Where have you gone, 2011 49ers?
You remember that squad, right? New coach. Plucky attitude. Made-for-Lifetime-Channel story lines.
Sure, those 49ers certainly worked hard and the stakes were high. But there also was a wonderful levity about the team. Everything was new and unexpected. Coach Jim Harbaugh had a blissful, year-long honeymoon. Every word and expression – whoooo’s got it better than us? – was pure gold. The players lapped it up. The fans and media did, too.
Expectations also were light and fluffy. After all, the team hadn’t made the playoffs in the previous eight seasons. And the long offseason lockout that year prevented the incoming coaches from even laying eyes on their team until late July, making a postseason run improbable.
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Free-agent acquisitions, players who would go on to have a major impact that year and who would become household names among 49ers fans by Week 8, still were being signed a week and a half into training camp.
Playoffs? Competing and finishing strong would have been perfectly acceptable.
Harbaugh used the adversity to his advantage. It was his team against the world, against all odds. Harbaugh can recite the entire St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” – “we happy few, we band of brothers ...” – in which the young king leads a bedraggled group of Englishmen against superior French forces at Agincourt. Harbaugh was in his element in 2011; it was the ideal St. Crispin’s Day scenario.
The 49ers report to training camp today, and that levity is gone. It’s no longer fun; it’s business.
After three postseason near-misses, each one a bigger mule-kick to the solar plexus than the one before it, expectations have become a weight, a responsibility.
Two lions of the locker room, running back Frank Gore and defensive lineman Justin Smith, are entering perhaps their final year with the 49ers. Their window for a championship – wide open in 2011 – threatens to slam shut.
Other key members of that band-of-brothers squad, including cornerback Carlos Rogers, safety Donte Whitner and center Jonathan Goodwin, are playing for new teams. And the 49ers likely will open the season without linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is still coming back from his January ACL tear, and maybe linebacker Aldon Smith, who faces a possible suspension by the NFL.
Then there are the holdouts.
You have to think this is the biggest wet blanket of all to Harbaugh. Injuries are part of the game. Free-agent losses are to be expected. But contract holdouts? To someone whose cathedral is a football stadium, that’s sacrilege.
Harbaugh’s coaching style is built on creating a family atmosphere, a sanctuary if you will, within team headquarters. Everyone on the other side of the locker room door is an outsider bent on the destruction of the team. (Especially those pesky reporters; they’re like the French in “Henry V.” Boo! Hiss!) Everyone on the inside is family, part of that band of brothers.
Holdouts by Vernon Davis and Alex Boone are an affront to that philosophy.
Harbaugh never uses harsh words about his players. If they disappoint him, he might deliver the mildest of rebukes, and those come as often as he changes his wardrobe. But he came as close as he ever does to criticism of one of his players last month when Davis and Boone skipped the team’s mandatory minicamp.
“Disappointed in the decision for them not to be here,” Harbaugh said. “... This is not the decision I envision being the 49er way.”
Harbaugh and the 49ers survived the lockout in 2011, a change of quarterbacks in 2012, an Achilles injury to wideout Michael Crabtree in 2013. There’s no reason to believe they won’t get past this, too.
But the holdouts are emblematic of a team that’s no longer a group of up-and-coming, scrappy underdogs. It’s a veteran team, aging in certain areas, bumping against the salary cap, and it’s under pressure to finish a job that has remained incomplete since 2011.
It’s no longer Harbaugh and his guys against the world. The 49ers have internal strife, too, squabbles between players and the front office and between the head coach and the front office.
For the 49ers, it’s not one big happy family for 2014. It’s a business.