Well it’s finally here—49ers training camp has begun in Santa Clara.
Much of the talk leading into training camp revolves around specific players, position battles, and contract holdouts. But the venerable Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee brought up a very important element regarding this year’s training camp outlook in his latest feature. He suggests that this year, there’s a different culture surrounding the 49ers as they embark on another quest for the Lombardi trophy that has so narrowly evaded them the past three seasons. Barrows gets the impression that the jovial, fun-loving, us-against-the-world vibes are gone from 49ers camp. Instead, they’re approaching this season with a business mentality.
It’s an interesting notion and one that certainly has a lot of credence. After all, some of the biggest headlines coming out of this offseason weren’t draftees or new acquisitions such as Jimmie Ward and Stevie Johnson. Instead, we’ve been inundated with the Aldon Smith saga, purported Harbaugh/Baalke drama, Culliver’s off-field mishap, Kaepernick’s non-issue that was reported as an issue, and the contract holdouts of Vernon Davis and Alex Boone (thankfully, Davis has reported to camp as was expected).
While Barrows appears confident that the mood is different this year, I’m not entirely convinced it will be. Sure, there’s plenty of evidence to support an argument such as that but there’s also plenty on the other side of the table as well. First and foremost, Harbaugh is a former player and comes from a family bred for football. His excitement and passion for the game remain palpable despite the dramas, pressure, and taxing responsibilities that come with being a head coach. I’d be hard-pressed to think he won’t be jogging around with a smile on his face, throwing passes to wideouts during drills, and getting guys fired up; it’s in his DNA. That kind of spirit is infectious, it’s what endears Harbaugh to players despite his ultra-competitive, demanding demeanor; they understand it.
Secondly, there's a natural tendency for those things to wash away once players return to the field. These guys have been playing football for their entire lives, there's a sense of comfort, familiarity, and excitement when this time of the year comes around (maybe not for somebody like Alex Boone at the moment, but you get the point). Vernon Davis clearly didn't want to miss out on this opportunity for one reason or another (monetary reasons factor in, but I'm sure a love for the game and desire to contribute was at play here as well). As one of the leaders of the offense, Davis' return is great for team morale and hopefully a harbinger of good things to come.
Camp demands focus and attention, and when you're zoned in on the playbook and running drills, there's no time for anything else, especially on a stacked team. Complacency or lack of dedication will sink you quickly on this roster. These players constantly have to look over their shoulders to stay ahead the guys behind them.
Position battles and Boone's holdout are, without question, important storylines to follow during camp but the overall sentiment at camp will be more telling and far more significant. Harbaugh is a Gestalt proponent; the sum is greater than the parts; it’s all about "the team, the team, the team." With all the potential distractions that have imposed themselves upon his squad during the offseason, it’s imperative that Harbaugh reins them in and gets their minds focused on the field. When doubt and contention reared its ugly head in a rough early going last season, he proved he had the capacity and mettle to steer the ship and pull them through. They’ll need him to do so again this time around and he should be up to the challenge.