SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The air of death is remarkably absent. There are no walking corpses in the locker room. No ghouls in the front office. For a moment in May, it's even become possible to look at the San Francisco 49ers and feel a tingle of optimism.
But the residue of past failure still lingers. Look hard enough, and it can be found.
"I have last season out of my head right now. I have tried to lock it out," linebacker Julian Peterson said. "To be 2-14 and go through that was embarrassing."
He pauses, then emphasizes the point.
"Very embarrassing. We needed a fresh breath. We're getting that right now."
Though training camp is still months away, the temptation is to inhale deeply and clear out the nostrils that whiffed almost unparalleled 49ers failure in 2004. Peterson feels the lure, as do many others in San Francisco's organization, fan base and surrounding media. And who can blame them? This is a team with a rebuilt coaching staff, a No. 1 draft choice in the fold and a handful of injured players on the mend. For the first time in a year, it's an organization that seems pointed in the right direction. The success it leads to, though, is likely years away.
You can't simply unplug an NFL franchise like an alarm clock and not expect it to blink uselessly when you give it juice again. Like all things reprogrammed, there are buttons that need to be pushed. The 49ers are no different. And while last weekend's minicamp produced an abundance of Peterson's much-needed oxygen, there are more struggles in front of this team than behind it.
Considering the injury factor alone, San Francisco would be hard-pressed to repeat last season's meltdown. While Peterson is still recovering from his torn Achilles, he lacks the sulking nature of many players who have a hard time getting over the injury mentally. Just witnessing one practice is enough to see that he still wields the team's leadership role effectively. Add former Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry and subtract some of the other nicks and bruises that plagued the roster last season, and the talent base is generously better than what the 49ers were putting onto the field late in 2004. And that's without factoring in free-agent acquisitions like offensive lineman Jonas Jennings and defensive end Marques Douglas.
Schematically, Mike Nolan's 3-4 defense should be a nice fit for San Francisco's front seven, allowing the team to get creative with the speed of a healthy Peterson and linebacker Andre Carter. Even the offense should see some dividends from new coordinator Mike McCarthy, who was a hot commodity in coaching circles but may have to totally overhaul this unit.
Clearly, San Francisco's trajectory in 2005 is going to rest with the defense. But it's the offensive rebuilding that may secure long-term success – and that's a daunting reality. While the offensive line has the potential to be special, the remainder of the offense is pocked with question marks. Running back Kevan Barlow didn't deliver on his promise last season, and now the 49ers have to groom their No. 1 draft choice – quarterback Alex Smith.
Far more concerning is the receiving corps, which enters 2005 as one of the least productive in the NFL. As it stands, Arnaz Battle (who has eight catches in two years) has emerged as the No. 1 receiver. While Battle is being praised for his strides, building a passing game with him as the centerpiece remains a stretch. As for Battle's supporting cast, it's an inauspicious bunch. Questions remain about Brandon Lloyd's commitment, and there's no clear No. 3 receiver in sight. There's no guarantee that help will just magically appear in the coming months, either.
"I'm not trying to get a quick fix after June 1," said Nolan, referring to the period when some teams jettison talent for salary-cap purposes. "We are identifying our football team and there will be spots that will be a little weaker than others as we go in."
But projecting wide receiver as one of those spots isn't exactly reassuring, particularly when the 49ers will be grooming Smith. Undoubtedly, he is the embodiment of what lies ahead. And like the rest of the organization, his potential is going to have to be patiently weaned along.
Smith showcased some of that talent over the weekend, illustrating the ability to take command of a huddle and flashing glimpses of his arm and scrambling ability in seven-on-seven drills. In one scenario on the final day of minicamp, Smith led the offense through the rain to a touchdown while operating a two-minute drill. It was something that reporters were more than happy to accentuate with Nolan afterward.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that most of the weekend's drill work was more about teaching than competing. Smith's progress has more to do with pre-snap preparation than it does with him actually throwing a football. Not only does he have to cram the playbook, but he also has to grasp the never-ending verbiage of play-calling. That's no small feat, considering Hall of Famers like John Elway and Dan Marino struggled to spit out calls in the their huddles as rookies.
Not that Smith is pleading for the slow approach. Asked for his thoughts on the prevailing theory that it takes a minimum of three years for most NFL quarterbacks to develop, he seemed almost defiant.
"Any concrete theory is kind of BS," Smith said. "You can't just fit a mold to a person. Every individual is different. Every circumstance is different. Some guys are going to develop faster than others. Some teams are going to bring their quarterbacks along differently. Some teams are going to demand more."
Asked if it had ever taken him three years to accomplish anything in his life, Smith grinned and replied "No."
Smith has already spoken to Peyton Manning and Eli Manning to get a feel for the pitfalls that rookie quarterbacks experience. And like the rest of the San Francisco locker room, he seems to have a grasp on the massive amount of work that lies ahead. But it's not hard to envision Smith, who graduated from college in two years (with a 3.74 GPA) and became the league's No. 1 pick at 20, as a guy who wants his NFL career to mature according to his own personal doctrine.
Maybe he has no idea what he's getting into with the 49ers. Maybe he's being too ambitious. Or maybe he's simply bought into the San Francisco optimism, which no longer seems to be in short supply.