You know how at the beginning of every season you convince yourself that the 49ers are playoff contenders regardless of their record going in? If Tim Rattay plays as well as he did in the Pittsburgh and St. Louis games... If Rashaun Woods can stay healthy... If Andre Carter just returns to his 2002 form. We all know how this ends. For each time the potential is fulfilled, there are five other times when it isn’t, and we end up losing faith in our team and in ourselves. This year, things are going to be different. No more “ifs.” No implicit assumption that we’ll win a game or two more than last year. An acknowledgement that every team, not just the 49ers, has second year players that they expect to have breakout seasons. No rose-tinted glasses. Just a harrowing look in the mirror at who we really are...

Starting with the quarterback: As great as Smith was in that Bears preseason game, things quickly went downhill thereafter. He got some national recognition for the Thursday night game in Seattle, but the fact remains that he produced a Rex Grossman-esque six performances in which his passer rating was below 55.0, and eight games with a passer rating below 70.0.

Last preseason, I made a bet with a coworker that Smith would have better numbers in his second year than Eli Manning had in his second year in two of the following three categories: passer rating, touchdown-interception ratio, and passing yards. I knew I would lose the passing yards category, but was convinced I would win the other two categories because Smith, or so it was said by Urban Meyer and Co., simply would not throw picks once he fully comprehended the offense. I don’t know how to put it in any clearer terms than this: I didn’t win the bet.

Quarterbacks rarely fully grasp offenses within two years, but what concerns me is the play-making instincts, or lack thereof. There’s a reason Vince Young was able to win seven straight games last year, and it’s not just his scrambling ability. Smith has probably memorized more plays, audibles, and options than Young knows exist, but it doesn’t help him sense the weakside pressure or sense a receiver suddenly breaking off his route to find a soft spot in the coverage.

I just finished a book entitled The Last Shot, in which a journalist spent six months covering New York’s Lincoln High basketball team, which is located in a dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn. The book is written in 1991, and the author gets to know the team’s four best players on a personal level, one of whom turns out to be Stephon Marbury. It’s really a fascinating read, as the author, Darcy Frey, weaves basketball into the social and economic realities facing these kids and their families. In one chapter, Frey describes they myriad of ways in which Marbury, a freshman, is able to instinctively thread passes between much older opponents, find teammates that didn’t realize they were open, and see the floor better than any New York City high schooler at that time. The author’s conclusion was, in essence, that a War and Peace–sized textbook on basketball fundamentals is no substitute for the innate creativity that allows certain players to see things before they happen. And on a deeper level, that there are a seemingly-infinite number of subtle nuances to the game that can’t be captured by x’s and o’s or game film, and that the best players are so in tune with their environment that they have developed a natural symbiosis with the game that transcends any coach’s teachings.

Does Alex Smith have this quality? Honestly, I haven’t seen it.

But that doesn’t mean were doomed. Of the quarterbacks on last year’s playoff teams, only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees definitely have this special quality, McNair and Pennington probably have it, Eli might have it, Hasselbeck and Garcia probably don’t have it, and Grossman, Green, Romo, and Rivers definitively do not have it. That puts Smith in some pretty decent company.

Speaking of company. Rather, speaking of bad company, I’m a little apprehensive about the Battle-Lelie era. I fear that our 26th ranked offense may have taken a giant step backwards. Don’t get me wrong; it needed to be done. Bryant’s DUI and the speed at which he was traveling was a life and death issue. If his release was entirely or in part meant to send a message that there are matters more important than football, I’m entirely supportive. I wish the Rams would cut Leonard Little for his DUI manslaughter. I wish the Patriots would fire Bill Belicheck for forcing Ted Johnson to return to full-contact practice and sustain a second concussion four days after the first. If we lose an extra game or two with Bryant gone, no problem.

But the fact remains, unless we can swing a deal for Darrell Jackson, our receiving corps will be worse next year regardless of whether we squander another first day pick on a receiver or not. Just think. Of all the Erickson / Donahue gaffe’s - the Kwame Harris pick, the Rashaun Woods pick, the salary cap voodoo, the T.O. for Brandon Whiting trade, etc., etc. - our team would be in pretty good shape right now if they had simply drafted Bernard Berrian instead of Derrick Hamilton. After all the destruction they reaped upon the franchise, it’s really the least they could have done. Instead, we’re going to have to roll the dice on another receiver.

I know we’ll be fine next year. I would just feel better if we would pony up and trade for Briggs or Jackson. Giving up a second and a fourth rounder for either of these players would instantly make us the favorite to win the division. Failing to make a move will keep us right around the 7-9, 8-8 range. A little better on defense. A little worse on offense. A little tougher schedule.

But, as my former coworker used to say repeatedly about his dire predictions that ultimately cost him his job, “Nobody hopes I’m wrong more than I do.”