SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Mike Martz's red 49ers cap is still crisp and clean. His new players don't know him quite well enough to be sure when he's joking and when he's serious.
Yet even in a quiet Sunday practice at San Francisco's first minicamp in Martz's tenure as offensive coordinator, his handiwork is already easy to see.
Running back Frank Gore is lining up in the slot. Receiver Ashley Lelie is running reverses. New receivers Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson are moving faster and catching more passes than just about anybody who played that position for the NFL's worst offense in the last three years.
After the acrimonious end to his tenure as St. Louis' head coach following the 2005 season, Martz tried to run the same offense during two tough years with the Detroit Lions, who fired him Jan. 2. Six days later, Mike Nolan hired him to fix an offense that's been woefully inept for most of Nolan's three years in San Francisco.
Though Martz hasn't changed his personality back home in California, he seems eager to show he can be much more than a creator of prolific passing attacks. Gore's running has been the 49ers' only constant in the last few years, and instead of orchestrating a new "Greatest Show on Turf," Martz says he plans to build from the foundation he's been given.
"The offense I like to run is to take what we have and analyze what they do extremely well, and take advantage of it," Martz said. "There's different personnel here than what I'm accustomed to. The tight end (Vernon Davis) is a terrific athlete, and we've got a whole stable of really good runners. It will be different than perhaps what you've seen us do in the past, but we've got some guys that can really help us win."
Even after being fired twice in a two-year span, Martz's self-confidence has seemed intact since the day he took over as San Francisco's sixth offensive coordinator in six years. With a little patience, the architect of the Rams' record-setting offenses thinks he can build a new masterwork with the club that reinvented offensive football in the 1980s.
"The progress that we've had through the offseason so far has been remarkable," Martz said. "We've got a whole lot out there for them to learn right now. We're really good on defense right now, so to be able to match up with them and know where to go and how to catch it, I'm excited."
Though some Niners fans already are worried Martz will neglect the running game, they forget Marshall Faulk had some of his best seasons under Martz's tutelage, including his MVP campaign in 2000. The thought excites Gore, the 2006 Pro Bowl running back who fought his way to 1,102 yards last season despite the offense's struggles.
"Practicing right now, I like it," said Gore, also the 49ers' receptions leader in each of the last two seasons. "We're spreading the ball around, and hopefully this year we won't see eight, nine men in the box every play. I think I'll get used in the passing game, too. I want to show I can do it all - run, catch, block. People think I'm just a running back."
Gore already has spoken with Faulk about what to expect in Martz's schemes. Faulk emphasized the importance of precise execution -- and the great benefits available to a running back who embraces a versatile role.
"He told me if I need any help, just to call him," Gore said with a laugh. "The (running) back has got to know everything. He puts a lot on the backs, especially in pass protection. ... I think he'll use me the same (as Faulk). He says I can run routes very good. I don't know if people know that about me."
Davis also is eager to see what Martz has cooked up for him after two mostly frustrating NFL campaigns. The former No. 6 overall pick was second on the team with 52 catches for 509 yards and four touchdowns last season, but frequently fumed about his inability to get more involved in the game plans of Jim Hostler, who was fired from the job Martz now holds.
"He said he's never had a tight end of my stature," Davis said. "The best part of being around Mike Martz is just watching him explore things. We're starting to focus on things we haven't focused on in a while, like getting the ball to guys who can make plays. I don't know how he's going to use me. I'm just waiting, just patient."
Though Smith looked markedly better than Hill to most observers during the weekend's practices, Nolan and Martz declared a three-man quarterback competition Sunday, claiming well-traveled veteran backup J.T. O'Sullivan also will be given a shot to win the job.
The 49ers are the seventh NFL team in seven seasons for O'Sullivan, who played four games under Martz in Detroit last season.
"Any quarterback is going to love the aggressiveness (of Martz's offense)," said O'Sullivan, who attended UC Davis. "It relies on timing and making good decisions. I feel more comfortable in the stuff, but it's an everyday opportunity."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press