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With Singletary at the helm, 49ers ready to return to glory days

It would be understandable if fans flash back to the 1980s and 1990s when watching the 49ers play this season. That's because the team is making every attempt to recapture its glorious past.

As winners of five Super Bowl titles, the 49ers once were viewed as one of the NFL's model organizations, but their recent bouts with futility have cast a large shadow over the franchise. The 49ers haven't made a playoff appearance since 2002 and have an abysmal 32-64 record in the six seasons since then. The luster is quickly fading on the Vince Lombardi trophies sitting in the lobby of the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre.

However, the franchise started what it hopes to be a return to glory by going retro with its uniforms this season. The 49ers are donning the cherry red jerseys of their championship teams of the 1980s and complementing the look by wearing their old gold helmets with accompanying gray facemasks.

While the throwback uniforms will conjure up memories of Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice in San Francisco, it's the insertion of Mike Singletary as the 49ers' coach that has created a buzz of optimism. The Hall of Fame linebacker started putting his imprint on the team during a nine-game stint as the interim head coach last season, and the 49ers have seemingly adopted his hard-nosed personality. Moreover, they are being revamped to play the smash-mouth style that Singletary believes will make them title contenders.

Quarterback competition

While Shaun Hill finished out the 2008 season with an impressive 5-3 record as the 49ers' starting quarterback, former No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith is pushing him for the top spot on the depth chart. Compare their career statistics:

**Shaun Hill**
Games/Starts: 13/10

Passer Rating: 90.5

Passing Yards: 2,547

Touchdowns: 18

Interceptions: 9

**Alex Smith**
Games/Starts: 32/30

Passer Rating: 63.5

Passing Yards: 4,679

Touchdowns: 19

Interceptions: 31

Although the 49ers have a lot of ground to make up before they can walk in step with their championship squads of the past, this year's team appears on the right path toward making a run.

Observation deck

» Singletary is the epitome of "old school." If his impassioned post-game press conference after his first game didn't tip off the coach's old-school methods, then watching him lead his troops through a grueling training camp definitely reveals his throwback nature. From the endless series of hard-hitting, two-a-day practices with pads to instructing his troops to run gassers (wind sprints) at the end of practices, Singletary is conducting a camp that would make his mentor, Mike Ditka, proud.

Singletary is instilling a hard-nosed, disciplined mind-set that will serve as the foundation for the team's future success. Singletary willed the 49ers to respectability after taking the helm last season, but his old-school methods might turn the team into an unlikely playoff contender by season's end.

» The 49ers' quarterback competition is heating up. It wasn't expected to be much of a contest, but Alex Smith's dramatic improvement is making the decision tougher on Singletary. Smith has played with more confidence and shown the physical skills that led the 49ers to take him with the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005.

Although Smith's noticeable improvement has enabled him to close the gap on Shaun Hill, it will take a series of impressive showings during the preseason to convince Singletary to pull the plug on the eighth-year pro who posted a 5-3 record down the stretch last season. Regardless, Smith's vastly improved performance has to be encouraging to team officials, who still hold out hope that he develops into a quality starting quarterback.

» The 49ers' defense has the look of an elite unit, but it needs the contributions of linebacker Manny Lawson to push it over the top. While the former first-round pick has shown flashes of brilliance during his career, he has yet to develop into the difference-maker that the team envisioned when it selected him 22nd overall in the 2006 draft.

Some of Lawson's inconsistency can be blamed on San Francisco's misguided attempts to use him as a "do-it-all" playmaker who filled in at defensive end, linebacker and safety in various packages. In Greg Manusky's 3-4 defense, Lawson will line up at outside linebacker and spend most of his time rushing the passer off the edge. With fewer responsibilities, Lawson will be able to concentrate on developing an arsenal of rush moves that should result in double-digit sacks.

So far, the move looks good, with Lawson flashing excellent quickness off the ball and routinely finding his way to the quarterback during the early part of camp. If he can continue to settle into his role, Lawson and the 49ers' defense might rank as one of the league's top surprises.

Rookie report

As Michael Crabtree's holdout entered its 11th day, the odds of the former Texas Tech wide receiver contributing as a rookie significantly decreases. Not only is Crabtree missing valuable practice repetitions with the first-team offense, but the coaching staff can't bring him up to speed after his extended rehabilitation stint in the spring. Given the steep learning curve that was due to take place with Crabtree moving from a spread offense to a conventional pro-style scheme, it's hard to imagine the 49ers getting much out of their first-round pick this season.

Surprise, surprise

One of the biggest storylines coming out of training camp is tight end Vernon Davis' readiness to handle his role as the 49ers' focal point in the passing game. Davis has teased team officials with his immense potential in the past, but he hasn't played at a consistently high level. However, Davis has been sensational through the first week of camp and looks like the big-play weapon the team has always envisioned. With some uncertainty among the 49ers' receiving corps, Davis' development comes at the right time.

Lasting image

The memorable image from Friday was watching Singletary deliver his post-practice comments to his team. The coach's commanding presence captured the attention of onlookers and made it easy to understand why his players speak with such reverence about his leadership skills.

Fantasy spin

Michael Fabiano believes 49ers WR Josh Morgan could be a great potential fantasy sleeper this season and advises owners to target him in the later rounds of drafts. **More ...**

Extra points

» Keep an eye on Josh Morgan. The second-year pro from Virginia Tech is turning heads with his stellar play in camp and is expected to be a major contributor this season. Last year, Morgan was on his way to becoming a factor until a staph infection and a groin injury slowed him for parts of the season. However, he has returned to full strength and is working with the first team as the split end. With Crabtree opting not to report to camp, the 49ers are becoming increasingly more comfortable incorporating Morgan into the game plan, which could lead to an unexpected big year from the young playmaker.

» An interesting battle is being waged between Dre' Bly, Shawntae Spencer and Tarrell Brown for the cornerback vacancy opposite Nate Clements. Brown has worked with the first-team defense for most of the offseason, but Bly and Spencer give the 49ers veteran options. Bly, in particular, brings a penchant for playmaking that could boost a unit that has previously struggled to generate turnovers. Although team officials privately would like Bly to occupy the nickel position, the veteran's uncanny ability to come up with a big play might eventually land him the starting job on opening day.

» If training camp is any indication, Frank Gore is poised to have a big year as the 49ers' featured running back. He reported to camp in tip-top shape and is fully prepared to carry the load for an offense that will operate under a "run-first" mantra. The 49ers are 13-3 when Gore carries the ball more than 20 times in a game, and he has produced 11 100-yard performances when given that workload. With the team's quarterback situation unstable, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Gore surpass 300 carries and 1,300 yards this season.

» Dashon Goldson is poised to make a big impact as a new starter in the secondary. The third-year pro replaces Mark Roman at free safety and brings corner-like skills to the position. Coaches believe Goldson's size, skills and versatility eventually will make him a star in the 49ers' defense.

» Brandon Jones was enjoying an outstanding training camp before suffering a shoulder injury during practice Thursday. That will keep the fifth-year pro out for eight weeks and create an open competition for the team's No. 3 receiver spot. With Crabtree out of the mix because of his holdout, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and Dominique Zeigler are set to duke it out for the role.

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