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I've watched too much football over the years to put much faith in pre-season performance as an indicator of actual success. There are simply too many variables in play to ever truly know what it will translate to when the games start counting and records are kept. Nevertheless, these 49ers probably had the most psychologically beneficial (for the fans anyway) preseason victory in team history this past Sunday and some questions are finally being answered.
For essentially 8 long months, it's been nothing but bad news for this team. Public perception has been that if it can go wrong, it will for San Francisco and probably in pretty spectacular fashion. It had gotten so bad by the time Aldon Smith made his fateful decision to once again take his chances behind the wheel that the general public, previously delighting in the team's misfortune, actually started to feel a little sympathy for the 49ers and their beleaguered first-year coach, Jim Tomsula.
The first preseason game wasn't terrible by any means, there were definitely some bright spots (See: Hayne) and it was good to see the team finally play some football. Still, it ended in a loss and moral victories aside, that's more or less what the rest of the league expects at this point and the starters did little to quell and fears that we're in for a long season.
Even after a solid game number 2, there's still far more questions than answers. Kaepernick still hasn't shown much in his limited opportunities, the offensive line is still very unsettled, and the secondary has a lot of sorting out to do, but the bright spots are shining light on how deep this roster has been over the past few years, a credit to Trent Baalke's draft strategies and a hint as to why Jed York believed he could get by without the agitation of the previous head coach, as successful as he might have been.
With talent still present, the storyline most interesting to watch develop has been the development of new leadership within the locker room and amongst the players. Kaepernick has been reported to have been much more vocal in this training camp than in years past, to be expected as the roster turns over and he gains more seniority, and that generally bodes well when your quarterback gains confidence. But it would seem that on the offensive side of the ball, all eyes turn to Anquan Boldin in terms of emotional leadership.
Boldin has done it all in this league, he's outspoken, and nobody can argue with his approach to the game. He seems supportive of his quarterback, but he answers to nobody save for his coach. Few will argue that this team will only go as far as their quarterback takes them, but he still has much to prove in the leadership department and that will largely be dictated by his production on the field.
On the defensive side, and perhaps on the team as a whole, it became crystal clear that Navorro Bowman has ascended to the highest level of locker room respect as he's battled back from injury, and that could be the most pivotal development to keep an eye on. His immediate impact on the field (3 plays, 3 tackles, 2 for loss) and the rest of his team's response to that, spoke volumes about what he means to this season and to the franchise as a whole. No longer does he have Patrick Willis and Justin Smith to defer to in terms of seniority and talent, a healthy Bowman is probably the most talented player on the roster, and his stoic and steady nature could be a tremendous asset to the steadying of a shaky organization. The havoc he creates on the field doesn't hurt either and he may go on to supplant his mentor and friend Willis as the greatest MLB to ever suit up for San Francisco.
As the team's outlook comes more into focus, a season that many would regard as a disaster in the making could go much, much better than expected should Kaepernick become the unquestioned leader on offense and Bowman stays healthy and returns to form on defense. The Niners are so far looking pretty smart on some of their rolls of the dice on the likes of Jared Hayne and Arik Armstead plus a few other rookies, 2nd, and 3rd year guys that have been in development and the roster seems to have shown strong support for Jim Tomsula, particularly after the Aldon Smith incident.
The doom and gloom surrounding this offseason is not to be ignored, a losing culture is extraordinarily difficult to reverse, but the conventional wisdom that is saying this team will be a pushover is seeming somewhat misplaced considering the talent that still exists here. That perception in and of itself could be one of the 49ers' greatest advantages, sleeping on a prideful team is ill advised, but nobody will really know for sure until the Vikings show up at Levi's Stadium to provide the first real test of what this team is made of.
Minnesota is considered a team on the rise, but from what I've seen so far, I like the direction Tomsula's taking and I definitely like the chances of starting 1-0 against a young Minnesota at home in front of an edgy, hungry, and Faithful fanbase.
Monday the 14th simply cannot come soon enough.