AT THE RISK of jumping to conclusions, the 49ers look way closer to being a contender than the Raiders after visiting their practices this week.
Here is what stands out from Friday's visit to 49ers minicamp and Wednesday's trip to the Raiders' offseason training activity:
* * * 49ers observations * * *
-- 49ers coach Mike Singletary is the best thing going, if not in the entire NFL, then at least when it comes to the Bay Area's two teams. When he wasn't demanding his players line up correctly for an end-of-practice sprint (he made them start over when some started prematurely), he was giving Frank Gore pointers afterward on blitz pick-up technique. His end-of-practice speeches should be a daily YouTube feature.
-- Three months before the season opens, the 49ers starting quarterback job is still the most intriguing position battle. Without any fanfare, Alex Smith took the first snap in Friday's first 11-on-11 drill, and he successfully handed off to Frank Gore. Singletary said: "The coaches are going to try to make it as fair as possible, making sure that Shaun and Alex get their reps with the first group and just continue to go forward there. Right now, it really doesn't mean anything. That guy has to step up at some point in time and he will. They are making strides, so we are excited about that."
-- No offense to Singletary, but any news regarding 49ers quarterbacks always matters to us. It might not to him, but perhaps teammates will think that Smith indeed has a shot of winning back his job from Hill. Smith has looked surprisingly strong this spring.
-- Seeing Isaac Bruce run around in Jerry Rice's No. 80 practice jersey is just wrong on so many levels. Bruce may be bound for Canton, but Rice's number deserves to be locked away (or, ahem, retired by the team!) Yes, Bruce still has plenty to offer, at least based on last year's inaugural season with the 49ers. But he stood off to the side and wasn't tutoring young receivers during one part of Friday's drills that caught my attention. I can't help but wonder if he might retire during training camp, like Rice did with the Denver Broncos in 2005.
-- We had a Michael Crabtree sighting. He did conditioning drills with the training staff and even trotted by reporters, showing no ill effects of his foot surgery. Singletary said he doesn't want to see his first-round draft pick practicing until training camp. He engaged Crabtree in a brief chat while they watched early drills and the mentoring process has begun.
-- One fellow scribe -- OK, we'll credit ace 49ers reporter Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat -- for stating how this might be the 49ers' deepest wide receiver corps ever. He might be correct, based on the quality they have after the top three or four receivers. He might be dead wrong, seeing how as these are relatively unproven wideouts behind Bruce.
-- Tight end Vernon Davis looks as fit as ever, but he did drop a well-placed pass by Smith that conjured up bad memories.
-- Defensive end Justin Smith looks like a beast and stronger than ever.
-- Outside linebacker Manny Lawson continues to have a bounce in his step and is the X-factor for the defense's hopes.
-- I just finished with Saturday's print column on Frank Gore and Moran Norris, whom he lobbied the 49ers brass to re-sign this offseason. They're the most important tandem on the 49ers. They know it, and they're taking their jobs seriously.
* * * Raiders observations * * *
-- The more I see the Raiders practice, the more skeptical I become. That's not just because of any bias that exists based on their past six seasons of horror. Nor is it a direct reflection on the coaching changes or players' work ethics. This is still a very young team, and when you combine that fact with the other concerns, it makes me wonder how bad this season could be rather than how great it could be. Watching them loosely goof off and cackle at times Wednesday wasn't appealing, either.
-- The arrival of defensive coordinator John Marshall is perhaps the most exciting aspect about the widespread coaching overhaul under Tom Cable's regime. Marshall is extremely vocal, but in a positive way that helps teach and encourage his pupils.
-- Cable talked after Wednesday's practice about how the Raiders have had "very good attendance" for their offseason workouts. He picked the wrong day to say that, even if it has been the case most of this offseason. Missing from Wednesday's sessions were some of their highest-paid, highest-profile players in cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, running back Darren McFadden, defensive lineman Tommy Kelly, defensive end Derrick Burgess, wide receiver Javon Walker and quarterback Jeff Garcia, who's wife had been expecting the birth of their second child.
-- Cable quelled any wild speculation that Garcia could unseat JaMarcus Russell, saying: "Our decision is made. JaMarcus is our quarterback. There is no decision to be made." Good. Support Russell. For now and through 2009.
-- As one ex-Raider told me at John Madden and Steve Mariucci's bocce tournament Wednesday night, the worst thing that could happen to the Raiders this season is for Garcia to start at quarterback. That's not intended as a knock on Garcia. It's just that Russell must play this season and either develop into a boom or a bust.
-- Tight end Zach Miller's return to the practice field immediately makes Russell's job better. They have great chemistry, and they'll need more of it in the future to turn this offense into a threat.
-- Wide receiver Louis Murphy is a kick. Oh, sure, he dropped an underthrown bomb at the goal line in practice, but he has the right spirit and could make an impact on this team. "At Florida, that's how we won a championship, with enthusiasm and making sure everyone stayed up," Murphy said.
-- Asked to differentiate between how the quarterbacks throw, Murphy said: "J-Rock has a cannon. Everyone knows that."
-- Asked how Florida quarterback Tim Tebow throws, Murphy said: "It's just a different style. He's left-handed so the ball spins differently."
-- Murphy said the Raiders' playbook reminds him so much of Florida's that it's been like studying old notes for him. I'm not sure I believe him. Or you have to wonder if Florida has better players and coaching to succeed with those same plays.
-- Read more about the Raiders on Jerry McDonald's blog: www.ibabuzz.com/raidersblog/
-- Read more about the 49ers (including Singletary's thoughts on the 49ers' stadium pursuit) on Dan Brown's blog: blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers/
Look for Cam Inman's Web-only "Candid Cam" takes whenever there's a breaking sports story, or whenever Cam's got something to say _ in short, just about every day. You can reach Cam at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.