It's that time of the year again. We can easily identify it because the media is bombarding us with reminders. Any Given Sunday was on ABC the other night. The second week of ESPN's critically acclaimed original series Playmakers, which examines the dark side of professional football, has aired. SportsCenter has opened quite a few times with preseason NFL news rather than regular season news on other sports. Stars like Terrell Owens and Rich Gannon graced the covers of 15 different versions of TV Guide this past week. This past weekend, ESPN Classic aired nearly every NFL Yearbook you would want to watch. Everywhere you look, it is pretty apparent, the nation's most popular extracurricular Sunday distraction has returned...football is back.

For football fans, the offseason is far too long and painful. In April, we are given some relief via the NFL Draft, which seems to have become an even bigger event than the NBA Draft over the years. Other sports like baseball offers some relief to die hard football enthusiasts, but it is no substitute for the ultimate, fastest, and certainly most violent team sport. We love it. Even if you say you don't, you know it's a guilty pleasure you keep hidden. And if you really don't, then why are you reading this?

Each new season brings an overflow of predictions from every source you can name. Everyone claims to know exactly who will take the trophy this season, but few are usually correct. In the past, picking the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers was usually a safe bet. However, in the past 5 years, 5 different teams have won the Lombardi. Neither of these 5 were the Cowboys or 49ers. It used to be a safe bet to pick the NFC to win it all given the fact that NFC teams won 13 straight championships from 1985 to 1997. In the past 5 years, the NFC is 2-3. I don't hold much stock in preseason predictions since things change so dramatically over the course of a season. I mean, look at the Jets. Many thought they would be contenders. Now with the injury to Chad Pennington, they have been cast off. Honestly, would anyone have picked the Rams, Ravens, Patriots, and Buccaneers to win the last 4 Super Bowls?

The San Francisco 49ers vs. The Media

This year, the media is once again dismissing the San Francisco 49ers, but that's fine. It'll be less pressure for the team. But is this dismissal warranted? Maybe. There are a lot of question marks with the 49ers. However, there are a lot of question marks each and every year and they have made the playoffs for the past two seasons. But many of the question marks have to do with the following issues, which we shall examine:
  1. The new guy in town - Dennis Erickson
    During the offseason, the 49ers let go of Steve Mariucci who finished the season 10-6 before taking the team to the Divisional Playoffs after beating the very good New York Giants. Who did they bring in? While the team interviewed a few big names and a lot of lesser-known ones, they eventually decided on Dennis Erickson, who was the head coach of Oregon State since 1999 and former head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Needless to say, this was a surprise to most people since Erickson was not even one of the final candidates for the job.

  2. Getting beat through the air
    The pass defense was very young and inexperienced last season. This contributed to the 49ers having the worst defensive 3rd down percentage in the league. Jason Webster's play was erratic and rookie Mike Rumph was consistently the target of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks until late in the season when he improved at nickel. The 49ers did not do much during the offseason to correct any of this except rely on the hope that these young corners would improve enough to bolster the secondary. This includes young corners like Jimmy Williams and Rashad Holman who have both shown promise as backup corners. But a big name free agent pickup would have been nice.

  3. Getting to the quarterback
    During the offseason, the 49ers let go of defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield (now a Raider), who did next to nothing last year, and lost defensive end Chike Okeafor to the Seahawks. Andre Carter was a force last year and had 12.5 sacks to prove it. The rest of the team added 19.5 more. Unfortunately, 6 of those belonged to Okeafor. So will the 49ers have a decent pass rush this season? That depends on two factors. Bryant Young is the biggest of these factors. Can he return to his glory years and eclipse the 2 sacks he had last year? If so, the 49ers defense is in good shape because a strong pass rush will help the pass defense. If not, they are in trouble. The next factor will be the level of play from rookie Anthony Adams out of Penn State, who with the release of Jim Flanigan, becomes the starter next to Young. Adams has been very impressive during preseason. Both players will be sharing time with Travis Kirschke.

  4. Jeff Garcia's aching back
    49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia injured his back during the offseason and sat out most of the team's practices and preseason. However, he did look sharp during week 3 against the Saints, his only game other than one drive against the Chargers last week. If Jeff goes down, so does the 49ers' season. While quarterback Tim Rattay is a competent backup, he is no Jeff Garcia yet. Jeff is a big competitor and pretty tough, so expect him to be ready to go. The offensive line will have to do their part to protect him though.

  5. In line behind T.O.
    With the emergence of receivers like Tai Streets and Cedric Wilson, the 49ers could more than afford to let go of former UCLA star J.J. Stokes, who never became the NFL star that most predicted. Streets will start alongside Owens, who is probably one of the most devastating forces in the game today. The 49ers added even more depth via the draft by adding Brandon Lloyd out of Illinois and Arnaz Battle from the Fighting Irish. Both have impressed.

  6. Special teams not so special
    I'll give the media this one. This is a legitimate concern. The 49ers special teams play is anything but special. Kicker Jeff Chandler makes fans nervous every time he lines up to kick the ball. Their punter situation is not the best either. In fact, the team is still investigating its options even as I write this. The surprise of the offseason was the fact that the 49ers now have two very capable kick returners in Jimmy Williams, who performed well last year before getting injured, and Arland Bruce III, a free agent pickup during the offseason. Good starting field position is one of the biggest weapons you can have in this game.

  7. Make or break season for Jim Mora Jr.
    What was the reason for the 49ers' poor play on defense over the past few years? Was it Jim Mora Jr. or the conservative minded play that Steve Mariucci may have forced on him? Well, we'll find out this year. Mora will have no excuses to fall back on and will likely be a little more aggressive on defense this year. Especially with the talent he has at linebacker and the overall speed on defense.
Remember, the 49ers did not go as far as they likely could have due to a number of critical injuries last year. They added some depth at key positions this season and if the injury bug does not strike twice, should field an improved team. How that team will adjust to Erickson's new open offense will be critical. This is especially true in a division that will be stronger than it was last season. But I think the 49ers will surprise a few people.

Hey Berman, make up your mind

In an earlier interview with TV Guide Magazine, Chris Berman picked the Eagles and Patriots to represent the NFC and AFC in the Super Bowl this year. This was the first time in 15 years that Berman did not pick the 49ers and Bills as his Super Bowl matchup. However, on ESPN.com today, he seems to have reverted back to his usual strategy and picked the 49ers and Bills to go to the Super Bowl. Looks like your streak is still alive Chris.

Fun NFL Poll Statistics

Speaking of TV Guide Magazine, they had an interesting article this past week. They hired the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, N.J., to survey 1,020 adults in late July. Of those polled, over half considered themselves NFL fans. Here are some of the results of the questions asked to the fans:
  • 36% are women. 32% of those women consider themselves football fanatics.
  • 46% prefer FOX's NFL coverage. 15% prefer ESPN, 12% for ABC, and 10% for CBS.
  • 41% say Al Michaels and John Madden of Monday night Football are the best commentators. 26% prefer FOX's Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Chris Collinsworth.
  • 40% wear team apparel during games.
  • 10% would consider being buried in that apparel.
  • 34% would like to see Vince Lombardi on a $3 bill.
  • The Dallas Cowboys are both the most popular and most hated team in the league. 18% of fans can't stand the Cowboys with the defending AFC champion Oakland Raiders coming in second.
  • 37% of fans over 21 drink at least one beer during game time.