Friday, September 5, 2014

The Impossible Hump

It is tough enough, in today's NFL landscape, to maintain a string of repeated success. The league simply isn't good enough and talent ends up spread around too thin for that to happen. But the 49ers had appeared primed to buck that trend in the Jim Harbaugh era. In Harbaugh's three seasons as head coach of the 49ers, they went to three Conference Championships and one Super Bowl. Nothing to be ashamed of.

But considering that the three seasons ended with the 49ers losing when they were right on the precipice of victory makes it particularly frustrating. I think that's been well-documented. Sometimes you'd rather not even get there than get there repeatedly and lose.

So much of the 49ers offseason has been predicated around "getting over the hump." Winning that Conference Championship, getting past their rival Seahawks who have already won their title, and bringing home a 6th Super Bowl Championship for the franchise. The pieces for such a run are certainly in place and have been so for a few years now. But in spite of the talent that exists and has been added to with the acquisitions of Antoine Bethea on defense and Stevie Johnson on offense combined with a healthy Michael Crabtree, it seems like there's still a lot to overcome.

Eerie harbingers have dotted the 49ers offseason, things that hadn't come up over the past few seasons. Harbaugh, always a hothead, was nearly traded to Cleveland in a bizarre set of circumstances that brought to light difficulties he'd been having with GM Trent Baalke. Colin Kaepernick went through an arduous contract negotiation that resulted in a new 6-year deal, and followed that up by being implicated in a sexual assault accusation that turned out to be false. Vernon Davis held out. Alex Boone held out. Aldon Smith continued to have personal difficulties and ended up being handed a 9-game suspension. Navorro Bowman remains sidelined from his gruesome knee injury, return unknown. Kendall Hunter and Glen Dorsey suffered major injuries in training camp.

And to top it all off, there's a report circulating that Jim Harbaugh, who still has two years remaining on his contract, may be beginning to lose the clubhouse following some practice decisions he'd made during training camp. Veteran players are wondering about his level of commitment and perhaps he's coaching with one foot out the door.

The level of talent that a team has can sometimes be enough to overcome locker room dischord. But you wonder if the injuries and the controversy combined with that might begin to fracture the team. Add in three years of near-misses and you can't help but be concerned that the 49ers might be headed for a major regression season. It's enough of a fear that, as the season has drawn closer, it's been brought up more and more frequently. Particularly when you consider that the 49ers slogged through a 2-2 preseason where very little seemed to click and every game was disjointed. People still seem to feel that the 49ers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and well they should be. But take a look at what happened to Atlanta last season and it's a more-than-cautionary tale. Sometimes, a team can only have so much happen to it before things start to come apart. It's not just the NFL. Sure, it happened to the Falcons last year as they went from 13-3 to 4-12. You can draw just as much from everything that's happened to the Mets since 2006 to see how quickly these things can dissolve.

But it's all hearsay until it happens. The 49ers are beginning a new season in a new stadium, Levi's Stadium. Colin Kaepernick has another year of experience under his belt, Anquan Boldin is back, Michael Crabtree is healthy, Vernon Davis has been on the field, and Patrick Willis still leads the defense. The entire season depends on whether or not they can ignore the controversy and the negative feelings and continue to play at the high level they've established these past few seasons. There's no way to know if it's enough to get over that hump they keep talking about. In fact, you really don't even know if it's going to be a season from hell until a few weeks in.

Last year, the 49ers were 1-2 and 6-4 at different points in their season and everyone was wondering where the season was going. In both cases, they managed to right their ship, eventually finished 12-4 and came within a Richard Sherman batted pass from a second consecutive Super Bowl trip. Buoyed by the challenge that the 49ers gave them, the Seahawks then went out and ate the Broncos for lunch in the Super Bowl. The 49ers are still looking for that moment in the spotlight with this group.

If they can pull that off after the offseason they've had, well, nobody can say they didn't earn it. But they've got to go out and do it.

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