The 49ers have the media, fans and the rest of the league right where they want them as training camp begins. Which is, thinking that they’re going to stink.
The last time that happened was 2011, the summer of the lockout. Jim Harbaugh and his new coaching staff didn’t get their hands on their players until the lockout ended in late July, which everyone figured was just plain unlucky. There was no way a first-time NFL head coach was going to turn around a six-win team without the benefit of a full offseason of work. An 8-8 season would be a triumph under those circumstances.
Well, the 49ers won 13 regular-season games that season and hosted the NFC Championship Game. They came within two Kyle Williams muffed punts of the Super Bowl and were considered title contenders for the next three seasons.
This year, instead of the 49ers battling the Seahawks for NFC West supremacy, prognosticators have the 49ers – who experienced an unprecedented offseason exodus of players and coaches – duking it out with the Rams for last place in the division.
Even fan enthusiasm has dulled. Ticketnetwork.com reports that ticket prices for 49ers games have dropped nearly 30 percent compared to last year, although that may partly be the result of an uptick in 2014 from fans eager to experience newly built Levi’s Stadium.
Lowered expectations, however, have also led to a level of calm around 49ers headquarters that hasn’t been seen since, well, 2011.
Just think back to everything that was swirling this time last year.
▪ The 49ers had lost the NFC Championship Game, one that ended with No.1 enemy Richard Sherman flashing a “choke” sign at Colin Kaepernick and offering smarmy “good game” gestures to Michael Crabtree. The 49ers were angry, defiant and amped to avenge that loss.
▪ Harbaugh was butting heads with upper management, rumors of trade talks with the Browns had roiled the waters even more, and it was evident he was entering a Super Bowl-or-so-long season.
▪ NaVorro Bowman, perhaps the 49ers’ best player, had suffered a grisly knee injury and was unlikely to play in 2014. Aldon Smith, perhaps their second-best player, was facing a long suspension.
▪ And, oh yeah, the team was opening a new stadium that was built literally in their front yard.
All of which created a blast furnace of tension that was palpable to anyone who spent even a small amount of time around team headquarters. It was a no-fun zone.
Harbaugh hit on the perfect theme last year when he said: “It’s like Sisyphus – all the way to the top, and then the season ends and the boulder rolls all the way back to the bottom. We’re going to start pushing that rock, that boulder and see if we can’t get it to the very top.”
The boulder, of course, didn’t get close to the top. It stopped midway, then came tumbling back down, scattering 49ers coaches and players along the way.
There’s still pressure this year. The boulder is still heavy. But the atmosphere as the 49ers begin training camp is decidedly lighter than it was last year and the players and staff aren’t dealing with added weight around their necks.
“It doesn’t bother me,” left tackle Joe Staley said last month of the low expectations for his team. “Harbaugh’s first year, people thought we were going to be crappy. And last year everyone thought we’d be really amazing. ... There are a million factors that go into a team being successful or unsuccessful. You can’t predict that right now.”