From 1982 to 2003, the 49ers? offense was consistently outstanding.
The 49ers ranked in the top five offensively in the NFL 18 times during that 22-season stretch, and just once finished out of the top 10.
Boy, have times ever changed.
In the past five years, the 49ers? best offensive ranking is No. 23, which was accomplished last season under coordinator Mike Martz. And all that got Martz was a prompt dismissal two days after the season finale when coach Mike Singletary wanted to jettison Martz and his pass-happy approach.
So it only goes to figure that most of the 49ers? biggest question marks this season are on offense. Here are the 10 most compelling questions surrounding the 49ers as they prepare to open training camp this week:
1. Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
The onus is on Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, to win the job from steady Shaun Hill. Smith ended the past two seasons on injured reserve with shoulder injuries, and Hill has performed well when given an opportunity.
Smith is healthy, and he threw the ball well during the 49ers? offseason program. Hill also looked good. There is still the belief within the organization that Smith has more physical skills and can take the 49ers further if he gets his act together. But Hill?s consistent play late last season was a big reason the 49ers finished strong and Singletary was hired as head coach.
Hill enters camp with the slight edge. Smith must clearly outplay Hill in the exhibition season to win the job.
2. Why didn?t the 49ers acquire a big-name pass rusher?
The 49ers are confident outside linebacker Manny Lawson will provide a significant upgrade over Roderick Green and Tully Banta-Cain. Although the 49ers selected Lawson in the first round of the 2006 draft because of the pass-rush skills he demonstrated at North Carolina State, he has never been used in that capacity in the NFL.
The 49ers did not sign a pass rusher in free agency, nor did they draft anybody to hound the quarterback. Lawson will be counted upon to rush from the left side, while Parys Haralson, who led the 49ers with eight sacks last season, pursues the blind side of the quarterback.
3. How does Michael Crabtree fit in?
Crabtree, whom the 49ers chose with the No. 10 overall pick, will have to earn his playing time with a group of wideouts that includes Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan, Brandon Jones, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and Dominique Zeigler.
Crabtree did not practice in the offseason as he rehabilitated a stress fracture in his foot, so he is already far behind his competition. He is an immensely talented player, but the transition will not be easy.
He has yet to sign his rookie contract, and there is some talk that Crabtree might be difficult to sign. Crabtree certainly can?t afford to lose practice time, as he attempts to make the adjustment from Texas Tech?s spread offense.
4. Who is going to replace veteran cornerback Walt Harris?
Harris is lost for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn knee ligament last month. The competition for the starting job at left cornerback is expected to be waged between veteran Dre? Bly and third-year player Tarell Brown. Bly has 40 career interceptions in 10 seasons. He signed a one-year contract. Brown has a chance to win the job and hold it for a long time.