Whether I'm ducking behind a corner in the grocery store to read the sporting magazines while my wife thinks I'm grabbing a half-gallon of milk, or reviewing espn.com's power rankings, the 49ers consistently rank at the bottom of the barrel. The problem lies in that the people who write these articles don't know anything about the 49ers, and don't provide any analysis.

When the media moguls outside the Bay Area think about the 49ers, they think Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia. Their obsession with these two players infects their minds the same way Aunt Dorothy's chicken spaghetti infects my stomach. It precludes reasonable discussion. "The 49ers lost their starting receivers." How perceptive. And then the questions come like hoards of Mongols in the night. "How will the offense function? How will the team function? This spells paralysis! And yes, Dr. York. The evil Dr. York watching it all go to hell from his luxury suite."

What I just described is the typical thought process of those who observe the 49ers with a birds-eye-view, such as FOX and CBS commentators. I'm already cringing at the prospect of announcers spending two-thirds of the game discussing the losses of Owens and Garcia. Just watch—it will be week 15, the 49ers will be 8-6, and the announcers will be blabbing on about the loss of Garcia, even as he compiles a 75.0 passer rating for the miserable Browns.

Rather than dwell on what we've lost, why don't we take a look and realize that the cupboard ain't so bare. Who cares who left? Tell me about the 22 starters who are going to suit up on game day. The media should think as follows:

1 - Rattay outperformed Garcia last season. 2 - Barlow is better than Hearst. 3 - Weaver will be missed as a blocker, but Eric Johnson is a better pass-catcher, and Aaron Walker may soon supplant him as the starter. 4 - Justin Smiley will soon be better than Ron Stone. 5 - Kwame Harris is already a better run blocker than Deese, and within a year or two should be a better pass protector. 6 - Curtis Conway is an upgrade over Tai Streets, but even he might not wrestle the starting job from Brandon Lloyd. Furthermore, Streets has never gotten the separation or made the types of catches that Brandon Lloyd made last season as a rookie. Derrick Hamilton, baed upon where he was drafted, should be better than all of them. 7 - Cedric Wilson has improved in each of his three seasons, and had just as many catches last season as Joey Galloway (35), despite not starting. The consensus among scouts was that Rashaun Woods was the most complete receiver in the draft. If the 49ers have a problem at receiver, it may soon be finding time for all five of them to get on the field.

8 - At a minimum, Isaac Sopoaga will replace Travis Kirshke. Ideally, he'll use his incredible strength to take on two blockers, clog the middle, and collapse the pocket. 9 - Chidi Ahanatou was a great acquisition last season, but the coaching staff is particularly excited about Andrew Williams, who has added 15 pounds of muscle and is showing a burst off the left edge. If the 49ers can afford to keep Brandon Whiting, they will be much improved at left defensive end. 10 - Jason Webster covered well in the slot and underneath, but was a liability down the field. Shawntae Spencer is taller, more athletic, and has quicker feet. He will make a good nickel back. 11 - It would be impossible for Dwaine Carpenter, Ronnie Heard, or Keith Lewis to play any worse than Bronson played last season.

Does this constitute improvement on the field for 2004? No. Does it constitute a significant step backwards? No. From a talent perspective, the 49ers are not significantly better or worse than last season. The offense will be a little bit worse. The defense will be a little bit better. But it's not a collapse! Remember the days of Steve Stenstrom lining up under center and Anthony Parker sprinting in vain five yards behind receivers? Are we really that bad? Vying for last place with the Cardinals? The new Bungels?

Of course not. Don't believe me? Think teams will stack the box with eight men? Let 'em try. Let Brandon Lloyd go one-on-one for jump balls with your corners. Just try to run sweeps on our linebackers. Try to pound us up the middle with Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga anchoring the interior. Ask the teams we walloped at Candlestick last season—the Rams, Buccaneers, Bears, Cardinals, and Steelers—if they think we'll go 4-12.

That's not to say there won't be growing pains. Rattay will have bad games. Inexperienced receivers will run poor routes. Kwame Harris will surrender sacks. Injuries will leave gaping holes. Rookies won't develop like they should. We still need a quality free safety, another defensive tackle, and a proven backup for Kevan Barlow; but there are many teams with wish-lists much longer than ours.

For these reasons, the 49ers probably won't make the playoffs. They don't have the depth or experience to overcome the challenges they will face. However, if Rattay stays healthy and can get even modest production from his rookie receivers (both important ifs) the 49ers will be a tough team to play, and should stay in the playoff hunt late into the season. Assuming they don't lose their sanity listening to the announcers talk about the absence of Owens and Garcia, that is.