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Legendary 49er receiver Jerry Rice gained notoriety not only for his Hall-of-Fame-caliber on-field exploits, but for his intensive training as well, particularly the "running of the hill." Nor did he quit his uphill regimen once he reached the assumed pinnacle of his profession; on the contrary, he kept ascending. The current 49ers face a similar challenge. Atop the obstacle they must still scale perches the Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of the NFL championship. They got close two years ago, and even closer last year. But make no mistake. This organization seeks not some second-best side-ridge, but the summit itself. They want the trophy.
However, their climb will get harder this year, maybe much harder.
Oddsmakers, post-draft, have installed the 49ers as favorites to win the Super Bowl. This testifies to the team's excellence, but also somewhat to the Niners' popularity, since the great gambling houses set odds not necessarily to predict a winner, but to enable themselves to harvest the highest possible net vigorish from bettors wagering approximately equal amounts on all sides. In either case, the 49ers' excellence and renewed popularity, evident among those who buy NFL merchandize and memorabilia, will serve to motivate other teams. Each week, the 49ers will get their opponent's best game.
As recently as 2010, the Seahawks won the NFC West with a losing record. That same 7-9 record in 2013 just might mean a last-place finish in the same division. We will wait for the season to play out before we pronounce the 2013 NFC West as historically strong. But, going in, 2010 it ain't.
Traditionally, inter-divisional games provide teams with some of their most problematic matchups. From playing, minimally, twice a year, familiarity with schemes, tendencies, and individual players' strengths and weaknesses mitigate many of the usual advantages of dominant teams. But the 49ers in particular now face in the NFC West three coaches capable of savvy game-to-game and in-game adjustments. Admittedly, Arizona's Bruce Arians remains somewhat of a wild card, but, off his interim performance with the Colts last year, he may be a comer. Pete Carroll, as well we know, knows Harbaugh well, going back to their Pac 12 days. Beyond that, he ranks as one of the best defensive minds in football. Likewise Jeff Fisher, also a former 49ers coach during the glory days, understands how to stymie an offense. In fact, Fisher's resume lacks but a Super Bowl victory to merit future Hall-of-Fame consideration. Of course, most 49er faithful would not trade the Niners' staff for any team's; neither, likely, would Ram or Seahawk fans swap their coaches.
The 49ers' divisional rivals have also loaded up with talent the last couple of years, and, while Arizona still lags, the Cards had a strong draft. Eastward, the Rams continue to close fast, bolstering their roster with bounty from the RG3 trade. The Seahawks may have closed the talent-gap completely, or even pulled ahead. Meanwhile, the Niners' propensity for trading for future picks may become more difficult to accomplish as other teams realize the value of those future picks and become increasingly loath to trade them away. As Baalke admitted when asked about just these sort of possible trades in the 2013 draft, the phones just weren't ringing.
The 49ers, for the foreseeable future, will play a big-boy schedule, and not just because they have a first-place team's slate. As a team becomes more popular and fun-to-watch, the league schedules them for more oddly spaced and time-zone-spanning contests to attract viewers and their concomitant advertisers: more night games, more workday-week games, even trans-ocean games.
Finally, the regression-to-the-mean syndrome can swamp even the stoutest squad. A freak injury here, an unlucky bounce there, a misjudged decision anywhere, can send even a superb team's record the couple notches down that demote them from a first-week playoff bye to a scrambling-for-a-wild-card slot. Does anybody besides the home team want to play in Seattle come January?
Of course neither the 49ers nor their coach gives any quarter, nor do they expect any. And they have proved their mettle in inhospitable venues from New Orleans to New England to playoff-ready Atlanta. Also, the other NFC West teams themselves will face these same challenges, should they continue to progress.
Many teams that in retrospect eventually come to be regarded as dynastic gain a hallmark early victory either through luck (Patriots in the tuck game) or through their unexpected arrival seemingly out of nowhere. Dwight Clark's "The Catch" looms iconically in 49er lore in part because he himself seemed to drop out of nowhere, as indeed did the team for which he played, to dispatch the at-the-time America's team, the Dallas Cowboys. Should the current 49ers win one, or more, Super Bowls, few will ascribe their victory to luck, nor will they arrive unexpectedly from nowhere. They've missed out on that serendipitous first championship, and so will have to follow the paths of powerhouses such as the Steelers or Packers to achieve all-time-great status.
For the favorite, the climb for the Lombardi Trophy gets steeper, harder, and, yes, more crowded, with each successive season. In other words, the 49ers may field a better team this year than the ones in 2011 and 2012, and still fall short of those teams' records. But yield not, ye faithful. The Niner organization built this team not for this year alone, nor for a few-year window, but for the sustained excellence to match, and perhaps exceed, the exalted heights of their illustrious predecessors. Whether they reach those heights, and perhaps pluck a few Lombardi trophies along the way, we have yet to see. But the watching should be grand. And, in all gratitude, we have to ask ourselves: as professional football fans, who has it better than us?