The Steelers and the Titans both started last season with a 1-3 mark, and both made it to the playoffs. The Titans made it to the AFC Championship game before losing to the Raiders. The 2001 Patriots started the year at 1-3 before winning the whole enchilada in January. The Dolphins and Broncos both started hot last season, a 3-1 record for each ball club; yet, both failed to make the playoffs. The Chargers seemed like a lock to make the playoffs after a red-hot 4-0 start, only to finish the season 8-8.

Yes, there is hope for the 49ers.

It seems so effortless to write off the 49ers as another underachieving team that's the product of mismanagement. Unlike most fair-weather fans, I refuse to give up on a team with 75% of the season left to play. Rather than jump on the "Forty-Whiner" bandwagon, I will focus on why this team can still turn it around and be a legitimate contender. And no, I don't mean a contender for the #1 draft pick.

The first glimmer of hope starts this week against the Lions. Derrick Deese will see his first regular season action against since week one against his old coach. This means that teams wont be able to harass Garcia as they have been from his blind side. Although I'm sure that Kwame Harris will sometime be a great tackle in this league, it certainly will not be this season. He is constantly beat with inside moves, even when a running back helps him to the outside. In Sunday's loss to the Vikings Harris allowed 4 of the Vikings four sacks.

The constant pressure on Garcia may be at the root of the offensive struggles. The rushing offense, although a bit diminished because of the come-from-behind games at St. Louis and Minnesota, is still ranked in the top ten in the NFL. It is still an effective weapon at Erickson's disposal.

The offensive failures come on passing downs. Garcia doesn't trust his offensive line, and situation is as desirable as Speedos in Antarctica. As a result, Garcia doesn't wait for routes to develop, he scampers out of the pocket when the line manages to protect him, and he rushes his throws to the point where is accuracy is affected. Compound those things with the fact that Garcia already has happy feet and throw in a few nagging injuries and you have the ineffective Garcia that 49er fans would like to berate with photos of Steve Young, Joe Montana or even Tim Rattay. When Deese and Heitman return (Heitman will most likely return against the Seahawks on October 12), it will begin to turn things around for the offense.

Another improvement for the offense will be that fact that Erickson will become more involved in the play calling. Greg Knapp, the 49ers offensive coordinator, has been as effective as Mary Carey's campaign for California Governor. When Jim Fassel took over the play calling for the New York Giants last season, it infused life into the Giants' offense and propelled them into a Wild Card Playoff game. I guess that's why the head coach is called the head coach and not the "coordinator of the coordinators." Erickson was brought in as an offensive guru, and fans can only hope that he will bring the team back to its offensive foundations and breathe some life into a decrepit unit.

The next reason for believing that the season isn't over is the return of a healthy Jason Webster. His return will rejuvenate a secondary depleted by injuries. Although he is not the shutdown corner that the 49ers need, he is still an upgrade over the ones they have now. Rumph's inadequacies at corner can only be masked by blitzes for so long before teams start to adjust. With improved cover corners, and a secondary that has played together for years, Mora can disguise his blitz schemes even more. Mora can also use Rump where Rumph excels, in the slot, as an extra rusher on the blitz, or on run support.

The simple fact is that winning breeds confidence, which then gives way to more winning. It's a cycle as older than "The Little Engine That Could." When the 49ers start winning games, Owens won't seem like such a "sickness." His outbursts are nothing new, and will they never change. The organization has been dealing with them since Jerry Rice played his last game in 49er red and will continue to do so until Owens leaves as a free agent, or is pushed out by another emerging receiver.

Despite what you may think of Owens, you cannot deny that his outburst had some truth behind it. Even though the game against the Vikings was a must win, despite what the coaches said, the 49ers came out flat. The team did not play with a sense of urgency. As Terrell would say, they played without heart. It seems like this year's 49ers expected to have the playoffs handed to them on a gold platter instead of having to work, strive, and fight every Sunday for it.

The only team that can keep the 49ers out of the playoffs is the 49ers. They certainly have the tools to win, but they also have the capability to "earn" a top-ten draft choice. Instead of lambasting Owens, or Erickson, or Knapp the team needs to make that "I think I can, I think I can" mentality its axiom. They will all soon find that everything gets better with winning.