As a Niners fan, I worry. I’ve talked at length before about how my mom has influenced my 49er fandom, so maybe that’s my attachment style to football: that of a neurotic immigrant mother.
This year, the Niners are not answering my calls while running around at night without a jacket. They’re making me lose my shit. The last time I can remember the vibes being this weird after a playoff season was the season after the 2013 NFC Championship game. The situation was different, but one unsettling feeling from that era was the uneasiness of wondering whether this window was more shut than open.
On paper, there was enough then and there’s enough now to stay optimistic without being unrealistic. The problem with looking too closely at the paper is that we can miss what’s in front of us. The team is doodling us a picture that everything is fine - you see that squad that went 8-0 down the stretch? Run that back with Javon Hargrave and just ~believe~.
From where we sit as fans, we only see things through beat reporters and cameras. We’re looking at these stars from our telescopes — by the time their light reaches our eyes on planet Earth, they will have undergone some change that will only appear to us in a while from now when that light reaches us.
The Trey Lance situation is an example of this. There were early signs, from the Sam Darnold signing to the non-committal comments. But much like looking at a collapsing star, we weren’t seeing the sparks of a live battle when Lance suited up against the Raiders, but rather the dying gasps of an extinguished super nova that already expired a long time ago.
On planet Earth we’re perceiving these transmissions from light years away - by the time we see the images of Lance double-clutching in the preseason and see the official rumblings in the national media, we don’t realize that these decisions were made a long time ago.
Some of us are astrophysicists who claim to have seen the writing on the wall from the very beginning, while I might be a simpleton using the constellations to try to predict the weather. I thought those late-game heroics, those patterns of Trey starting cold and then heating up, were cosmic enough to be worth an interstellar quarterback journey.
I couldn’t distinguish between what, I thought, was a spark of brilliance and what was actually the contrails of a spiral.
It was tough not to shake that dynamic with the Nick Bosa extension saga. A few light months ago, we were looking at a galactic payday for an All-Galaxy player. It felt written in the stars — what is there to even negotiate about, when you clearly need the best and most important player on your team much more than he needs you?
We saw the assurances of summer turn more strained and hazier as fall made its approach. The stars and the skies were showing us all along that eventually, everything will align, and then it did. But what really went on behind closed doors? What took so long?
Last year, the Smaller Bear proved himself an apex predator, and now he’s coming back not the same bear nor to the same river. He realized that when he held out. The team did not until four days before Week 1.
Kyle and John have been comfortable wielding their double-edged paddle, empowering them to make decisions that are to be trusted and respected... even when their decision is to undo a previous decision that you trusted them with. Every season so far has felt like there’s some paddling upstream — some nervous energy and sense of inherent tension at first that the 49ers keep pushing through, eventually, far enough to not capsize but not quite far enough to make it to the end.
Kyle has proven to be a capable paddler, but he’s always rowing upstream against some fundamental weakness that eventually sinks his boat. During the regular season, these potential leaks are papered over by coaching competence and positional excellence. The key traits of a successful Kyle Shanahan team — the screaming pass rush, the precise middle-of-the-field pass plays, the well-called well-schemed well-blocked run plays — all seem to implode at the same time, when the roaring waters of the postseason come rushing in.
Weirdly enough, the more f*cky this season starts, the more confident I’m in some midseason turnaround. After a slow start, I can see them winning a few games, beating the tanking Cardinals twice, and just generally figuring it out against the NFC.
It’s the big boys that end up knocking the studs loose. We’ve seen how the elite big-armed mobile QBs poke enough holes in the defense to make it collapse on itself. We’ve seen interior pass rushes tear apart that temporary leak-plug that Kyle so painstakingly builds each year. We’ve seen linebackers crowd the edges, and we’re hoping Brock is capable of making those big-time, off-schedule clutch plays when the lights shine the brightest.
I wonder what it’s like watching this team as a non-fan. I wish I had the emotional detachment to just be morbidly curious about the whole thing. Every time the Niners are on national TV, I get a glimpse of what it’s like to just take this fascinating team in for all of its high drama and intensity.
Instead, I hold my breath every time another QB throws deep, holding back any excitement until I see that nothing gets called back for holding or a DPI. Overreactions will abound in every possible direction this season, and things will snowball or supernova quick. Maybe at the same time.
Who knows what this season has in store for us? The fate of 2023 might come down to Sam Freaking Darnold. There might be a few minutes when an entire week’s, month’s, possibly year’s worth of emotions come down to Jake Moody’s leg.
All the highest-tech machinery and the deepest wisdoms of the cosmos aren’t enough to predict which young player steps up and which old player keeps up through all 17+ games. Everybody on 49ers twitter is babbling and grasping right now because there’s an underlying sense that this is the most normal it’ll feel for a while.
The offseason has only gotten weirder as it’s gone on, and soon enough the games will start and there’ll be nowhere to run.
Every neurotic immigrant mother fears the worst when they don’t hear back from their kid. The vast majority of the time, the kid comes home safe and sound, maybe even wiser and with more life experience. On Sunday, we’ll see for ourselves what kind of life path this embryo of a season has ahead of it. As reassuring as the last season has been, the 49ers are not the same bear and this is not the same river.