For 49er season ticket holders, preseason means paying regular season prices for XFL level of play. Five o'clock Thursday start times, mean that by 5:30 Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia have already hit the showers, just missing the late rush of fans filtering in from work. But after seven months of LeBron, Questec and a man they call Jiggy (Hockey, anyone?), football has returned to bring sanity back to sports fans' lives.

With Stockton fading into the sunset, the 49ers arrive in Santa Clara a week from now to build from the failed expectations of the Mariucci era. Dennis Erickson comes to San Francisco equipped with new ideas for a team that looks remarkably similar to the one that finished 11-7 a year ago. Coming off of a 2002 campaign in which the team won their first postseason game since 1998, and with their star player heading into free agency following the upcoming season, the team needs a deep run into the playoffs to return to their place among the elite teams in the league.

"When you say San Francisco 49ers, that is different than anything else," said Erickson upon his hiring. "When you walk into our building you see those Super Bowl trophies down there and you look at the pictures of the guys who played and it's pretty nostalgic to me."

Pretty picture, now get to work.

The 49ers head to training camp with an array of questions they need to answer before the season starts September 7. The team lost two starters on the defensive line, and must find an answer to their inefficiencies in the secondary and third down. Jeff Garcia's numbers dropped considerably from impressive 2000 and 2001 campaigns, and San Francisco was 14th in the league in points scored, a substantial fall from their #3 ranking the previous season. The defense also fell in points allowed, from #9 to 18. After a breakthrough season for the team in 2001, the team fell in the rankings in almost every statistical category. But with little done to address the concerns of the secondary in the off season, it will be up to the offense to pick up the slack.

Erickson has pledged to have a more wide open offensive attack this season, a refreshing change of pace for 49er fans who have grown weary of the three yard passing game. San Francisco ranked 26th in the league in yards per attempt last season, two spots behind Cincinnati, who finished 2-14 in 2002. Behind 2-time Pro Bowler Jeff Garcia, a repeat performance of last season would be a joke to a franchise rich in passing history.

However, the offense should be more dynamic with the three and four receiver sets that Erickson will employ this season. The team has three solid receivers in Owens, Streets and Wilson, and rookies Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle should provide for fun competition for the fourth receiver spot as the preseason unfolds.

"[Lloyd and Battle] are a little more polished than I had thought," Erickson said. "Brandon Lloyd had played in an offense similar to this, so he is very polished. Arnaz is a guy who has improved all the time because he hasn't played receiver. Those two in particular, we are happy with them. I'm happy where they are at right now."

But the key to the offenses' success will be the protection of Jeff Garcia. With four and five receivers on any given play, their will be less blockers to protect Garcia. Behind Pro Bowlers Jeremy Newberry and Ron Stone, and Pro Bowl snub Derrick Deese, the line held up well a season ago. Garcia was sacked only 18 times last season, 32nd in the league, compared to the 78 times David Carr of Houston hit the turf last season. But with the average age of the line nearing 30, will they be able handle the blitzing schemes of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Tampa Bay in the coming year?

The addition of Kwame Harris and the maturation of Kyle Kosier provides the team with much needed depth, as well as a glimpse towards the future.

"With Kwame Harris, we've been waiting to draft a big O-lineman for a long time and there he was, all 315 pounds of him," General Manager Terry Donahue said on draft day. "The good thing from our standpoint is that he is a big athlete who can bend his knees and move his feet. He's a big physical man. He can come in here and learn from our players that we have in the organization and we can bring him along at our own pace."

The 49ers coaching staff will keep a close eye on the performance of Harris and Kosier during the preseason. Without their main cog healthy at quarterback, the 49er machine will go nowhere. Keeping Garcia off his back will be key to the 49ers success each week.

At 32, and two major knee injuries in his past, Garrison Hearst will be pressed even more by emerging star Kevan Barlow. The team ranked sixth in rushing last season despite not having a thousand yard rusher for the first time since 1996, due in large part to the increased playing time of Barlow. Playing behind Hearst for most of last season, Barlow managed a better yards per carry (4.7 to 4.5) and yards per reception (9.7 to 6.6) than Hearst. The third year back from Pittsburgh has also seen a steady increase in his playing time, and will see more under Erickson.

"We've got to get Barlow involved more than he was a year ago, there's no question about it," Erickson said, "It gives Garrison some time to rest up. So as the season goes on, he'll hang in there a lot better."

Hearst is still running strong entering his ninth year in the league. He had a career high in touchdowns last season with 8, and remained near his career average in yards per carry at 4.5 last season. He has averaged 4.4 yards per carry in his career. The competition for playing time between Hearst and Barlow should be fierce throughout the preseason.

"[Hearst] looks good. He's a great leader and understands what he's doing," Erickson said. "There's no substitution for the character of him and the experience that he has in all assets of it...pass protection, running the football. It's a good one-two punch with him and Barlow."

Preseason may be insignificant in the standings, but the questions answered and the problems that arise in the heat of summer can indicate how the team will fair during the season. The team carried a poor preseason into the beginning of the season last year, and with Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland on the schedule in the first three weeks of the season, the team cannot afford a repeat of last years early stumbles.

The preseason will be filled with many subplots, rookie hopefuls and waiver wire heroes, and despite the ridiculous ticket prices, should be fun to watch. Football, oh how we've missed you.