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Nearly a week after the 49ers loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship, many San Franciscans have had enough time to digest the game and move on. But maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re still brooding over the loss, especially after reports that New York players specifically targeted much-maligned 49er return man Kyle Williams, he of the two game-changing fumbles, for extra punishment during the game due to his history of concussions. In which case, we present three reasons to be hopeful and happy heading into this off-season.
An actual training camp— The 49ers went from 6–10 in 2010. In 2011, they went 13–3 and narrowly missed a Super Bowl appearance. That coach Jim Harbaugh and his team accomplished this in a season that immediately followed a prolonged labor dispute that denied teams a real training camp and took away valuable prep time is even more impressive. Now, with a full season of playing together under the Niners’ belt, plus a real off-season, 2012 sparkles with promise.
The core essentially remains intact— Most of San Francisco’s key players will be part of the team for the foreseeable future: Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith are all under contract until at least 2014. The notable exception to that list is Alex Smith, who is a free agent coming off his most impressive season as a 49er. Re-signing Carlos Rogers, who tied for the team lead with six interceptions, will also likely be a priority.
Young stars— The 2011 season saw dramatic growth from Bowman, who is only 23. The second-year linebacker led the team with 143 tackles after recording only 46 in his rookie season. For perspective, the next highest tackle total on the team was 97. Rookie Aldon Smith, 22, also made quite a splash, leading the team with 14 sacks (for the football impaired, a sack means tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, which is where the play starts).
So don’t look at this season as the one where your team missed Super Bowl by losing two lousy fumbles. Think of it as the season where the 49ers gave notice to the rest of the league that they were back among the elite teams, and a force to be reckoned with.