Did you know Panthers are not real? I mean they are real, but they are just color variant of a Jaguar or a Leopard. I'm not sure how this is relevant I just thought that you should know they are not a separate sub-species of big cats...
Did you notice that big piece of sky landing near you while I had you deep in thought regarding the Panther and its melanistic differences from a Jaguar? Well if you didn't, it's over there and it is big sharp and jagged. So put on your panic pants (read: zubaz) and find the nearest fallout shelter, because it is time to hunker down for the apocalypse.
If you really think about it, you can remember this feeling form seasons past. Maybe your chest tightened a couple years ago when Tony Romo totally Romo-ed the 49ers with in the fourth quarter and overtime. Perhaps you felt it last season when the Vikings did some voodoo and won, then inexplicably made the playoffs...Oh yeah, Adrian Peterson...never mind. Possibly you mashed the panic button when Alex Smith got injured and the 49ers tied the Rams...THE RAMS! Mayhaps you scrambled for cover when the Seahawks (another non-real animal; should be "Ospreys") chewed the Niners up and regurgitated them to their young. Maybe you are not human and this is the first time you have felt a twinge of alarm over the direction the season is going.
I have to make the case that a lot of this "worst case scenario" induced anxiety is partly a hangover from the last decade, before Baalke and Harbaugh arrived. Those dark years have left us believing, perhaps subconsciously, that recent success is still a house of cards ready to tumble down any second. Think back to the last two seasons and ask yourself how many time you felt like "yeah we totally got this" instead of "please don't f**k it up." The parallels to my emotional state are eerily similar to when this same game took place last season. Sure the 49ers had just pummeled the Bears on MNF and no one had realized how awful the Saints were going to be last year, but, at the time, the game felt incredibly important. It was a chance for the 49ers to prove that they could win consistently without Alex Smith and that Colin Kaepernick was not one game fluke a'la Matt Flynn.
Up until that point, success never felt real. The best part about being a 49ers fan in the 1990s was that I could say, with all the confidence in the world, "whatever, we'll see you in January" any time they dropped a game they probably should have won. I still remember that Eagles game in 1994 when they lost 40-8 to a team that finished 7-9 on the season. Maybe it was the audacity of youth that let me brush that one off (I cried when they lost to the Giants in the '91 NFC Championship game...I was 6 years old). Since then I've grown to realize the winning in the NFL is never a sure thing; just look at the Jaguars.
So here we are exactly a year later finding our team at a crossroads in their season. There are different issues than last year and different obstacles to success, but it is a significant game none-the-less. In reality the loss to Carolina is not a bad one. A couple months ago I attended an Intel "Inside the Huddle" event in San Francisco where I got to interview Jerry Rice (yup still bragging about that one). But he wasn't the only person I talked to while I was there. Another member of the panel was Kevin Meers, co-president of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, who I talked with, at length, about my disastrous fantasy football career and the upcoming NFL season. One of the more surprising bits of information he dropped on me was that Carolina was a dark horse Super Bowl contender as long as they could "fix some of strategic decision making" during games. He railed off a bunch of stats I couldn't understand, but I trust the brainiac and I would not be surprised if he's running a team someday.
This is the part where I ask people to stop Chicken Little-ing about. These 49ers are a very good team, but the '72 Dolphins they are not. Heck, they might not even be the 2012 Ravens, but they are a contender. Imperfections abound, especially on offense, but all it takes is the team getting hot for three or four games. Any time you have a playoff system it's just about getting in (NFL > FBS). The regular season is when you are allowed to work out the kinks and you are not required to be perfect until January.
Take a step back and look at the big picture: Carolina is a good team and will beat a lot of other teams. The Saints are a good team and will beat a lot of other teams. Each week is an opportunity to get better and, in the 49ers case, getting better just means finding ways to be more consistent. It seems silly to debate the merits of elevating Kaepernick to "elite" status (screw you Jaws) or whether Greg Roman is actually football's most brilliant troll (Irsay might have something to say about that).
This isn't to say that discussion should cease on the stagnant offense or what needs to change to see a marked improvement. It is to say that when you get the feeling like you need to yell "bench Kaepernick" or "fire Roman" or "Five Guys is better than In-n-Out;" resist the urge to sound like an ESPN blow hard. I like to believe we have the smartest fan base in football but the outlandish discussions I've seen this week make me sad...Like, Tony Romo sad.
Win or lose against the Saints on Sunday we will know a little bit more about this team. Prepare for the worst but expect the best might be the easiest way to look at this. Who knows, maybe we will get another season defining moment via Ahmad Brooks. And for you nihilists, there could be plenty of opportunity to stare upward looking for falling sky after the Seahawks game next month.