The expectation levels for the San Francisco 49ers between this week and the corresponding week in the 2011 preseason are starkly opposed.
In 2011, we were hoping the new rookie coach could somehow eke out a winning season. Heck, we were hoping he could begin to repair a bit of the mess left by several previous coaching staffs. Predictions of an 8-8 season were common, if a bit generous and overly hopeful.
Some thought the 49ers had a slight chance to take the NFC West, if all of the other three teams faltered. The term "rebuilding" was common. Predictions of a three-year building period were suggested.
In 2011, it was assumed that Alex Smith, having run an unofficial minicamp because of the player lockout, was assumed to have a slight inside track for becoming the starting quarterback. A lot of controversy over this was written in these and other pages. Justifications for his replacement were numerous.
This year, the only minor controversy is whether Smith’s one-year opt-out clause will be any kind of factor at all on his new ongoing contract. He has evolved from ho-hum to game manager to an efficient and reliable clutch quarterback, in spite of the wear and tear caused by 44 sacks during the season.
Frank Gore, the mainstay rusher going into the 2011 season is still the mainstay, but now he has a supporting cast that will help his efficiency and take some of the load off of his veteran body. No one predicted the fullback would be re-trained from a college defensive end who was drafted 211th as an outside linebacker.
Michael Crabtree, in 2011 known as a self-absorbed me-first type, has developed into a competent downfield blocker and sure-handed receiver. He also has been augmented with a new and talented supporting cast, which should improve both third-down and red-zone efficiency for the 49ers.
Now, with Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to also draw attention from corners, Crabtree stands to have a very good year.
The porous corners we all worried about this week in 2011 have morphed into interception central and a Pro Bowl quality, respected and even feared secondary.
The lack of an elite and unstoppable pass-rusher was satisfied in spades by the addition of the first-round rookie Aldon Smith, who accumulated 14 sacks while doing part-time duty.
An experienced and elite defensive 11 who are all returning in 2012 promises to continue the ball-hawking turnovers that rated first in the league in 2011. That came as a complete surprise.
An offensive line over which much hand-wringing occurred came together as a unit and began the process of becoming a force in the league.
But what kept hopes and enthusiasm leaping week by week was not just the incredible defense—it was the wins that came week after week after week.
Wins at Candlestick, wins on the road against premiere teams in their houses, improbable, narrow and down-to-the-last-second wins with clutch throws and impossible catches.
The 49ers were back, baby, and they were back in a big way. Bay area sports were entertaining again.
We found we could believe. It blindsided us all.
With training camp convening next weekend, eager eyes will be on these pages for information, advice and just rooting for the 49ers.
The feeling about the 49ers this year is a stark difference from last year.
I like this year better.