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.”