An NFL preseason—much like life, you could say—is a series of lessons. In the 49ers' preseason opener, the most important lesson was clear. The surprise, though, was who delivered it.
At roughly the 12-minute mark of the second quarter, the Vikings punted. Back deep for the Niners, where we never thought we'd see him again, was Kyle Williams. Amid a smattering of boos, he caught the punt cleanly, punctuated a 22-yard return with a dramatic leap, and went down to the ground, ball firmly in hand.
The lesson, the most important of all: 2011, with its countless pleasures and singularly unmistakable pain, is gone.
Ah yes, the pain. It's still there, casting its shadow. And where else would it be? That, as I've said, was our moment. In a fitting tribute to his final mentor, Jim Harbaugh summoned a 30-year-old magic, and one by one the hurdles crumbled. The Packers and their daunting home-field advantage? Gone. The Saints, with their unstoppable O and bountiful D? Gone. Suddenly we were hosting the NFC title game, with only the Giants between us and the Super Bowl, where the Patriots had no business waiting.
It was inevitable. After an offseason screwed by a lockout, a rookie coach would complete the most shocking feat in the history of the game. Nothing could stop him. Nothing, that is, except a backup punt-returner, forced to handle a moment too big.
A moment, our moment, was squandered.
So yeah. Even now, in this time of renewal, it's still there.
As a result, though of course we meet this preseason with the excitement that accompanies any genuine Super Bowl contender, that excitement is tinged with a strange desperation. The Super Bowl becomes not merely the goal that it always is, but also a kind of moral imperative: a requirement, to exorcize the ghosts of destiny thwarted.
Such thinking, though, is dangerous, primarily for what it assumes. Sure, it's tempting to demand that we seize that moment, this time around. But we can't assume the opportunity. We can't assume the moment will come.
Certainly the stat-heads have tried to temper our expectations. Always eager to spit in the face of conventional wisdom—since nothing sells like contrarianism—Football Outsiders, and later Grantland, boldly declared that we'll be lucky to see even a winning record, much less another shot at the Super Bowl. Pointing to all the usually random stuff that last year seemed to go our way—injuries, turnovers, results of close games—they proudly predicted a "regression to the mean": a return to normalcy, and thus mediocrity.
But these stat-heads have merely done what tends to make them so irritating: they've tried to prove empirically what any idiot already knows. Unquestionably, the Niners' success was a product of greatness; but it was just as much a product of magic. Until Williams came on the scene, every friggin' thing went right. We can't expect that to happen again. (Cue Aldon Smith being carted away.) Greatness sustains, but magic dissolves.
On paper, we're great. But we can't begin to count on the magic.
Of course, we can regress to the mean without regressing all the way to 7-and-9. We're still in the NFC West, after all, so 11-and-5 still sounds about right. But, again, the simple point. Last season's gone. We can hope for a redux, but we can't expect it. And we certainly can't allow the pain to force us into demanding it.
This extends to the players too; when things go south, they can't just wait for the magic to save them. It's up to Harbaugh to keep their focus. And though of course he deserves our unwavering trust, his own focus has seemed to be strangely unsteady. Though previously he rightly ignored the silly ravings of the blogosphere, lately they've been a peculiar obsession. In May, offering an unsolicited defense of Alex Smith, he drew a cryptic distinction between "evaluating" Peyton Manning and "pursuing" him, dismissing reports of the latter as "silliness and phoniness." He'd hoped to "set the record straight"—though no one seems to understand why—and he was appalled to learn he'd done anything but. And two months later, even more strangely, he rushed to A.J. Jenkins' defense, bashing the "so-called experts" who'd been "clueless" enough to poo-poo his top pick. He even vowed to keep a list of those pundits' names, promising them "an 'I told you so.' "
This was disturbing. Harbaugh's the reigning Coach of the Year; he should be well above this fray. By even professing to care about what the media say—and especially by trying to control it—he comes across as unhinged and distracted. You've got bigger issues, Coach. Everything came so easy last year, some of us are lifting Lombardi already. It's up to you to keep us focused. You'd better make sure that you're focused yourself.
Then again, maybe you already realize this. After all, when it was time to pick a punt-returner for the opener, you're the one who picked Kyle Williams.
Somehow, we should've known. Because of the pain, some of us wanted him cut on the spot; the rest of us would've settled for never seeing him return kicks again. Yet Harbaugh, of course, sent him right back out there, giving his soldier some measure of redemption. But intentionally or no, Harbaugh was making a larger point.
2011 is over now. Take from it whatever you want: the soaring highs, the crushing lows, or any or all of the above. But once you take it, lock it away. Lock away the pleasures; they won't help us win this year. And more importantly, lock away the pain.
Our moment is gone, and nothing this season can bring it back.
But it's 2012, a brand-new year. Some brand-new moments surely await.