Niners look to put NFC title game loss behind them

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers begin their first training camp practice today determined to rid themselves of a bitter taste in their mouths.

It's been there since the team's Jan. 22 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship, and the 49ers dedicated their offseason to repair what went wrong in that game.

By that time, the wide receiving corps had dwindled to the point where Brett Swain — signed off the street during the season — was seeing regular action in three-receiver sets. Against the Giants, the group combined for only one reception, a 3-yard gain by Michael Crabtree.

During the offseason, the 49ers bulked up the position by adding two prominent free-agent receivers in Randy Moss and former Giant Mario Manningham, and they used their first-round draft pick on receiver A.J. Jenkins.

Moss' effect on the team — both on the field and in the locker room — is one of the major 49ers storylines heading into the season.

Meanwhile, running back Frank Gore averaged 97.8 rushing yards in the first eight games of 2011 but only 53.6 yards in the second half. So the 49ers added another ex-Giant, running back Brandon Jacobs, to the mix in March and used their second-round draft pick the following month on Oregon tailback LaMichael James.

Gore remains the team's starter. But he's unlikely to have the same workload he's had in the previous six seasons, and the hope is that this year he'll be fresh for a playoff run.

Finally, the two most pivotal plays in the championship game were punt-return flubs by Kyle Williams, who was substituting for injured Ted Ginn. The 49ers re-signed Ginn, a free agent who had no fumbles in 14 games last year, and he has recently recovered from the leg injury that kept him out of the Giants game.

All those moves give the 49ers the most talent they've had since their last Super Bowl team and ramped up expectations that a sixth Lombardi Trophy could be in San Francisco by February.

"The thing about getting close to the Super Bowl is we had a chance to smell it," tight end Vernon Davis said Thursday. "I had never been to the playoffs before. It's definitely a lifetime experience that I'll keep with me for the rest of my life. I just pray and believe we'll do it again. It's something that we all look forward to because we know what it's like, we know what the stage looks like."

Davis was the 49ers' star player in the playoffs last season, catching 10 passes in two games for 292 yards and four touchdowns. One of the scores, to put San Francisco ahead of the Saints with nine seconds to go, instantly became one of the iconic moments in 49ers history.

But like most of the 49ers' receivers, Davis mostly was quiet during the regular season. The team ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards, and adding firepower to that phase of the game will be a goal this season.

So will scoring more touchdowns.

A defense that had 38 takeaways in 2011 gave the offense excellent field position throughout the season. But the 49ers mostly converted those gifts into field goals. David Akers, in fact, set an NFL record by kicking 44 field goals last season.

Jacobs, who's scored 36 touchdowns over the past four seasons, likely will be asked to reprise his role as a short-yardage back while James, who at Oregon often vexed Jim Harbaugh when the 49ers coach was at Stanford, also could see some carries around the goal line.

Moss, meanwhile, is expected to give quarterback Alex Smith the type of red-zone target he hasn't had to this point in his career.

"The physical skills everybody knows," Smith said of Moss. "The thing you appreciate a lot is the guy's a true pro. He's played a lot of football. He's incredibly smart out there."

But perhaps the 49ers' most important weapon is the sense of unfinished business. With a locker room full of blue-collar veterans, the 49ers don't appear complacent after posting a 13-3 record last year and making the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

Rather there's an element of discontent in Santa Clara, as well as a realization that the window for a championship is open now but may not be for long.

"With some of the guys we have, and with free agency and things like that, we're not going to be able to keep this team forever together," Justin Smith, a candidate for defensive player of the year, said last month. "Even age-wise, you know? The whole team won't be the same. I'm kind of stressing, 'Let's go about this in a way that we're kind of focused . we're not rebuilding. Let's do it this year and see what happens next year.'"

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