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For many 49er fans 2013 has so far felt like both the best of times and worst of times, not necessarily in that order, as the team did a dipsy-doodle, first mimicking a possible team-in-decline, then rebounding with a five-game winning streak, albeit against inferior foes. Aside from positioning themselves for a second-season run the London bridge and subsequent bye handily bifurcate the 2013 schedule what have the 49ers accomplished that portends not only for the next three months, but beyond?
1. They have completely abandoned any pretense that any non-Boldin wide receivers might meaningfully contribute. How fast will Manningham and Crabtree get up to game speed?
2. As a corollary to the above, Colin Kaepernick has mostly gone into game-manager mode, not necessarily bad if temporary or nursing a hurt toe. Meanwhile, the young QB has regained some confidence, while continuing his on-the-job training. During the last several weeks the 49ers have cleaned up bits of his mechanics, and inched toward the return of the complete Kaep by instituting specific running plays for him and simplifying some of his pass-play reads. How much of the responsibility for the Niners' recent minimalist passing game falls on the coaches, the quarterback, or the receivers? Well, even Tom Brady himself looked pretty mediocre until the return of his favored targets.
3. Block, block, block. Frankly, despite the hosannas continuously heaped by certain commentators upon the offensive line, the unit displayed some rust during the early games. However, with the return of ground-Greg, the run-blocking has picked up. We'll see about the pass-protection when the team eventually encounters a must-pass-often-to-win game. Selected wideouts, as well, have displayed some rather lackluster enthusiasm for blocking. Vance McDonald, though, while perhaps underutilized in the passing game, has quietly been honing his blocking skills.
4. Running-back depth persists as a strength. (And, speaking of blocking, how about Frank Gore?) Even Coach Harbaugh continues to dream of LaMichael James bolting blithely through secondaries. But for now, Kendall Hunter remains a more complete back, with Anthony Dixon a better option for running out the clock. Still, who wouldn't love to see James in an ancillary role?
5. Vernon Davis. Enough said.
6. The special-teams coverage has improved from last season, the return squads not so much, with James and Dixon now on deck as return-men. We'll see how roster turnover reshuffles these units.
7. Tackle, tackle, tackle. Yes, the entire defense has played well the last several weeks, even considering the desultory offenses they've faced.
8. Defensive depth. However, this may yet prove, in retrospect, to be the greatest improvement the 49ers have accomplished season-to-date, particularly considering the ongoing roster changes. Before they've finished, the Niners will have turned over nearly one-sixth of their roster in the middle of the season, another reason to consider the next two months as a separate, second season. Of course, we still don't know how well players such as Carradine, Dial, or Wright might pan out, but holdovers Skuta, Lemonier, and Brock have already made known their mettle. One can envision, with the return of Aldon Smith, a superlative outside linebacker/pass-rush/defensive line rotation. Except that the 49er coaches seem stuck on playing their starters into the sod. Even so, and even if this improved depth shows up only in lopsided win/loss games, at least the new roster adjustments might keep key starters off the field during mop-up situations, thus forestalling injuries made more likely by game-weariness. Meanwhile, the Niners will need their quality depth, as, all too inevitably, more injuries do ensue, regardless of game situations.
9. "Precision," as Harbaugh calls it. The 49ers have cleaned up some of the sloppiness and penalty-inducing boneheadedness they exhibited earlier in the season. Kudos to the position coaches.
10. Aesthetics. Bill Walsh once said he had an "aesthetic feel" for the game of football, which seems somewhat highfalutin until you recall that some of his other favorite gridiron metaphors included boxing and warfare. Yet, well-played football coincides with beautiful football, fun to play, fascinating to contemplate, rewarding to watch. The 49ers currently seem poised to restore their artistic standards.
Under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers position themselves to play their optimum football at the end of seasons, particularly in the playoffs. Remember, last year, too, was a tale of two seasons, the Alex campaign and the Colin coronation. Recall also Harbaugh's first season, when a team seemingly similar to the current blood-and-guts bunch morphed in the playoffs into a squad capable of matching the air-happy Saints pass for pass. San Francisco's chameleon crew can disguise not only the intentions of individual plays, but also switch intra-season strategies, and even team identities, as needed, from game to game, on the fly. And, with two weeks to reboot, the 49ers have had ample time to also rethink the next eight games. Yes, they will have to adjust. No, they will not be perfect. But dolts they are not. Most of the time.
As this second season-within-a-season begins, many Niners' experts emphasize the importance of this week's Carolina game, and with good reason: the winner will likely be seen as an elite squad, while the loser, if only temporarily, may well subside back into the crowded ranks of the wild-card melee. Indeed, the game, even this early in the second season, does have playoff implications, including probable future ramifications for both seeding and tie-breakers. Many rightly see this contest as a measuring stick for the red-and-gold. However, one game does not a season make, and, win or lose on Sunday, after the dust has settled on 2013 both San Francisco and Carolina may be retrospectively remembered as elite teams. The best team does not win every game, nor do even great teams always win Super Bowls.
So, what kind of a team are the 49ers? The first eight games conjure up one word: inconclusive. And the next eight? No doubt more high drama, probably a measure of exasperation, possibly even some elation. But, given the Prospectors' fungible nature, they will be fun to watch, fun to root for or against, and, yes, occasionally fun to excoriate. At least they have not slipped off the edge into irrelevance and its misery-loves-company cohort, boredom. Short term, they may or may not disappoint. Long term, though, in this season-of-testing, they have dodged the temptation to make panic trades, and have mostly avoided the understandable tendency of some teams to tenaciously retain players who function mainly as merely one-season stopgaps.
Remember the organizational goal: not just one-season wonderment, but sustained success. We won't know until we see the results on the field, but the above list of ten accomplishments, especially the recent roster moves, have likely made the 49ers a better team. They still contend this season while simultaneously staying the long-term course. They are a team well worthy of our anticipation, our sometime-consternation, and even our oftentimes-addled adulation. Snap on your salt-stained chinstraps, ye revived faithful, and let the second season begin!