My dad tells a story from time to time, in which two campers travel up to Canada to spend a summer of hiking and whatnot in the bear-abundant woods. One of the campers, in addition to his normal camping activities, would wake up every morning and run sprints outside the camping area. Curious, his friend asked him why he was doing all this training. He responded, “There are a lot of bears out there, and I may need to run for my life on one of these hikes.” Dismayed, his friend told him, “I don’t want to burst your bubble, but all the training in the world isn’t going to help you outrun a bear.” He responded, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

In the same sense, the 49ers don’t necessarily have to be a good team this year to inject some energy into the Bay Area. They just need to outrun the bad teams. Namely: the Packers, Vikings, Lions, Bears, Falcons, Saints, Cardinals, Rams, Eagles, and Redskins. Truth be told, even that wouldn’t get them in the playoffs because the NFC North is guaranteed to have a representative, but it would get them close. They’d be in the hunt for most of the season, which is all we can ask for at this point. Let’s go through the NFC teams one by one and find out who we might be able to knock off.

I’m willing to concede that the Seahawks, Panthers, Giants, Buccaneers, and Cowboys are a cut above us both offensively and defensively. Throw in the winner of the NFC North with their 7-9 record, and those are probably your six playoff teams. Maybe the Redskins are able to keep the Cowboys at bay. But I’m not the least bit impressed with the other teams in the conference. In no particular order:

Green Bay Packers – My coworkers and I have a pool going for when Mike McCarthy and Brett Favre have their first public sparring. I’m going with week four. Favre threw 12 more interceptions last year than the second worst QB in the league, and that includes a lot of numbskulls. There’s no way he owns up to this. No Javon Walker. Still some problems along the o-line. I honestly don’t know why Green Bay wants him back. Just to have a hellish season of griping, finger-pointing, and five-interception performances? And what are they going to do when the Packers are 3-7, Favre’s blabbering about retirement, and Rodgers is sitting over there eager for a little action? Are they going to bench Favre or stunt the development of their future starter? Anyway, I think you get my drift on the Packers.

Detroit Lions – I honestly don’t know why anyone in Detroit would ever watch or go to a Lions game with the team they’ve assembled. They’re rebuilding with a 33-year old quarterback that’s bounced around the league for years because of his on-again off-again play. And when I say “on-again,” I mean like a 25-watt bulb “on,” not fluorescent lighting “on.” But then again, put yourself in Matt Millen’s shoes. You’re sitting there with the 9th pick. Your greatest position of need is quarterback, without question. The most successful college quarterback in at least the last five years is miraculously on the board. I mean, who wouldn’t select the outside linebacker from Florida State who was arrested the year before and has an extensive history of concussions?

Minnesota Vikings – Get a quarterback, you idiots. It’s one thing for Brad Johnson to play for the Bucs four years ago when the Bucs had a killer defense. What the heck do they think he’s going to accomplish now? Get a running back too, while you’re at it. And a coach that doesn’t feel the need to go around antagonizing players that he barely knows (Culpepper) and aren’t even on the team anymore. If they’re going to contract anyone from Minnesota it should be the Vikings. Fine, the Timberwolves. But certainly not the Twins.

Chicago Bears – I honestly believe that everyone I know has been brainwashed over the last five years into believing that the Bears are perennially a top-notch defense. They had that great year in 2001 when they made the playoffs only to lose immediately, and they had that great year last year where they made the playoffs only to lose immediately. From 2002-2004, they ranked 25th, 14th, and 21st in defense. That’s not good! That’s average one year, and below average two years. Even the 49ers defense, the bane of our existence, ranked better than them during two of those three years. So, over the last four years, the Bears were great once, below average twice, and average once. That adds up to an average defense. Yes, they had a great year last year, but they were 21st the year before with essentially the same players. I don’t know. I just think you need to do it for a couple years before you’re called a great defense. Take Green Bay. They were 7th in defense last year, giving up 12 yards per game more than the Bears. Are they a great defense? Of course not. They were 25th in defense in 2004. But go try to tell someone that the Bears aren’t a great defense. They’ll look at you like you came from Mars.

Atlanta Falcons – No team run by Jim Mora Jr. will ever succeed. Moras are ruled by irrationality. Remember last year when he whipped off his headphones and chucked them against a wall after taking a question he didn’t want to answer? If I was a reporter in the Atlanta area, I would constantly pepper him with questions just to try to get him to snap. It’d be like the Paparazzi antagonizing celebrities. What’s he going to do at his next press conference, break a board on cinderblocks with his elbow? This concept has far more potential than the Falcons.

