The 49ers are 3-0 for the first time since 1998. That is a statement that few, if any, expected would be written as the team heads into the bye week. Social media is inundated with people offering their respective opinions - on the team, on the players, on whether moves should be made, whether the Niners are legit or just got lucky by beating three bad teams, on literally every aspect of the team - which is incredible as well.

This team has its fans galvanized, excited, looking forward to the rest of the season to see if this might be the year that the team returns to the playoffs, filled with something that has long eluded them - hope. Members of The Faithful have hope for the first time since the Harbaugh era, hope that the team will be relevant, that it will return to a position of prominence, that the drafting by John Lynch & Co. and the coaching by Kyle Shanahan and Co. will finally result in the team taking that next step.

As a lifelong fan, the feeling is like nothing else. Hope has been in short supply for quite a while, and having it is like walking into an air-conditioned room on a 100-degree day.

So what exactly happened? What has caused this incredible shift in the team and its fortunes?

One thought is that the efforts of the GM and coaches are finally coming to fruition, that the players they have used to form this roster, through the draft, trades and free-agent signings, have ripened and borne fruit at the right time. Young players have been taught and tutored, resulting in their confidence growing along with their skill and football acumen. It could also be said that a combination of players who created a particular type of locker room and team culture has been put together. These guys really seem to like one another. They enjoy playing together. They help and encourage one another. They are a team, almost a living organism in and of itself, something that is both rare and pretty special.

It is also fragile, and this team is in its very early stages, so that bears watching, but reading about Joe Staley inviting Justin Skule to his house last week to spend an evening cramming, seeing the players on the field and on the sidelines absolutely losing it when a teammate succeeds (like Trent Taylor giving Dante Pettis all sorts of love after his game-winning catch), even seeing players losing their minds in a box during the Sharks playoffs, or seeing Kittle & Co. (including Jimmy and Pettis!) having a blast at a WWE event, all give the impression that this team truly does like hanging out and that the players genuinely care for one another.

These are possible reasons for this dramatic improvement - again, we are only three games in, so this is all theory - and each of these reasons and more may play into the team's sudden and dramatic improvement. There are, however, a couple of factors that I believe might be overlooked by many, but which are interesting things to consider.

While the 49ers have brought much more talent into the team facility since Lynch and Shanahan took over, the reality is that the team may have been closer to respectability than most believed. In 2017, the Niners were 6-10. We all remember the Hoyer experiment as well as the Jimmy G run at the end of the year. However, you might not remember that in Weeks 2 through 6, when the team was 0-5, the total margin of victory for those games was 13 points. It lost by an average of 2.5 points per week. To my knowledge, that is an NFL record. Had the team won even two of those games, it would have been 8-8, which is pretty respectable. With much less talent, the team was almost a .500 club.

Then came 2018 and the early-season catastrophes. McKinnon got hurt before the season even started. Richburg tore his quad early on and couldn't really move, which decimated the offensive line. Breida played the year with an injured ankle, Mostert snapped his arm, Goodwin got a brutal thigh bruise in the first game that affected him all season. The DBs were all hurt. Jimmy tore his ACL in Week Three, and the season fell apart. Foster had the incident in Tampa Bay the night before the game. There was huge pressure on the team, expectations going into the season, and it collapsed under them.

People started openly questioning whether Lynch could be a GM, whether Shanahan could be a head coach, whether Jimmy was a bust. Through it all, the team held together and players supported one another. When Witherspoon went through a brutal stretch, resulting in his benching, Richard Sherman repeatedly came to his defense. Shanahan and Lynch were obviously frustrated, but you could hear it in their interviews, and in the interviews of the players, that they all believed, to a man, that this team was close, much closer than anyone thought, to being legit. The team played hard for its coach, right to the end, which is uncommon in a team that wound up with the second-worst record in the league.

This past offseason, the 49ers added Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford in free agency, and Bosa, Greenlaw, Samuel and several others via the draft. These players added to the talent level for sure, but they also added something that the team needed beyond Richard Sherman - they brought heart, grit, swagger. They brought that element that is so unique to football, that edge, that thing that can make an average team good and a good team great. They brought what was missing from the 49ers.

I am sure that I just got a lot of eye rolls, and I get it, especially if you have not played football. I ask you to consider the 2008 Super Bowl between the Patriots and the New York Giants. In my mind, the greatest upset in the history of professional football, including the Jets-Colts game before which Joe Namath made his famous guarantee.

The Pats were 16-0 in the regular season, with Randy Moss and Tom Brady having historic seasons. Wes Welker led the league in receptions. They were a juggernaut, easily making it to the Super Bowl and looking forward to the second perfect season in NFL history. They faced the Giants, a Wild Card team that had been up and down all year. The Pats were favored by 12, an unheard-of number for a Super Bowl. The Giants won. Why? Because they wanted it more. There was no brilliant strategy, unless you call beating the crap out of Brady and company a strategy. There was heart, and guts, and will, and that was enough - a team that was in every way inferior beat a team that was more talented, led by the greatest coach in NFL history, and which absolutely should have won. But it didn't. That's the essence of football, the undefinable quality that perhaps no other sport has. In football, if a team believes in itself and the players in one another, and focuses that belief as a unit, incredible things can happen.

The Niners are giving off that vibe at this point. Last year they played the Cardinals at home, more than doubled their offensive output, but had 5 turnovers and lost the game. Last Sunday, they again outgained the opponent by a wide margin but again had 5 turnovers, two deep in their own territory and three deep in the Steelers' end of the field. This would have broken the will of many teams - yet they won this game, against a team that is far better than the Cardinals were last season.

The difference between this season and last? The team, especially the defense, has confidence in itself. It has swagger. It has attitude. It believes that it will win every drive, and that it can overcome whatever is thrown at it. This is something totally new, and something that is exceedingly rare in the NFL. Whether its self-confidence is well-placed has yet to be determined; however, the fact that it exists at all is a huge change in the team's mindset and culture.

This team has gone, in the span of only three weeks, from being described as a team that could hopefully win 8 games to a team that is poised to make a run at the playoffs. This team. This team, that picked second in the draft only 5 months ago. This team, that won 4 games last year. This team, that had some calling for the firing of its GM, its head coach, or both. This team, that had people screaming that the QB should be benched or cut in favor of his backup. This team, that is still theoretically in the middle of a rebuild. This team. OUR team. It's sure good to see them relevant again. I for one can't wait to see how the rest of the season plays out.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.