Let's just back up a second, okay?

Let's stop quibbling about little things--debating the virtues of the head coach, the O.C., the quarterback--and let's take a longer, more important view. After all, that was our third preseason game. And even if you're one of those I-don't-buy-anything-in-the-preseason types, you'll still admit, in that third game, a team should show you something. Actually, not just something, but the most important thing of all.

A team should show you whether it's ready.

Don't nitpick about who's sitting out or how there's no real game-plan. Again, those are little things. What you wanna do for that third game--the one where most of the starters go into the second half--is look for answers to bigger questions. Does the team seem in sync? Does it work with precision? Does it seem confident, assertive, able to dictate the flow of the game?

Quite simply, is it ready?

For the Niners, these questions are serious stuff. As you might've heard, our last playoff appearance was eight years ago. Yet with our ballyhooed continuity, and our rivals in tatters, the division title's an absolute must. That's a whole lot of pressure for such a big step.

It would've helped matters, if in this third game, the Niners had shown that they're ready.

They sort of did, but they mostly didn't.

Oh, no doubt, Patrick Willis is ready; with another sack and three tackles for loss, the guy is just a machine. Frank Gore is ready; by all means, as long as he's picking up 30 a pop, let's run up the middle on ALL our first downs, not just the first three. Phillip Adams is ready; my word, I'd almost forgotten what a punt return looks like. And yeah, with another solid game (and a touchdown pass!), Alex Smith is ready, or at least as ready as he's gonna be.

But again, in the big picture, something still just doesn't seem right.

Offensively, I'll admit, the playcalling was better. (In the first half, after those first three first-down runs--and, notably, after Gore took a seat--we passed on six and ran on four.) Still, though Smith was efficient, the team seemed to drag. Too many passes were too horizontal, or short of the sticks; there just isn't that sense of potential explosion. Sure, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis are our two biggest playmakers, but their presence last year was only rarely explosive. And anyway, I thought Ted Ginn was our big-play guy. We haven't seen ANY of that, at least when the quarterback isn't Nate Davis (and apparently he doesn't play anymore).

And then, of course, that most basic of issues: getting the play, getting in line, and getting the snap. As Mike Singletary noted: false starts, delays of game, and "eating up timeouts like crazy." I know, the clock evidently was starting fast. To his credit, though, Singletary's weary of all the excuses. The Niners just didn't "play smart," he said. He's right, of course, but this is the same stuff we saw so much LAST year. With all this "continuity," shouldn't this team be in rhythm by now?

But no matter how choppy we looked on the O, that wasn't close to our biggest concern. In fact, for the first time in ages, the O was WAY ahead of our D.

And that, my friends, is NOT a good thing.

12 years. That's how long our pass defense has ranked in the league's lower half. That's a lot of receivers roaming free through our secondary. That's a lot of quarterbacks--usually unhurried--lofting balls over the heads of our well-beaten corners, our safeties nowhere in sight. In a passing league, that's a recipe for trouble, and one we've been cooking for 12 straight years.

If we're gonna contend, that streak must end. And you've gotta be wondering whether it will.

Of course, the best way to stop the pass is to rush the passer, and just last week I was marveling about Greg Manusky's ability to scheme a rush out of virtually nothing. I don't take it back, but the guy's just a coach; he's not a magician. He won't be rushing the pass every play, and though he often seems to give too much cushion, he can't really conjure up coverage with scheme. It's up to the players. They've gotta know where to be, and know where to go, and they've simply gotta make plays.

Peyton Manning didn't look bothered, but hey, he's Peyton Manning. Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski, however, are not. Yet in little more than a half, those two TORCHED our starting D for 236 passing yards, a-buck-57 on just 4 plays. The killer was just before halftime, when a Raider ran right by Reggie Smith, and was all alone on a 74-yard touchdown romp.

It was all so familiar. So terribly, painfully familiar.

You know I hate being negative--;)--but I think we might've forgotten something. We seem to have patched up those glaring holes, in the offensive line and the punt-return game. But in the secondary, not much has changed. At corner, Nate Clements and Shawntae Spencer are solid but unspectacular; they're okay in coverage, but they just don't seem to make enough plays. Tarell Brown is similar, but with a troubling tendency to give up the bomb. And at safety, the coverage just isn't enough. Dashon Goldson's too much of a strong playing free, and Michael Lewis is slowing down fast. Taylor Mays was a sexy pick, but he hasn't yet shown he can cover. And Smith is just Mark Roman again.

It was often obscured by other things, but the secondary was weak last year. (Like I said, it's been weak for 12 years.) I'm starting to think that it still isn't fixed. And if it still isn't fixed, it means serious trouble.

"It's a work in progress." That's one of Singletary's signature phrases. He's applied it not just to the secondary, but to virtually every part of the team. A work in progress isn't so bad. But it's not the sign of a true contender. A true contender's DONE progressing. A true contender's arrived. A true contender is ready.

So close to the brink of a reckoning year, and still the Niners aren't there.