In the off-season, football fans dream their teams to victory. "Surely, our team will contend for a championship this year." "Of course, our team has a stacked roster." "Certainly, our team had a top-tier draft." "Obviously, our coaching staff and general manager walk on water." I do this myself. It's part of the fun of being a fan. We spin every player's prospects positively. We imagine each possibility will turn out well. We become, however unwittingly, frontrunners, homers, bandwagon jumpers.
A realistic assessment of one's own team becomes even more difficult when the pressured-for-a-story media hop aboard that same bandwagon. Additionally, the current cult of positivity contorts efforts at objectivity, and further tips already-prejudiced analysis toward distended Panglossian proportions. To me, the following seem plausibly reasonable: the 49ers have a robust roster, strong management, and sterling coaches, and, moreover, the team will indeed contend for a Super Bowl title this year. How could I possibly be wrong? Why, I've scarcely considered such a possibility, let alone taken it seriously. However, just in case, let us count the ways:
Are the 49ers underrated? Unlikely. Everybody from the Las Vegas odds-makers to the ESPN crew rates the Niners highly.
Is the 49er roster really "stacked?" Everyone seems to think so, but, then, two sets of biases come into play: first, piling-on bias, from those who tend to hype the prevailing opinion; second, familiarity bias. Hardcore hometown fans know well their own team's rosters, read articles on individual players, project those players' future performances wishfully. Of course, other teams' hometown fans do the same, particularly with backups who have scarcely yet played, till we all mimic Lake Woebegoners, where every child is above average.
Is the coaching staff as sturdy as we like to think? Well, they wasted several timeouts last season. Harbaugh threw some misjudged challenge flags. I know, I know. I've made excuses for them, too.
Is Trent Baalke the new Solomon of draft-day wisdom? Too soon to tell, but remember the 2012 draft.
Is Colin Kaepernick the real deal? Because I've watched this kid closely since his freshman season at Nevada, I fervently hope so. But, given his inexperience, maybe not quite yet.
Have the 49ers peaked? From reading articles about the team's efforts to sustain success, I would have to say no. But they may have, temporarily, plateaued into a transition phase. In fact, last year, after Justin Smith's injury, the defense declined.
Which brings us to: Will the 2013 49ers stay as fortunate avoiding injuries as the 2011 and 2012 squads did? Yes, Justin Smith's injury torpedoed the team last season, and Aldon Smith's did nothing to help the post-season pass rush. But both those d-linemen at least still played. The Niners the last two years have not suffered the concentrated rash of injuries that devastate one position. Until, maybe, this season. What if, say, six more wideouts get hurt? Unlikely, admittedly. However, this sort of misfortune happens from time to time in the NFL. They're not playing tiddlywinks out there.
One can easily stay positive when things go well, especially when your team has, for real, recently demonstrated its excellence. Any deviation then from the party-line of "go home team," blind loyalty, and all-hail-the-victors can brand one as a naysayer, a gloom-and-doomster, or a gadfly in the ointment. Then, probing inquiries may dribble down to well-meaning quibbles. The hard questions go unasked. The status quo settles into supine complacency.
Maintaining a positive attitude matters most when things go poorly. Take the Michael Crabtree situation. First, we should consider staying positive in supporting Mr. Crabtree's rehab. Both the young man's health and his career are on the line. Second, both the coaching staff and Michael's teammates must, as I believe they will, rise to the challenge of replacing the team's best receiver. And they must not only replace Crab's sheer numbers, but the manner in which he got those stats. Crabtree has matured into a first-down-making machine.
A multitude of other positives may emerge from Crabtree's loss: The 49ers can now sort out the roles of their other receivers. The possibility of more playing time opens up for erstwhile backups. Colin Kaepernick sans Crabtree could distribute the pigskin less predictably. The loss of your number one receiver might ignite yet another burst of creativity from the team's game planners. The loss may force the coaches, though they sometimes hesitate to play youngsters, to utilize their wide-out depth chart to the max. Sure, the kids might biff some plays, but the game- day experience may prove invaluable on down the line.
Finally, a single setback season, should it occur, does not portend the irrevocable end of the Prospectors' football fortunes. Most great teams experience occasional setback seasons (for instance, the 1982 49ers) and teams that aspire to greatness must expect setbacks, and deal with them accordingly, not as permanent disasters, but as temporary diversions. The manner in which fans, bloggers, coaches, and teammates have rallied around the Crabtree situation in recent days should hearten us all. More importantly, we can hope it encourages Michael.
So, we've piled up plenty of positives, but the fact remains: the 49ers will miss Michael Crabtree's production. Once again, implacable misfortune rears its hard-plastic crown to smack off-season fantasies in the face. Maybe the NFL rules committee could do something about this.
The 49ers still enter the 2013 season with high expectations, so high that many may later construe anything less than a Super Bowl victory as a failure. Have we become so spoiled so soon? We might instead regard such a setback season, should it ensue, as an opportunity to reset the bit, double down on determination, and adhere steadfastly to the long view of sustained 49er excellence. That's not a bad attitude, but a realistic one, confident beyond bluster, hopeful beyond hype, tough as Leo Nomellini's Marine-Corps football helmet.