New Orleans – If I was a Saints fan, I would be excited. Adding a franchise quarterback and a Gayle Sayers-esque running back is pretty significant. Our saving grace here is that they’ve hired Willy Robinson, Dennis Erickson’s longtime henchman, as a defensive consultant.

St. Louis Rams – The offense is still pretty good, but has reached the point of diminishing returns. If they had succeeded in trading up to grab Vernon Davis, they might be scary again. But they didn’t, and now, they’re a shadow of their former selves, with a decent quarterback, – although I often wonder if Tim Rattay could play in that system – a perpetually decomposing receiving corps, and a good running back. It’ll be interesting to see how well Bulger plays in a conventional offense. And by the way, their defense gave up more points last year than the 49ers.

Arizona Cardinals – I’ll admit, I’m intrigued that the Cardinals were 8th in offense and 8th in defense last year, and I can’t really explain their 6-10 record. They’re really not that bad of a team, but two things will prevent them from making the playoffs. 1 – The Cardinals invest in their offensive line the same way stock-brokers invest in Worldcom these days. 2 – Kurt Warner, not to mention his wife, are both terrible. Warner had some good years, is still good enough to stick around, but he’s not the same guy he used to be. How many times can he look at the camera and say with a straight face, “I’m really excited to be three weeks away from losing my job to Marc Bulger/Eli Manning/Luke McNown/Matt Leinert/etc.? I really think this is a great fit.” Spare me. The bench is a great fit for you. Can you even call it “mentoring” if the mentee surpasses the skills of the mentor within six weeks? Are you telling me that Leinert’s really going to be hanging on every word that this washed up veteran that hasn’t even been able to hold down a starting job in the last five years says? Yes, they’ll be scary when Leinert’s good, but until then, I don’t want to hear about them.

Philadelphia Eagles – All right. Enough with the - Terrell Owens is a cancer who destroyed their locker room and is such a powerful corrupting force that he can haunt this team when he’s halfway across the country – nonsense. The Eagles made it to the championship games in the years prior to Owens with an incredible defense, a tough as nails offensive line, a gritty quarterback, and Duce Staley pounding away. Last year they didn’t lack chemistry. They lacked a power running game. This year, with no running game and no receivers, defenses are going to do exactly what they did last year: pin their ears back and rush. Throwing passes in the flat to Westbrook isn’t going to slow down a rush the way a running game would. They’re not making the playoffs, and it has nothing to do with Owens. It has to do with their moronic coach that makes a glorified third-down back the centerpiece of his offense.

Washington Redskins – They’re a good team, and they’re better than us, but the team isn’t without its issues. Brunell, who turns 36 in a month, is throwing off his back foot more than ever, and a disproportionate amount of their offense comes from the deep ball. The defense plays well as a unit, but doesn’t generate a great rush, and isn’t going to anytime soon if they’re forking out huge dough to sign Andre Carter. Plus, you have to wonder about a team that doesn’t regenerate itself with a deep draft every year. They’re good, but if Brunell’s level of play drops in the slightest, the Eagles may find some unexpected competition for the cellar.

Anyways, I’m not predicting that the 49ers will make the playoffs. I’m wondering out loud why this team can’t stay in the hunt until, say, week 14. We have a simple, time-tested, offensive philosophy: pound the ball, use play action consistently, and throw a couple screens per game to slow the rush down. And we have some legitimate talent.

Think about it. Our left tackle and left guard are virtually All-Pro’s. Denver wants to give us a first round pick for our right guard. Our center is a wily technician. Our right tackle was our best run blocker last year, and we have two massive maulers, both of whom are ready to go, waiting in the wings. We have a budding star at running back, and two capable backups. We have what could be the best tight end combination in the history of the league, and that was before any of us knew who Delanie Walker was. We have a ticked off wide receiver that’s more competitive than just about everybody and just entering his prime. Both Bryant and Battle are excellent downfield blockers. And we have a quarterback that could very well be the smartest and the hardest working quarterback in the league, who happens to have a cannon for an arm, but is most often praised for his accuracy, and has just turned 22. Our offense may not dazzle people, but every single player on that unit fits our, as George Bush would say, “strategery.”