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Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

A 49ers resurgence? That's Martz madness

August 20, 2008|Sam Farmer

Mike Martz turned grocery bagger Kurt Warner into a superstar, sixth-rounder Marc Bulger into a Pro Bowl quarterback, and journeyman Jon Kitna into a 4,000-yard passer.

Now, Martz faces his most daunting challenge: making San Francisco's offense look halfway decent.

If Martz can do that, he'd be close to the mastermind his most ardent supporters insist he is. He'd also be deserving of another chance to be an NFL head coach.

Martz and the 49ers have a long way to go, even though the offense was better than respectable Saturday in knocking around Green Bay, 34-6. Not since 1989 have the 49ers scored that many points in an exhibition game.

Never mind the greatest-show-on-turf stuff. The goal of Martz this season is to build an offense that doesn't lose games, and one that leans heavily on running back Frank Gore.

"We've got to protect the football and really just take our shots when we can get them," Martz said. "We think we can control the tempo with our back. It's not that wide-open, go-get-em kind of thing, which is a risky offense."

Still, the most memorable play from the Green Bay exhibition was a 59-yard touchdown pass from J.T. O'Sullivan to Josh Morgan on O'Sullivan's final throw of the first half. Then again, this is the preseason, with its pamphlet-thin playbooks, vanilla defenses and a wide variety of players, some of whom are days away from delivering pizzas.

Even so, progress is progress. And it looks like the 49ers are taking a step forward with O'Sullivan at quarterback. He's a career backup from UC Davis who learned Martz's system behind Kitna in Detroit last season. For the moment, he has the upper hand on Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005.

The prickly O'Sullivan seems to have a chip on his shoulder the size of Alcatraz, which contrasts sharply with the nice-guy reputations of Warner and Kitna, as well as 49ers quarterbacks Smith and Shaun Hill.

But maybe a little competitive fire is what this team needs. San Francisco's offense was horrible last season, ranking last in eight statistical categories. Not only did the 49ers score the fewest points and gain the fewest yards, they gave up a league-high 55 sacks.

In comes Martz, who was fired by Detroit in part because his offense was too pass-oriented, even though reviving the passing game was one of his marching orders when the Lions hired him. They wanted to show off the receivers in whom they had invested high draft picks.

But there's no debating that under Martz the Lions did a poor job of establishing a ground attack and protecting Kitna, who frequently could be found pasted to the turf.

Martz spent two seasons as Detroit's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He came there from the St. Louis Rams, where he spent seven seasons, first as offensive coordinator and then head coach. He was fired in early 2006, the day after the Rams finished a 6-10 season -- although Martz had missed the last 11 games because of a heart infection.

During his five full seasons as coach, the Rams went 54-33, reached the playoffs four times and the Super Bowl once.

So now Martz has been entrusted to restore some luster to the once-proud 49ers offense, and the job is his alone. Coach Mike Nolan's fingerprints are nowhere to be found on the offense, and Martz is essentially like a second head coach in practice.

Nolan said Martz has "got great command of the offense he runs, and also of the players because they know that if they pay close attention and do what he says they'll be productive and make plays."

Things can change very quickly in the NFL, and it's not unheard of for an offense or defense to immediately improve -- or collapse -- under a new coordinator. But this test will be especially challenging for Martz, and not only because he may be putting the football in the hands of an untested quarterback.

In St. Louis, with Warner and Bulger, and in Detroit, with Kitna, the teams had some very good receivers. The Rams had Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk in their prime. The Lions have Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams. The 49ers are coming off a season in which their receivers were arguably the worst in the NFL.

In March, after he was released by the Rams, Bruce signed a two-year deal to rejoin his old coach with the 49ers. The Pro Bowl receiver will be 36 in November.

"I have a lot left," he said when he signed. "If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't be here in San Francisco."

Martz thinks he too has a lot left. And now he has a chance to prove it.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Martz's NFL jobs

Mike Martz has had seven NFL coaching jobs, including one as head coach, compiling a 56-36 record with St. Louis (3-4 in the playoffs; Super Bowl loss to New England). His positions:

*--* YEARS TEAM POSITION 1992-94 L.A. Rams Quarterbacks 1995-96 St. Louis Receivers 1997-98 Washington Quarterbacks *--*

*--* 1999 St. Louis Offense 2000-05 St. Louis Head coach 2006-07 Detroit Offense 2008- San Francisco Offense *--*

*--* Source: Times research *--*

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