Barber: Against Chiefs, 49ers can finally show improvement

The San Francisco 49ers' Brian Hoyer, right, throws a pass during training camp in Santa Clara, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)


SANTA CLARA — The 49ers’ practice session stank on Wednesday. I mean, it literally smelled of sewage. Presumably, the wind was blowing from the northeast, bringing with it the unmistakable aroma of the San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility, located along the esteros north of Highway 237.

It was an unwelcome intrusion into the 49ers’ storybook summer. Excitement is running sky-high here on Marie P. DeBartolo Way as the team prepares for Friday's preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. The new coach is a budding genius. The new general manager is a breath of fresh air. The new quarterback is a distinct upgrade. The new draft picks are poised to make an immediate impact.

This is how the NFL operates in August. The expectancy of a new season makes everyone forget inconvenient truths. Like this one: The 49ers finished 2-14 a year ago.

And this one: We haven’t seen one real shred of evidence that this year’s team is any better.

Don’t get me wrong. There are valid reasons to be optimistic, starting with head coach Kyle Shanahan. A lot of teams wanted him after he helped guide the Falcons to the Super Bowl, and the 49ers landed him. Since then, Shanahan has wowed Niners players with his wonky aptitude for Xs and Os.

Left tackle Joe Staley has been an early supporter, and it seems to have rubbed off on right guard Brandon Fusco, who signed with the 49ers in early May after six years with the Vikings.

“I remember Joe saying, I think it was during OTAs, that Kyle’s one of the smartest guys he’s been around. I mean, I agree,” Fusco said. “The guy explains the game to us in a different view — perspective, I guess — that I had never seen before. He’ll be in the offensive meetings and talking, and the defense is sitting there, and they’re explaining the weaknesses that I didn’t see in the defense, what they did or something. It’s just weird stuff like that I’ve never seen, and it’s unbelievable.”

Kyle’s father, Mike Shanahan, was one of the most cunning play-callers of his generation, and the trait doesn’t appear to have skipped a generation. So yeah, I can understand why 49ers ownership put its faith in Kyle Shanahan, and why the players are carrying pom-poms for him.

The rest of us, though, should remain clear-eyed. After all, the 49ers have spent most of the past two weeks playing the 49ers.

You can evaluate individual players during training camp; you can see who is dropping passes and who is getting past blockers en route to the quarterback. But it’s virtually impossible to gauge an entire team. Every Niners touchdown catch is also a Niners coverage lapse. Every 49ers blocked punt is also a blown blocking assignment on the 49ers punt unit.

Have we seen anything to demonstrate team-wide improvement?

“I don’t know if there’s something I’ve seen, but I can definitely feel it a little bit,” left guard Zane Beadles said. “This training camp has been a little bit of a grind so far, which is a good thing. It gets a little tough at times, and we’re getting a little run down and tired. But I think it’s gonna benefit us in the end. It’s hard to win in this league, and we need to go out there and put in the work that we need to be our best. … The way that we’re working is giving us a chance to be that way.”

That’s a good way to put it. Shanahan’s mind for tactics, and his demanding approach to practice, give the 49ers a chance to be better. But those qualities are not, by themselves, proof that things have moved in the right direction.

Let’s take a look at a few areas that have fans fired up.

QUARTERBACK: When the 49ers signed Brian Hoyer in March, pretty much everyone agreed that he was a solid stopgap until the 2018 offseason, when the team will either snap up Kirk Cousins as a free agent or go shopping in what is expected to be a dynamite quarterback draft class.

But for NFL watchers, a lack of meaningful games is tantamount to a lack of food. It plays tricks with the mind. Suddenly, football-starved fanatics are looking at Brian Hoyer, who is essentially a basic In-N-Out cheeseburger, and seeing a dry-aged, 16-ounce New York steak. Dial it back, people. The last time Hoyer played for Shanahan, with the 2014 Browns, he completed 55.3 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12).

WIDE RECEIVER: One time my aunt and uncle returned from a family vacation to find that the electricity had gone out and everything in their standalone freezer had spoiled. The 49ers (rightfully) treated their 2016 receiving corps like my relatives treated the contents of that freezer, tossing everything in the trash and starting from scratch. The only holdovers are Jeremy Kerley and a couple of bit players.

The new cast should be a lot better, right? I mean, Pierre Garcon is a bona fide NFL wide receiver. But does he have enough complements? And even if these guys reap the benefits of Shanahan’s offense, I’m still not sure they have a true deep threat, a weapon this team has lacked for years.

LINEBACKER: This position has been an opiate for the 49ers faithful in 2017. Imagine reconstructed superman NaVorro Bowman, seasoned vet Malcolm Smith and rookie sensation Reuben Foster playing side-by-side or swapping reps. It could be beautiful.

The vision didn’t last long, though. Smith tore his pectoral muscle last Saturday and is on injured reserve. That leaves Bowman and Foster, two immensely likable players who are medical wild cards.

Bowman missed 12 games after rupturing an Achilles’ tendon last season, and really hasn’t been the same player since he destroyed his knee in the 2013 NFC championship game. Foster has loads of potential. He also arrived in Santa Clara on the tail end of a severe shoulder injury, and has missed snaps during training camp — including Wednesday, when I was there — with a bum ankle.

None of these situations are season killers. They’re merely reminders — reminders that the giant strides the 49ers have made in 2017 are purely theoretical. They are wishes and prayers, until the team demonstrates otherwise.

That’s why the preseason opener is so intriguing. Yes, the starters will get mere tastes of playing time. The game will reveal only fleeting moments of insight. But at least that’s something to go on. Which is more than the nothing we have right now.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.