For front-line NFL players, the final exhibition game is typically as meaningful as a promise that the check’s in the mail. Most of them barely work up a sweat – if that – before taking a seat on the sidelines.
Of course there’s an exception to every rule. Friday night at Monster Park, that exception was 49ers wide receiver Bryant Johnson.
After missing the first three exhibition games with a hamstring injury, Johnson made his long-awaited debut for the 49ers against the San Diego Chargers.
He wasted little time making a good impression. On the first play of the 49ers’ first drive, Johnson ran a deep post, broke wide open over the middle and caught Alex Smith’s 23-yard strike.
When Johnson bounced back up to his feet, he pumped his fist. There’s no fist-pumping in exhibition games by expected starters. Well, in Johnson’s case, we’ll let that exuberance in a glorified scrimmage slide.
“I felt good,” Johnson said after the game. “Going into the last preseason game it felt good to get out there and get in a game atmosphere with a new team. I was hampered by the hamstring early on, but I’m starting to feel good. I felt good out there today.
“That competitive nature takes over once you get in the game environment. You put all that other stuff behind you, like your injury.”
Johnson caught three passes for 41 yards in the first half. He looked smooth and fast and sure-handed in the 49ers' 20-17 loss.
For 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the sight of Johnson sprinting downfield – pain free – and making catches had to be a beautiful thing.
Johnson signed with the 49ers during the offseason as a free agent after spending his first five NFL seasons at Arizona, where he caught 210 passes for 2,675 yards and nine touchdowns. He was one of the 49ers’ most important free-agent catches on offense.
But early in camp, Johnson pulled a hamstring, forcing him to the sidelines for three games and numerous practices. He finally returned to full-time work on Tuesday.
Mad Mike can draw up the Xs and Os, but he needs someone to carry out his plans. And Johnson is a key element in Martz’s grand plans to bring the 49ers offense back from the dead.
In Johnson and former St. Louis Ram Isaac Bruce, another key free-agent pickup, the 49ers have two legitimate, experienced NFL receivers. No, not spectacular, but solid, which is something you haven’t been able to say about the 49er wideouts for longer than they’d care to remember.
Martz’s offense is new to Johnson, but he said he learned it quickly during the offseason, so he’s not behind on the “learning curve,” just in the number of repetitions in games and practices. He said he knows the offense well enough to know he’s a great fit.
“It definitely fits me,” Johnson said. “It’s a precise offense. It’s an offense based upon trust. You have to trust guys are going to be where they’re supposed to be, and I love it.”
On his first play as a 49er, Johnson lined up left and broke wide open over the middle where he grabbed Smith’s pass.
“It’s good to see him out there,” Smith said. “We need him. He’s such a big target. He’s such a smart guy. He works so hard. No question I think he’s a good fit.”
While Johnson was out, rookie Josh Morgan made a push for the starting lineup. But Morgan missed Friday night’s game and the entire week of practice because of an illness. So Johnson looks like the logical starter opposite Bruce for the 49ers’ season-opener against Arizona, his former team, next week. Johnson said he certainly expects to start that game.
Ashley Lelie, another veteran wideout battling injuries, made his 2008 debut, too, but in less spectacular fashion after missing the first three games with a calf injury.
Lelie didn’t catch a pass, despite playing much of the game. His blazing speed , though, could be too tempting for Martz and coach Mike Nolan to resist. He ran his routs hard and seemed to be healthy. We’ll find out today whether he earned a job. The 49ers must cut their roster to 53 by 1 p.m.
“It’s out of my control,” Lelie said. “I know how I feel about myself as a player.”
If nothing else, Friday night’s helped confirm that Martz made the right call by choosing J.T. O’Sullivan over Smith as his starting quarterback.
O’Sullivan had the night off. Smith started, and although he made some nice throws, he also made the type of mistakes that killed his chances to win the starting job.
Smith was intercepted twice. On the first misfire, Smith badly overthrew a wide-open Battle deep in Chargers territory. Cornerback Cletis Gordon caught the gift.
On his second interception, Smith forced a pass to wide receiver Jason Hill into double coverage. The pass was deflected, and Gordon grabbed it for his second theft of the night. If Gordon hadn’t dropped a Smith pass in the first quarter, he would have had an interception hat trick.
In the second, he made amends, of sorts, throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Billy Bajema. Smith rolled right and threw as he was hit. Bajema made a great fingertip catch along the right sideline inside the 5, then spun away from a defender and sprinted into the end zone.
On that play, Smith trusted Bajema to be at the right spot and unloaded his pass before Bajema made his break. It was the type of pass Martz has been trying to get Smith to throw.
“I let it go and made a good play,” Smith said.