Toward the end of the last few football seasons, I found myself in a gloomy state around week 12 or 13. Another dismal San Francisco 49ers season would wash over me like a December swim in the North Atlantic after a full body wax: frigid water, salt stinging every pore and no beacon on the black horizon.
But, it’s July, and the time of year when hope springs eternal for football fans. Whatever happened last year – good or ill – has been washed away; good works are a distant memory, and grievous sins are forgiven.
Forty-Niners fans have been through this drill many times, enough to turn the most golden heart into a calloused black hunk of coal. A bad season, a Jed press conference and then a new coach! The new coach lands a free-agent with a few good years left; we’d convince ourselves the third round draft pick was our future. Once OTA’s and mini-camps started, we’d hear positive things from long-time veterans about new leadership and direction. The season would arrive, and the good cheer would get washed away in bleach.
But each July, I start thinking of all the new season has to offer. The anticipation of football is better than the start of Christmas season. With that in mind, here is a 2017 wish list of probable outcomes, stretched visions and improbable gifts.
Socks & Underwear - What We’re Likely To Receive
We knew the 49ers were in a new era of leadership when John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan released half of the 2016 roster, and then went after talent in the free agent market and the draft. It’s unknown if these moves were a statement to expect real change, a version of burning sage to cleanse the demonic remnants of the previous regime or a bit of both.
The 49ers’ 2017 schedule ranks 20th among the 32 NFL teams. Topping last year’s win total isn’t a challenging goal for the new leadership or the finalized 53-man roster, and we should see at least five wins this season. However, prepare for a blow-out loss against Dallas should the Cowboys continue what they started last year.
Brian Hoyer has not played in a full NFL season for two reasons.
1. He began his career as a back-up.
2. After winning the job in Cleveland, Hoyer’s been benched or suffered a season-ending injury.
Shanahan isn’t going to bench Hoyer unless things become the great Springfield tire fire. However, Hoyer will suffer some small injury that sidelines him for a game or two, and we’re going to see the 49ers second string quarterback starting for the team.
Now, this isn’t all bad. Matt Barkley is just happy to be an NFL quarterback, even though he’s holding a clipboard. This preseason, CJ Beathard is going to give Barkley a run for the second string job, and probably win the position. All those post-draft day wishes of seeing what Beathard will come true this fall.
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For some NFL teams, six wins quickly and are expected. But not in Santa Clara. The 49ers haven’t eclipsed six wins since 2014. With the 49ers opponents having a combined record of 119-132-5 last season, a six or seven-win season isn’t out of the question. On paper, the 49ers can beat the Titans, Jaguars and the Rams twice. Washington is consistently over-rated, and I have this feeling that the 49ers are going to shock Seattle at least once this year.
Ask any 49ers fan about last season, and you’ll probably hear more about the failures than the hidden successes. Carlos Hyde nearly broke 1,000 yards last season behind a piecemeal offensive line. Since we’re chock full of optimism, let’s assume this year’s offensive line gels and stays injury-free. Not only does this keep Hoyer healthy, but distributes some of the offensive load onto Hyde and the running game. Indeed, a 1,000-yard rusher for the 49ers isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Robert Saleh’s brings a new defense to the field and an aggressive mentality to the press room; both are a far cry from last year’s coordinator. Watching Saleh’s press conferences are enough to make me want to chew raw steel and spit railroad spikes. I cannot imagine the atmosphere in the defensive film room. This year, I’m excited to see what Saleh can do to bring the fire back to players like NaVorro Bowman and how he develops the younger talent. Don’t sleep on the defensive line either, which is flush with talent. The 49ers could easily see at least two games of 10 or fewer points allowed if Saleh can get them rolling.
I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!
Not far off in the distant football future is a 13-win 49ers team. It’s not this year, and hitting the .500 mark in 2017 is a very high request. But, on any given Sunday, football miracles can happen. Thirteen or more wins will take quality, reliable football from all three facets of the game.
Unfortunately, the 49ers haven’t had offense, defense and special teams operating as one unit in years; they didn’t do it under Jim Harbaugh (Super Bowl XLVII is a glaring example) and came nowhere close under Jim Tomsula or Chip Kelly. You can disagree, but can you remember the last time the franchise returned a punt for a touchdown? Solid football is what separates average teams from great teams.
If We Only Get One Gift
More than anything on the list, the 49ers need to experience playing 60 minutes of football: a kickoff return, a punt block, 200 yards rushing, 400 yards in the air, no sacks, a fumble recovery, a pick-six and ending with a shut-out. A game like this is going to go a lot further for Shanahan than a series of small victories and is the formula for long-term success.