It’s the most wonderful time of the year

No more games that don’t matter. No more empty talk. No more searching for meaning in the dreaded preseason.

The NFL season is officially back Thursday.

And that means different things for the Bay Area’s two teams.

For the San Francisco 49ers: Will Chip Kelly be able to shake whatever it was that haunted him on the East Coast and become the innovative coach he promised to be when he was introduced?

Meanwhile in the East Bay, the Oakland Raiders are bracing for grand expectations from fans, players and experts who project they’ll compete with the defending champion Denver Broncos for the AFC West title.

But at this time of year, optimism reigns supreme — no matter who your favorite team is.

The Niners kick off their season for the second-straight year in the late Monday Night Football game. The contest will mark the re-beginning of the Los Angeles Rams, who moved from St. Louis during the summer.

(Unfortunately for Cal fans, they’ll most likely have to wait to see former Golden Bear quarterback Jared Goff make his NFL debut as he’s currently behind Case Keenum and Sean Mannion on the depth chart.)

The Raiders launch their season on the road against the New Orleans Saints, a team that will test the retooled Oakland defense, which was fortified in the offseason as a part of a series of savvy moves by general manager Reggie McKenzie.

Expectations may differ between the two teams, but this is a time for hopes and dreams. Because even bad football is better than no football.

Gabbert gets the call as starting QB

The San Francisco 49ers finalized their 53-man roster on Saturday, and the team constitution promises to be in a state of flux throughout the season.

What is certain for now: Blaine Gabbert will be the starting quarterback for Week 1 against the Rams next Monday and the wide receiver position remains a major point of uncertainty.

“I think [Gabbert’s] whole body of work from April until today” is what won him the job, head coach Chip Kelly said in a conference call with reporters on Saturday. “I think his grasp and command of what we’re doing. I think he’s a good fit for what we want to get accomplished, and I have a lot of confidence for what he can do for us offensively.”

Gabbert didn’t exactly shine in the preseason: In limited reps over three games, the former first-round pick went 12-for-22 for 146 yards. He regularly looked hesitant to throw to the outside and downfield, preferring to dink and dump down the field.

That reluctance to take chances could be a result of growing pains as Kelly implements his new offense that stresses quick decision making and executing the safe play, or it could reflect Gabbert’s reluctance to test receivers with little experience.

Outside of Torrey Smith, who went catchless on one target in the preseason, the 49ers have a serious dearth of experience at the position. Quinton Patton projects to be the second WR on the depth chart, and could be one of the few true playmakers on offense.

The team did make a deal to bolster their pass-catching corps by trading for Rod Streater to fill Eric Rogers’ role after he tore his ACL during training camp. The team also added Jeremy Kerley from the Detroit Lions to help out in formations that require a slot receiver. (Bruce Ellington has been ruled out for the season with a torn hamstring.)

“[Streater has] proven he can play,” Kelly said about the former Oakland Raider. “To get another outside receiver to complement Torrey Smith and Quinton Patton, we felt like it was a maneuver we had to make.”

Most surprising cut

After shining in the preseason with six sacks — leading the NFL — Marcus Rush was released by the 49ers to ensure the team carried three outside linebackers.

Rush was added to the practice squad after clearing waivers.


The San Francisco front office hopes Carlos Hyde continues his current rehab pace as he’s expected to be ready for the season opener, according to Kelly.

Hyde is one of the more talented rushers in the NFL and could flourish running read-option plays in the new offense in Santa Clara.

Becoming a pass catcher as the team said they’d like to see, though, will remain a work in progress.

Preseason means little to sturdy Raiders

Fans don’t know how much longer the Oakland Raiders will reside in the Bay Area, but they should have fun teams to enjoy on the way out.

This year, Derek Carr returns as a near top-10 quarterback in his third NFL season. He’s led an offensive revival for the Silver and Black and comes equipped with two top-flight receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.

And this isn’t the one-dimensional Oakland teams of the past due to general manager Reggie McKenzie’s fruitful offseason. He acquired pass rushing menace Bruce Irvin and defensive backs Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith to augment a defense that already features the other worldly Khalil Mack.

Everybody seems to love the on-field Raiders: Pro Football Focus ranks their offensive line as the second-best in the league, their front-seven in fifth, secondary ninth and quarterback 11th.

And for these reasons, there were few questions to answer during the preseason, just time to bide.

“We stayed relatively healthy — thank God for that — and we’re gearing up for the regular season,” head coach Jack Del Rio told reporters, rightly shrugging off concerns about their 1-3 preseason record.

The division rival Denver Broncos still have a world-class defense, and predicting the NFL season is always a crapshoot due to inevitable injuries and setbacks. But, Oakland should feel good about its chances to make the playoffs this season for the first time since 2002.

Most surprising cut

George Atkinson III, whose father is a former longtime Raider, was released on Saturday, securing Taiwan Jones’ spot as the third running back. Atkinson III played well in the near meaningless final preseason game, rushing for 56 yards on seven carries.

He was eligible to make the Raiders’ practice squad if he cleared waivers, but instead was claimed by the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

What to watch for

Cooper and Crabtree lining up against a much maligned Saints secondary in the season opener should offer both teams insight into the potential impact of their offseason improvements. (Have the two big-play receivers made the leap to being the best duo in the league? Or, do the Saints still have a liability in the defensive backfield despite shedding Brandon Browner?)

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