After the first practice of training camp Thursday, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh described the feeling of his team as “relentlessly positive.”
And, after an offseason with several significant moves, San Francisco certainly is surrounded by high hopes entering the 2014 season.
After three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl appearance since taking over the team in 2011, Harbaugh’s excitement Thursday was effusive.
He said the first day of training camp is a big, exciting change from the offseason routine, when suddenly, he said, “It’s light, it’s bright, it’s noisy, it’s the crazy world of football.”
But while Harbaugh was his typical enthusiastic self and 49ers players expressed their happiness at getting back on the field and starting work toward 2014, others outside the organization have reservations.
In writing a preseason analysis on the Niners for USA Today this week, Steven Ruiz wondered if the 49ers’ magical run may soon lose steam.
“With the bulk of the team’s core group headed toward free agency in the next two years, the window for the franchise’s sixth (Super Bowl) championship is starting to close,” he wrote.
Certainly, the 49ers will have some decisions to make in 2015 and 2016, as the contracts of veterans expire. Wideout Michael Crabtree, running back Frank Gore, guard Mike Iupati and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey are among those whose contracts run out next season. In 2016, they’ll be followed by tight end Vernon Davis, defensive ends Ray McDonald and Justin Smith, linebacker Aldon Smith and receiver Anquan Boldin.
So, with all those decisions looming, 2014 may indeed be the time when the Niners need to make a championship happen. As Ruiz noted, “There is enough talent to contend for a Super Bowl.”
This week, in fact, the 49ers were ranked No. 2 in NBC Sports’ Preseason Power Rankings, and writer Curtis Crabtree argued that Harbaugh’s team is “again primed to push for a sixth Super Bowl title.”
But after three straight berths in the NFC Championship Game, can the 49ers make it four straight? In the NFL – where injuries and weird things happen every game – that’s difficult to achieve. The last NFC team to go to four straight conference championship games was the Philadelphia Eagles (2001-02 to 2004-05). And despite getting close, the Eagles didn't win a Super Bowl.
And the 49ers enter this season in the same division as the Super Bowl-champion Seahawks, who just happen to be the favorite to win this season’s Super Bowl.
If the 49ers’ future is now, though, they go into it well-armed. Additions at wide receiver and running back may be the fuel that powers San Francisco to a Super Bowl trophy in its fourth season under Harbaugh.
“Another year of experience from Colin Kaepernick and improved quality at the receiver position should make the passing game more efficient this season,” wrote NBC Sports’ Crabtree. “With a rock-solid rushing attack, the 49ers offense could be the best it has been with Kaepernick under center.”