SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For a while in the offseason it looked like the 49ers might become the NFL's dropped watermelon of 2014. There were rumors about coach Jim Harbaugh and management not being on the same page. There were players running afoul of the law and the league. And there were contract issues.
And then training camp began. "Most people think January 1 is the start of a new year," Harbaugh told me after a practice this week. "Some people think the new year correlates with the birth of Christ. In football we look at a new year as the opening day of training camp, when we are reborn into a new season. What took place the previous season … if that's all you are talking about, then you haven't done anything today. We choose to do something today to talk about."
The 49ers are working hard and looking good. Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis is an example of how the Niners have focused on the now. In the offseason, Davis was a no-show for team activities, devoting his time instead, he said, to building his brand. Davis did not get the new paper he hoped for, but he showed up for camp, and he showed up in a big way. "He looks great, so fast" tight ends coach Eric Mangini said. "I haven't gotten any sense in meetings, personal time or on the field that [his contract situation] is affecting him. I haven't gotten any sense that is committed to anything other than this."
There are those who believe that a little turmoil can be beneficial for a team. Stirring the pot helps bring out the flavors. Many football coaches are famous for using controversies as rallying points and using them to create us against them scenarios. Harbaugh, who played for Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka, and who worked for Al Davis, understands how this game is played.
"There are a lot of things that can potentially pull a team apart," he said. "Some get paid more than others -- that could pull the team apart. There are outside forces. There is the opponent. There is media speculation, looking for controversy at every turn. And they are actively trying to pull the team apart. There are a lot of things that work against the team dynamic. So you fight back. You fight back the best way you know how. When the mission is what is driving the people who are on your team, that's all that matters."
Harbaugh's mission is apparent all around the team. As the 49ers exit their locker room, they are met with a large sign that reads, "You are getting better or you are getting worse. You never stay the same." It's hard to imagine anyone thinking this team is getting worse.
Fullback Bruce Miller and quarterback Colin Kaepernick just were having a conversation about how fluid and fast the 49ers offense is moving in practice. That doesn't happen on teams that are not unified and working together well. "One really good thing about this team is we have fantastic leadership from front office to locker room," Miller said. "When we come into the building and it's time to go to work, everything else gets put aside. Ask any of those guys. When we cross those lines, it's one mission. Everything else is left behind. A lot of things are in the rear view mirror right now."
The 49ers are impressive on a physical level. They have gifted players stacked one atop the other like some of the great teams before the salary cap. Kaepernick is a unique player who can impact games in many ways. Aldon Smith is a dominator who does things few ever have been able to do. Special talent is evident in almost every position drill, as Michael Crabtree, Joe Staley, Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Eric Reid are among the best at what they do.
The 49ers also are impressive on a spiritual level. "The thing that stands out the most to me is our team is hungry," Harbaugh said. "I see it through their effort, their execution. I see it in their eyes. Cheerful and undefeated is what I see when I look in their eyes."
Better than disgruntled and dismayed.
Marshawn Lynch The Seahawks running back ended his holdout Thursday because it was his only option. The team was not going to give him more money after giving him an extension two years ago, and that was made clear to Lynch. The team already makes a lot of exceptions for Lynch and has done a lot to accommodate his idiosyncrasies, many of which are becoming more pronounced as he becomes more successful. It is fair to wonder if more money would have been a good thing for Lynch. The other factor is his holdout could have become very costly for Lynch. Holdouts can docked $30,000 a day, so the Seahawks could have taken more than $200,000 from Lynch. Additionally, they could have started taking back portions of his signing bonus. Lynch does not like to be fined. After the league fined him $50,000 for not cooperating with the media, Lynch tried to get the fine rescinded. He also showed up for minicamp to avoid a fine of $69,455.
