Liotta: Niners poised to return to prominence in 2010 

For football fans around the country — fans of the 49ers included — the clock starts ticking this week.

The countdown to Week 1 will be on for the 32 NFL franchises across the country.

Week 1. It may not sound as poetic or soft and cuddly as Opening Day, but Week 1 sets off the militaristic march that doesn’t end until there is one team left standing, holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions.

The 49ers’ clock starts ticking Friday, with little more than two weeks before the first preseason game — Aug. 15 at Indianapolis — and just 45 days remaining until the Week 1 opener on Sept. 12.

Everybody around the 49ers should be dusting off how they felt when Joe Montana or Steve Young were getting ready to report. It might be hard to remember the feeling of invincibility that surrounded the 49ers during their Super Bowl years, but that is what has to be rekindled. Now.

This is the year the Niners return as legitimate playoff contenders.

It’s been fun hearing all the precamp reports from London, as the 49ers publicize their Oct. 31 game against the Denver Broncos, a sort of warmup for training camp when things get serious.

And things will be serious for quarterback Alex Smith right from the get-go. All this clamor about him playing his first NFL season with an offensive coordinator held over from the year before will have all eyes focused on every pass he makes. Even coach Mike Singletary is talking about it.

“It’s amazing to think that this is the first time there will be consistency at the offensive coordinator position going into that next season for him after five years,” Singletary said. “That’s a pretty amazing thing to say — this the first time the offensive coordinator is there. I’m excited about that alone.”

Don’t get me wrong. Hearing the same vision, the same plays, the same verbage can only help the 49ers’ quarterback situation, but that alone is not going to be a cure-all. Smith has to take the progress he showed during his 10 starts last season, and prove he can play at a level that enables his team to advance in the playoffs. That’s a whole different ballgame.
While all eyes are on Smith, I’ll be looking for Patrick Willis to erupt into a national superstar.

The best news 49ers fans heard this offseason was that their 6-foot-1, 240-pound beast of a linebacker Willis is under contract through 2016.

This will be the year everybody, not just the experts, start talking about the fourth-year defensive stud who has averaged more than 155 tackles over his first three years like they talk about Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens.

The clock will be ticking.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at tliotta@sfexaminer.com.

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