Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Long Road Back

Q: How will you remember your breakout 2012 season?

Colin Kaepernick: As not being good enough

It's been 7 rather long months since the 49ers walked off the carpet of the Louisiana Superdome after a 34-31 Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. To say that that defeat has stung this team and all of their fans would be an understatement. Thinking about that game for me is akin to, say, thinking about Game 6 in '99. After an uneven, mistake-filled 1st half, the 49ers got it together, rallied, and almost pulled off the comeback of comebacks. But, we know what happened. They got within 5 yards of the goal, but no closer. The 49ers were probably the better team on the field that day, but the Ravens played the better game. Sometimes, that's all that matters.

You try to take the silver linings from these games and file them away as much as possible. Maybe it's because I follow the 49ers so much, and so I pay more attention to it, but it's rare that the team that loses the Super Bowl emerges with higher regard than the team that won. Sure, everyone will be gunning for the Ravens this season, and everyone will be gunning for the 49ers as well. But when you consider everyone's short list of Super Bowl contenders this season, the 49ers are at or near the top every time. And nobody has been drawing attention quite as much as Colin Kaepernick, who, believe it or not, will enter his first full season as the starting Quarterback this weekend.

Throughout the Baseball season, when I would pause for a moment and think about the 49ers, I often considered the similarities between Colin Kaepernick and our own Matt Harvey. Certainly, their backgrounds differ quite a bit, although Kaepernick was in fact the property of the Chicago Cubs, where he was at one time a pitching prospect. But it's less a matter of them both being well-built physical specimens who can hurl their respective axes through a brick wall with astonishing accuracy. I think more about the manner in which they each burst onto the scene. I think about the attitude, the way they carry themselves, and their work ethic. These are two individuals that appear mostly impervious to the media crush and the glare of stardom. Colin Kaepernick's 10th career start as an NFL Quarterback was in the Super Bowl. Matt Harvey had been in the Major Leagues 2 weeks shy of a calendar year before starting the All Star Game. Both players spent large swaths of their respective offseasons working out and honing their craft. For Kaepernick, this meant meeting with several of his receivers in Atlanta 2 weeks following the Super Bowl for workouts. It meant training with Olympic track athletes. It went beyond simply Football. Harvey was known to go out and throw bullpens at Citi Field in early January. Beyond Baseball. You can tell by the way they speak in interviews. Kaepernick shouldered much of the blame for the Super Bowl himself, feeling he made too many early mistakes to recover from. Harvey often spoke of his desire to maximize his efficiency to pitch deeper into games. But in each case, they've backed up their talk with performance. I said at the time, and I still believe that Kaepernick's performance in the Super Bowl was heroic. He dragged the 49ers kicking and screaming back into the game, threw for over 300 yards and damn near pulled off the comeback to win it. Harvey hasn't had the opportunity to perform on quite that bright a stage as yet, but certainly the 3 times he's taken No Hitters into the 7th inning speaks for itself.

But if there's a cautionary tale to this comparison, it's that it's all very fragile. Just as Harvey's brilliant season was winding down, he was felled by an arm injury, the severity of which could knock him out until 2015. Kaepernick has certainly managed to avoid injuries, but his style of play leaves him susceptible to something freaky happening. But it's not just Kaepernick who has to worry about the specter of injuries. The 49ers have already been bitten by the injury bug far more often than they had been in recent years. Michael Crabtree, for one, was felled by an achilles injury that leaves his season in doubt. Other players like Mario Manningham, LaMichael James and Patrick Willis are also ailing. In Manningham's case, he's still recovering from a knee injury he suffered last season.

The NFL is an odd bird, though. Teams can go off the track for a variety of reasons. It may not be the potential injuries that could derail Kaepernick. It could simply be the fragility of the NFL season. I've mentioned it in the past, but the NFL season is a weird beast that comes and goes like a blur. There's but 16 games to prove you're good enough to compete for the big prize, and it not only takes talent, but it takes good breaks and the skill to know how to overcome the bad ones. It takes getting hot at the right time. It takes keeping one step ahead of the competition, knowing how to always beat them to the punch and striking before they can strike you. That's what the 49ers are facing as they attempt to get back to the Super Bowl.

Some of the faces have changed this time around. Last season, the 49ers returned all 11 of their defensive starters. This year, only 9 return. Another peril of today's NFL is that the rosters of winning teams are regularly poached of key players. Gone are valuable contributors like Dashon Goldson, Delanie Walker and Ted Ginn. David Akers and Alex Smith are also gone. They've been replaced, but it remains to be seen how these new pieces will fit in. Replacing Goldson, for example, is Rookie Eric Reid. Top to bottom, the 49ers will likely be a great team once again, but many feel that they may not even be the best team in their own division. The Seattle Seahawks, the Hot Team that kicked the 49ers in the face late last season, with their irksome coach and amphetamine addicted defense, have become everyone's chic pick. Many publications I've read have picked the Seahawks to go all the way to the Super Bowl, beating the 49ers in the playoffs along the way. In fact, their Quarterback, Russell Wilson, has been lumped in with Kaepernick as "The Next Generation" of the NFL. The two meetings these teams will have are certainly must-watch games (and they've developed a real Mets/Phillies-style shit-talking hatred for each other). Other teams like the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins, New York Giants, and Sunday's opponent, the Green Bay Packers will also be gunning for the 49ers. The road is not going to be easy. We already learned that last year, when the 49ers lost some puzzling, frustrating games and lacked consistency through much of the regular season. This season will probably be even tougher, considering how close the 49ers came, and just how tough it is to get all the way back.

If they can get all the way back.

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