The fortunes of professional sports teams are fickle. Take the Bay Area, for example. The Giants are early into what appears to be another decade of success following the disappointment of 2011. The frugal A’s are in the midst of an unlikely playoff push following years of inadequacy. The Warriors, largely hapless since the 2006-07 “We Believe” season, have rebuilt virtually their entire program in the past year. The Raiders are in yet another rebirth, this one a little more hopeful than previous incarnations. And the Sharks, well, they consistently win and consistently disappoint when it matters.
And then there are the 49ers. Just a year removed from many prognosticators saying they would struggle to be competitive in the mediocre NFC West, the Niners are now pegged by those same experts as among the favorites to go to the Super Bowl.
That is why they play the games and don’t let some computer simulate the season.
The optimism for this edition of the 49ers is justified. A tough-as-nails defense that was among the best units in the NFL is anchored by linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and defensive lineman Justin Smith.
The Niners were the toughest team in the NFL to run against last year and, thanks to the second-most interceptions in the league, teams also had difficulty relying on the pass.
The other side of the ball is where the questions lie. Former No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith finally received the coaching that allowed him to develop into a reliable quarterback, while Frank Gore spearheaded a physical running game. The receiving corps, including sometimes-dynamic tight end Vernon Davis, were inconsistent. But the front office added pieces in the offseason to make the offense a more versatile threat.
But the overnight transformation didn’t happen by some stroke of luck.
It happened because of a driven man with a meticulous plan. Jim Harbaugh, a rather pedestrian quarterback during his NFL playing days, worked his way up the coaching ladder before jumping at the chance to guide the 49ers before last season. Even the lack of an offseason program and training camp due to labor strife didn’t diminish his drive or deter his plan.
Harbaugh’s effervescence is contagious. He is a players’ coach, one who can relate to the challenges of the modern-day player while still maintaining his demand for excellence.
That demand will be tested this year, beginning with Sunday’s season opener at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, who went 15-1 in 2011, a year after winning the Super Bowl.
But to be the best, you have to beat the best. And while San Francisco is losing its grip on the team, which gave The City five Super Bowl championships, as it moves into a new stadium in Santa Clara in 2014, there is one thing we know for sure:
Who’s got it better? Nobody.