Drew Brees. The Saints' quarterback says he wants to play until he is 45. And the 35-year-old says he is serious. Without question, this is possible. But it is not likely that Brees will be a starter for ten more years. If he's playing full-time, his body probably will wear down and the hits will have a cumulative effect. There is no reason Brees cannot be a backup for maybe six years after being a starter for the next four. Players in Brees' era have benefited greatly from advances in medicine, treatment, nutrition and training. Their bodies should hold up longer than players from any previous generation. And there is precedent. Steve DeBerg was a full-time quarterback starter for the last time in his career in 1991 at the age of 37. But he then became a backup for two years and after a four year retirement he came back to become the oldest quarterback ever to start a game at the age of 44. Brees is a considerably more gifted passer.
Jerry Jones. The owner of the Cowboys said he was very close to drafting Johnny Manziel. If that is the case, this was not the time to admit it. And there never may be a time. Jones made the right pick in the first round in Zack Martin. The offensive lineman is everything Manziel is not -- safe, consistent and a leader. Martin will help stabilize the Cowboys; Manziel would have disrupted the Cowboys. It's a little baffling how it came down to those two for Jones.
Chris Kluwe. The former punter may be hurting his former teammates as well as Vikings management. Kluwe alleges the team released him for supporting same-sex marriage and is attempting to reach a settlement with the team. He also accused Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer of making homophobic remarks, and as a result Priefer will attend sensitivity training and be suspended for the Vikings first two games, against the Rams and Patriots. Priefer is widely regarded as one of the best special teams coaches in the league, and being without him at the start of the season will be a hardship for a team with a mostly new training staff. In Priefer's absence, the Vikings will give assistant special teams coach Ryan Ficken more responsibility. They also are planning on bringing in a retired special teams coach to advise. Priefer also has done some advance work on the Rams and Patriots.
Jordy Nelson. The Packers gave their No. 1 wide receiver a contract extension worth $39.8 million over four years in part because Nelson is everything they thought he would be. Two qualities stood out to the Packers when they scouted Nelson prior to the 2008 draft. The first is Nelson was excellent after the catch. Green Bay scouts charted every one of his receptions at Kansas State and came to the conclusion he was the best receiver in the draft with the ball in his hands. Nelson has become one of the best big play threats in the game in part because of his ability to use his deceptive strength, quick feet and run skills after the catch. The second quality the Packers saw back then is Nelson was a clutch performer. That hasn't changed, and you can see Aaron Rodgers' trust in him on all the back shoulder throws he sends Nelson's way.
DeSean Jackson. Eagles coach Chip Kelly is saying his former wide receiver did not draw double coverage or open things up for other Eagles receivers last year. Jackson is saying his new team in Washington has better fans than his old team in Philadelphia. It's clear Jackson is in the right place for him. But he might have been on another team if Al Davis had not died three years ago. Bruce Allen, the Redskins general manager who signed Jackson, worked for Davis and the Raiders for eight years. "I had hundreds of conversations with him about what he was looking for in a receiver," Allen told me. "Al would have found out what hotel and restaurant we were in [when the Redskins were courting Jackson]. He would have sent a plane for him. Al smiled on me for signing him, but he's probably not happy he's not wearing silver and black."
Ted Thompson. It's good to see Ted Thompson's contract extension with the Packers as he begins his 10th season in Green Bay. I've known Thompson since he was just a scout. One reason Thompson has done so well is he still sees himself as one. "Ron Wolf told me along time ago -- you are a scout," Thompson once told me. "That's the most important thing you do. Don't lose sight of it." Thompson is one of the few general managers who spends much of their time during the season on the road scouting college players. The 61 year old said he sees a value in getting his "boots on the ground" at a college campuses.
Dee Milliner of the Jets recently proclaimed himself the best cornerback in the game. It is an assessment that he likely shares with no one who earns a paycheck evaluating football players. "He had an average year," one high ranking front office man said. "What he said was a joke."
But the fact that Milliner could even think that points to how the position is in a down cycle. At training camps all across the league, wide receivers are making big plays and getting talked up. Cornerbacks? Not so much.
