While Davis fumes, Nolan denies Niners are playing it too safe

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Though Vernon Davis phrased his demand as a polite question, the San Francisco tight end's underlying message to coach Mike Nolan was clear: just give me the ball, and maybe we can fix the 49ers' struggling offense.

After catching just four passes in the Niners' first two games, Davis dropped by Nolan's office Tuesday. He asked whether a talented receiver such as himself could be more involved in an offense that has looked mostly awful despite San Francisco's unbeaten record, failing to gain 200 yards in either win.

"We've just got to get the correct game plan," Davis said Wednesday. "Sometimes the game plan you use might not be the best one."

After describing the 49ers' attack as conservative, Davis almost laughed when asked whether such a plan would work Sunday against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers: "No way."

Davis' volatility was one of the 49ers' worries entering the season, yet the athletic tight end clearly has a point. San Francisco's game plans under new offensive coordinator Jim Hostler do seem conservative and tentative to everyone but Nolan, with Alex Smith playing it safe while the 49ers rely heavily on Frank Gore, who's been mostly bottled up.

Nolan didn't take offense to Davis' request to open up the offense.

"I admired the fact that he had the courage to do it," Nolan said. "I assured him that it's a work in progress on offense, and that it will happen. He's not here to block on every down. He pointed out some plays where he was open, and I certainly couldn't deny it. We have to do a better job of finding the open guy."

Davis, the sixth overall pick in last year's draft, spent most of the first two games blocking for Gore and Smith. Just two passes came his way in last Sunday's 17-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams, and he caught them both.

"It's tough to have patience, man, but (Nolan) is right about being ready," Davis said. "I basically told him I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."

Despite the meager ball movement in the 49ers' first two games, Nolan believes his club still can be better than last season, when coordinator Norv Turner raised the NFL's worst offense in 2005 to respectability.

Hostler, the quarterbacks coach in Nolan's first two seasons, has nearly the same personnel, with only Darrell Jackson replacing Antonio Bryant as the No. 1 receiver. Davis also seems primed for a breakout season after injuries limited his rookie campaign.

"(Davis') frustration is all of our frustration," Hostler said. "We want to move the ball. We want to be more consistent. We didn't work all offseason and through training camp to start like we've started. ... We've got higher expectations (this year). That's why we're not happy with what's going on."

The 49ers existed on a steady diet of inside runs and short passes for most of their first two games. Smith, who's 26-of-48 for 252 yards, has completed just one pass longer than 22 yards, while Gore's 43-yard TD run on fourth-and-1 against the Rams is the longest play from scrimmage.

Hostler also called a picture-perfect reverse that could have silenced this entire discussion of creativity. But linemen Eric Heitmann and Justin Smiley both failed to block Rams cornerback Ron Bartell, the only player between Taylor Jacobs and the end zone.

Nolan cites a handful of drops on potential long plays, including a TD pass that went through Jackson's hands in the fourth quarter against Arizona, as evidence of the 49ers' good efforts.

"We don't have a creativity problem," Nolan said. "We do shotgun, reverses, play-action passes, and we do a lot of things with formations. But when it's ineffective, then that's what you have to fix. Our inconsistencies really lie in the execution."

And though Smith is in his third season, he's still young -- the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL for the third straight season, actually. Though he understands criticism of his meager statistics, Smith said he's only sticking to the framework of the San Francisco offense.

"It would be easy to complain about (only) 17 pass attempts," Smith said of the St. Louis game. "It would be easy for anyone to complain about touches. But right now, bottom line is we're not converting enough on third down to get enough plays. ... Bottom line is two wins."

Smith speaks to Davis daily, and he isn't worried about a mutiny just yet. Until the offense gets fixed, Davis says he'll keep filling any role he can get -- as long as the 49ers are winning.

"That's another thing that helps, as far as the winning," he said. "That's why I can come in here the next day and still be cool."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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