 3-4 schemes, but the 49ers think they've found a potential good one in third-round choice Navorro Bowman. They're working him at the "Ted" linebacker position as a possible successor to dependable veteran Takeo Spikes.
Backup running back Glen Coffee added weight this offseason in an effort to improve upon what he considered a subpar rookie season. He hasn't stood out in camp to this point, however.
New special-teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer has slid under the radar to this point. That will change if the team suffers continued problems in the return game. Ginn should upgrade kickoff returns. Preseason games should tell us whether rookie receiver Kyle Williams can salvage the punt-return game. Williams could stick as the fifth or sixth receiver if he can make a positive impact on punt returns this summer.
Iupati stands out for his run blocking, but he's getting lots of reps and could wear down in the short term. Incumbent starter David Baas continues to miss time with a concussion.
Veteran Barry Sims and slimmed-down second-year tackle Alex Boone could be competing for the ninth and likely final spot among offensive linemen. Once Iupati and Davis become starters, the top three backups would likely become Baas, Adam Snyder and Tony Wragge.