Part of it is how the rules put corners at a disadvantage. And another part of it is that many in the old guard at the position are showing signs of age. Most of the up and comers haven't quite come up yet. "I'm not sure who they are, but some of the young guys will step up in the next couple years," the front office man said. "Outside of Richard Sherman, you really aren't seeing dominant cornerback play these days."
Patrick Peterson of the Cardinals, Joe Haden of the Browns and Darrelle Revis of the Patriots probably are the next best after Sherman, and Revis gets an asterisk because he could be the best if his knee returns to pre-surgery form. I asked two front office men which young corners have shown signs they could step up in the next couple of years. They mentioned Milliner, Stephon Gilmore of the Bills, Desmond Trufant of the Falcons, Tramaine Brock of the 49ers and Janoris Jenkins of the Rams.
Meanwhile, there is a significant group of corners who once were considered among the best in the game and now are on the back ends of their careers like Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson and Antonio Cromartie.
"We are in a bridge period at the position," one general manager said. "There are some really talented young corners who can ascend into top ones, but they aren't there yet. And there are some who were there and have dropped. Few are in their prime right now."
Twelve teams make the postseason. Right now, these are the league's 12 best.
1. Seahawks. If ever you can trust the team not to lose its edge after a championship, you can trust the Seahawks. People inside the organization believe the team is practicing and preparing with more intensity than ever. All the planets ultimately might not align for this team the way they did one year ago, but the Seahawks are No. 1 until proven otherwise.
2. 49ers. There is no lack of confidence on the practice field in the shadows of new Levi Stadium. "I believe we could be a great team," Ahmad Brooks said. "The best team I was on was my seventh year when we did go to the Super Bowl. We have the players to be like that." No argument here.
3. Packers. This was a division winner last year but the Packers are capable of improvement on a number of fronts. They should improve as a result of having the best quarterback in the NFL around for more than nine games, having young players like Eddie Lacy develop and the addition of players like Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
4. Broncos. Denver is that rare team that is coming off a Super Bowl appearance and can play the no respect card. The offseason focus was defensive improvement, but it may be a challenge to maintain the status quo, or even approach it, on offense.
5. Patriots. Do not be distracting by the large, shirtless, dancing man with surgical cars on his ankle, knee, back and arm. The Patriots should remain in an elite groove as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are on top of their game. And if Darrelle Revis is moving like he did pre-knee injury, the Pats should be capable of doing some things defensively that very few teams can do.
6. Saints. In the offseason the Saints added the Drew Brees of safeties in Jairus Byrd. The New Orleans defense keeps looking better and better, and we can be reasonably sure the offense, with a happy Jimmy Graham, will hold up its end.
7. Eagles. Either the rest of the league will figure out Chip Kelly and Nick Foles, or Kelly and Foles will continue to figure out the rest of the league. It was a pretty good start for the head coach-quarterback combination last year. If Kelly and Foles can build on it, this team can become one of the NFL's elite.
8. Cardinals. Patrick Peterson now is locked in for five years. He also is locked in at cornerback, as he no longer will freelance on offense and special teams. This could be the year he takes off and he could take the Cardinals with him.
9. Colts. The importance of the return of Reggie Wayne cannot be overstated. It's true the Colts offense was pretty good without him, but it can be much better with him. The reason is Wayne has better timing and chemistry with Andrew Luck than anyone.
10. Bears. If this team stays healthy, it is going to be very, very good. Especially on offense. The age on defense is the X-factor. If the older defenders can stay on the field and maintain a high level of production (and the key offensive players remain healthy), the Bears will be able to play with any team.
11. Chargers. Philip Rivers really is on top of his game, to the point where he can put a team on his shoulders. He is a great quarterback, and great quarterbacks can do great things when they have the right people around them. The Chargers look like they have a lot of pieces in place.
12. Rams. The only thing to not like about the Rams is the division they play in. If Sam Bradford can resume playing like he was playing before his knee last year, and if some of the young Rams can rise up, the Rams are not going to be the team that gets trampled in the NFC West.