49ers have 'Triplets' of their own

SANTA CLARA -- The quarterback is a quiet, blue-eyed boy from Southern California. The Florida-born running back is a few inches shy of 6 feet but it often takes two, three, four tacklers to bring him down. The pass catcher? There isn't a defender who can keep up. Just ask him.

The Bay Area Triplets?

Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves, but Alex Smith, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis bear at least a slight resemblance to the famous triumvirate that won three Super Bowls together for hated Dallas in the 1990s. Heck, the 49ers run the same offense and even share a player -- guard Larry Allen -- who joined Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin in 1994.

It might seem like ancient history, but it was only two seasons ago that the 49ers featured a far different trio. Tim Rattay was the quarterback, Kevin Barlow was the top tailback and Brandon Lloyd was the best receiver.

Coach Mike Nolan began his rebuilding project with Smith, substituting the rookie for Rattay during the 49ers' fourth game of the 2005 season. Smith remembers it as the most difficult year of his life, one in which everyone from former quarterbacks to the guy at the corner drug store gave him advice on how to do his job.

He also had a tough time adapting to the West Coast offense, which limited him to short timing patterns and was nothing like the wide-open offense he ran in college at Utah.

"It was hard," Smith said. "I felt a little like a robot."

The 2007 campaign didn't start well, either. Smith had felt far more comfortable in Norv Turner's offense in 2006 and, more important, had grown fond of Turner when the offensive coordinator accepted a head-coaching job with San Diego in February. It was too late in the offseason for the 49ers to find a big-name replacement, and maybe that was a blessing. Nolan promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler instead and kept the vast majority of Turner's offense intact.

At the same time, the 49ers went shopping for Smith, bringing back receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie, and drafted a right tackle, Joe Staley, to prevent pass rushers from crashing into Smith's right side.

"I think we're getting better," Nolan said of Smith's surrounding cast. "All of his weapons, whether it be handing the ball to Frank or hitting him out of the backfield, or giving it to Vernon or Darrell Jackson and Arnaz (Battle) -- he's got good weapons around him."

It also didn't take Gore long to supplant Barlow. Despite the fact his shoulders later would require surgery, and despite 49 fewer carries than Barlow, Gore outrushed him in 2005 by 27 yards. By the start of the 2006 season, it was clear who the better tailback was, and the 49ers traded Barlow to the New York Jets.

While Barlow ran for 370 yards last year in New York, Gore finished with a franchise-record 1,695 yards even though every defense the 49ers faced was geared to stop the run.

The strategy this season is to keep those defenses honest.

In Jackson, the 49ers acquired a receiver who has had more than 1,000 receiving yards three of the past six years.

They also have a tight end who wants to join the same club.

Davis' rookie season got off to a fantastic start when, in the team's opening game last season, he took a short pass from Smith and outran the Arizona secondary for a 31-yard touchdown.

He suffered a fractured leg two weeks later, however, and sat out half the season. Still, Davis finished with 20 catches for 265 yards and three touchdowns, which, extrapolated over 16 games, is more than 500 receiving yards.

That's a nice number, Davis said. But he spent the offseason improving a shortcoming from last season -- his pass-catching -- and is setting his sights a little higher.

"I'm aiming for, maybe, 1,000," he said.

Not many tight ends reach that mark, Vernon.

"The best ones do," he said.