Liotta: Young 49ers team is progressing toward legitimacy

The 49ers are close. I really think so.

I realize the last two performances have come with disappointments, but if you look at this team’s body of work in 2009 going into its last two games — this afternoon against the Lions and next week in St. Louis versus the Rams — it is full of positive signs.

Big picture positives: a 5-2 home record that indicates Candlestick Park is becoming a well-defended home field, and a better-than-it-looked 1-6 road record that includes five of the six losses coming by six points or less. Promising.

The 49ers are a good, young team, and I’m emphasizing young. Every key core player on the 49ers’ roster is young in terms of being a professional football player. And what we’ve learned in 2009 is that the difference between a young, talented team learning to win and a talented, battle-tested veteran squad can be small by comparison, but huge by results.

Really good veteran-led NFL teams don’t win that many more games in a season than the 49ers have won in 2009. What those teams do so much better than the 49ers is allow their opponents to lose a few football games.

Those teams don’t let little things like penalties or faulty execution disrupt them. And they don’t make mistakes in the form of turnovers that undo all the other good they’ve done in a football game.

It’s hard enough to win a game in the NFL. To have to win it a second time after a turnover makes it that much more difficult.
Veteran teams play with consistency. Young teams see their performances vary wildly.

For 45 minutes, a young team can look like a world-beater, only to give up whatever advantage they’ve earned over the final 15 minutes.

Or that young team can fall behind by a couple of scores before getting its act together and battling to the bitter end. Sound familiar?

The unfortunate part of the 49ers’ growth this season is that nothing is guaranteed moving forward.

Will Alex Smith play like a franchise quarterback? No promises there.

Will injuries disrupt a talented squard on either side of the ball? Can’t control that.

What actually has to happen for the 49ers to reach title contention in the year to come is that they have to grow up. And that is not a given.

Mike Singletary has said over and over again that this team has no idea how good it can be — it may be the most accurate statement we’ve heard this season. He sees the talent. He sees the athleticism.

And he also sees how his 53-man roster shoots itself in the foot.

There is little margin for error at the highest levels of this league. Look at the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints after 15 weeks — two good teams suddenly on shaky ground. Look at the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Make the most out of the talent, minimize the mistakes. That’s what it takes if a team wants a chance to win a Super Bowl.
The 49ers aren’t there yet. But they’re close.

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