The window of opportunity is open wide right now, and when the San Francisco 49ers and their fans look through it they see nothing but sunny skies and a bright future.
That’s what the world looks like to an NFL team in June, especially one that’s coming off a trip to the NFC Championship Game.
In the recently concluded Niners mini-camp, optimism reigned. New wide receiver Randy Moss and cornerback addition Perrish Cox got rave reviews. Alex Boone looked strong as a replacement for Adam Snyder at right guard. Tight end Vernon Davis – who came up so big in the playoffs – picked up right where he left off. And head coach Jim Harbaugh was the perpetual prince of positivity even about first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, the wide receiver from Illinois who showed up out of shape and often appeared lost and ineffective on the field.
“He’s right on track,” Harbaugh told reporters last week. “A.J. Jenkins is going to be just fine.”
Yet while there is justifiable reason for optimism, there are reasons for caution as well, and defensive end Justin Smith has served an important notice. His message: the future is now.
The entire defense has returned, key players are healthy, the offense should be better after a year under Harbaugh’s system and with the addition of some playmakers, such as Moss, Mario Manningham, rookie running back LaMichael James and veteran running back Brandon Jacobs.
But Smith says the time for the 49ers to win it all is now, during this window of opportunity. In the NFL, such a window can close quickly because of age and injury.
“With some of the guys we have, and with free agency and things like that, we’re not going to be able to keep this team forever together,” Smith told the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows. “Even age-wise, you know? The whole team won’t be the same.
“I’m kind of stressing, ‘Let’s go about this in a way that we’re kind of focused. … We’re not rebuilding. Let’s do it this year and see what happens next year.”
Smith, 32, the dominating physical presence up front for the Niners, knows that the bulk of his career is over. If he wants to win a ring, it will have to be quick.
“I figure I’ve got three more good years in me, four more good years,” he told Barrows. Smith added, “Time is of the essence for me, personally. … I think everyone feels the urgency, and we’ve got guys right now. Let’s not wait.”
This season, too, the 49ers won’t sneak up on anyone. Last year, with a shortened training camp, a new coach and coming off another disappointing season, the Niners were the surprise story of the NFL.
Starting in September, they’ll be a target for every team they play. There will be no sneaking up.
Smith, too, says he never wants to experience the letdown he felt last season, after losing the NFC Championship Game to the Giants. Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, “It makes me that much more hungry.”
If the Niners want to get their fill, 2012 would be the time to do it. That window can close at any moment.