This past Sunday we saw something we haven't seen around these parts in years: Disappointment after a double digit victory.
First off, I think we all should take a moment to take a mental snapshot of the perception of the 49ers just a mere 3 months ago. Sure, we were excited for the future. But think of the expectations, reservations, and attitude. Its as if this isn't even the same franchise.
When the 49ers won 23-7 on Sunday, you could see the frustration.. particularly in Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith. They expected to dominate. They wanted a 45-0 victory, and anything shy of that was a failure. The opportunities were on the field, a lot of the right decisions were made, but the excecution wasn't to the standard they expect.
Now just wait a second. Since when in all of Alex Smith's career was a 16 point victory disappointing? That was more than comfortable for Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. Even for Alex Smith.
This represents not just a change in attitude, but a change in expectation and standards. This team has gone from a team that wants to be good to a team that expects to be great. And they are inches. Mere inches. Away from being dominant.
There are varying opinions on the performance of the offense against the Cardinals. Personally, I thought Smith played fantastic outside of a few throws he'd like to have back. In fact, the way he was reading the defense, anticipating, and attacking was something I think is rapidly growing in his game and could truly move him into special company. Granted, unless they connect on those opportunities, he will still be labelled a game manager.
The sloppy conditions didn't help. The 49ers won't come out and say that, but I do think it contributed to the sloppy play. In fact, I was impressed with how Smith threw the wet ball (he has a history of struggling with a wet football). He wasn't as on point as he expects, but my expectation was tempered by the conditions. Since when do Brian Jennings, Andy Lee, and David Akers struggle on snaps, holds, and kicks? The water contributed.
But back to expectations and standards. Nothing excited me more than the disappointment I saw in Smith & Harbaugh after the game. It is a sign of things to come. This whole team is still evolving. It is not a mirage. It isn't a flash in the pan. It is a true change in standards. The expectations are light years ahead of where they were before.
I don't think this team is OK with being labelled just a defensive, running team. They want to be explosive and dominant. They aren't going to rest on this label. They refute all labels until they are labelled the greatest. And yet they go about it the right way. They know that if they are better today than they were yesterday and are better tomorrow than they were today... there is no end to how great they can become.
I see this as a reason for the team not having "let down" games. They are beating EVERYONE they are expected to beat. That is a HUGE hurdle. The Ravens can't say that. The Saints can't say that. The 49ers take everything personal. They thrive on being slighted. And honestly, that will never end. Even as the "2nd best team in the NFL." That means they aren't 1st. They take that personally. And even when they're considered "the best," they will still find a way to be slighted. Its what Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan did. "You're the best of this generation." Their reaction would be to think, "so they don't think I'm the greatest of all time? I'll show them."
I believe in this team. Bigtime. And I don't think its a big deal if they don't beat the Ravens tomorrow (I do think the 49ers win). Nor do I mind if they can't knock off the Packers this year. This team has come so far so fast, but even better than any national attention or praise.. they have truly changed the 49ers standard. THAT is the biggest accomplishment. This is truly becoming the 49ers again. Jim Harbaugh is doing Bill Walsh proud.
This team is going to be a thorn in the side of the other 31 NFL teams for many years to come. And yes, I do believe the Lombardi Trophy will have its 6th visit to San Francisco. If not this year, over the next several years. And honestly, I can picture Alex Smith holding that trophy up. It sure as hell would be one of the best stories in NFL history.
You can't fake 9-1. Ladies & Gentlemen: the 49ers are back.