The San Francisco 49ers lost another game on the road—this time 20-17 at Seattle, on kicker Olindo Mare's 30-yard field goal at the gun—as is their wont, and the defeat, coupled with Arizona's surprisingly easy humiliation of the Vikings later in the evening just about assured that they will spend another season watching the playoffs rather than participating in them.
However, while most fans and even columnists are doom-and-gloom and fatalistic about the team, and, while yesterday's loss might feel like the most bitter one yet, this too shall pass.
Speaking of passing, quarterback Alex Smith's seemingly overnight transformation from ginormous bust to top-15 NFL starter is not just the team's biggest reason for optimism going forward, but also one of the league's most unnoticed developments, as well.
The Titans' Vince Young is getting all the praise, and, deservedly so, for turning his flagging career around, but, over the past six-and-a-half games, Smith has played every bit as well as Young, if not better.
It might appear as though the world is ending for most 49ers' supporters since once again, for the seventh-straight year, they won't make the postseason, but it says here that streak will end in 2010.
Here are two scenarios, for you, Joe 49ers Fan, that could've been available before the season started, and you take the one that looks more favorable in the long view.
This is Scenario A.
The team plays Shaun Hill at quarterback all year, cobbles together nine ugly wins, finishes 9-7, wins its division, gets the tar beat out of them in the opening playoff game by some NFC East Wild Card team, such as Dallas or Philadelphia, and they still have no idea what their long-term answer is at quarterback.
Most likely, they'll have to draft one, such as Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen or Texas' Colt McCoy, in the first round next year, and spend the next two years grooming him so the team might—might—be competitive in 2012, if he's not a bust and also if the world doesn't collapse in on itself like in that John Cusack movie.
Does that sound fun, boys and girls?
Now, instead, I offer you Scenario B.
The team suffers through its growing pains as Alex Smith reignites his career, they break in two new, but promising, receivers in Josh Morgan and Michael Crabtree, they develop a radically different but effective offensive philosophy in midseason, they have better draft position for next April, and they don't have to waste any time, money, or effort in drafting and developing a new quarterback.
When you put it that way, it's a fairly easy decision, no?
Do the 49ers have holes? Absolutely.
As many holes as a block of Swiss cheese? Absolutely not.
The team needs to find a couple of maulers to help out Frank Gore for the running game, a defensive end to bookend Justin Smith, a full-time return man, and a fleet, yet physical corner.
It's tempting to say the secondary needs wholesale personnel changes, but it's also overly dramatic.
Dashon Goldson is in his first year as a starting free safety, and Shawntae Spencer is only one season removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
They both figure to play better next season.
The pass rush from the front seven has been inconsistent, but the 49ers are tied for seventh in the league with 30 sacks.
The troubling aspect of that stat is that 16 of those sacks have come in three games, meaning that they've only mustered 14 quarterback takedowns in the other nine.
They are starting to blitz with more regularity of late, and the 11 sacks they've registered the past two games is a decent indication that defensive coordinator Greg Manusky should've been dialing them up a long time ago.
So there you have it. 2009 will go down as a learning year.
Both the players and coaches learned what they're good at and what they have to improve upon.
Some answers can be found within, and some have to be imported by virtue of the draft and the free agent market.
At least from here, it looks like the 49ers are set up with the best quarterback situation in the division.
Arizona's Kurt Warner, if he doesn't retire this season, then surely 2010 will be it for him.
Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck is injury-prone and a shell of his old self. Ditto for St. Louis and Marc Bulger.
Both of those teams will probably be looking at the draft for their next franchise saviors.
Already, the 49ers are a step ahead.
Fans have to stay patient.
Slowly but surely, the team is marching in the right direction.
Good things are happening here.