NFL Preview: San Francisco 49ers

Believe it or not, folks, the NFL season is much closer than you can possibly imagine. So close, in fact, that, if we're going to fit in every NFL team preview by the start of the season, we have to go this early. So there you have it.

Last year, we asked some of our favorite writers to opine why Their Favorite Team Was Better Than Yours. Ultimately, we found this constrictive, and it also might have killed James Frey. So this time, we've just asked them to just run free, talk about their team, their experience as a fan, their hopes, their dreams, their desires for oral sex. All our teams are now assigned; if you sent us an email and we didn't get back to you, we're sorry, and we accept your scorn. But today: San Francisco 49ers.

Your author is Rick Chandler, the associate editor of Deadspin. His words are after the jump.

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First of all Will, your waterboarding is scheduled for September 10. That's when the 49ers open the season against the Sawdust that is the Arizona Cardinals (play Taps here). Sadly, your pain will begin shortly after kickoff, continue without common mercy or decency until halftime, then resume in particularly humiliating fashion as the hounds are released in the third quarter.

Don't let Will fool you with his aw-shucks Midwestern act. He may pretend to think that his own team is terrible and will not win a game, but it's all just a passive-aggressive farce. He roots for the Cardinals with the wild-eyed intensity of a monkey that has been hooked to electrodes by the nipples, and God help you if your team gets in his way. But sadly, The Cardinals suck gigantic bantha balls. Leinart? A dead man. Whisenhunt? Dead. Neidermayer? DEAD.

Bitter much? You bet. Arizona beat us twice last season, despite the existence of this. In fact, the 49ers haven't beaten them since December 2004. It's payback time, in a big, way. We will use Neil Rackers' bones to make our soup.

So that's two wins we can count on. As for the rest of the schedule, it's baby steps, Bob. This is a very frustrating year to be a 49ers fan, actually. By most estimations they're just one year away from greatness, bringing to mind an analogy involving a 17-year-old cheerleader which I won't use. Oh 49ers, you tease. Yes, despite what you may have heard, you're not going to see San Francisco up in that class with the Bears and the Saints this season, and the Super Bowl is right out. But I'm not ruling out the playoffs, because the rest of the NFC is so dysfunctional. And the NFC West even moreso. Esteemed and prickly Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto is fond of saying that the flags at Monster Park often wave in every direction at once, including up. The 49ers similarly could end up anywhere, winning the division at 10-6, or coming in third at 6-10. (Fourth is not an option: See Graph 1).

I'm looking at the schedule, though, and I'm having a hard time figuring out where those 10 wins are going to come from. Of their first five games, for instance, the 49ers are at St. Louis and Pittsburgh and home against Seattle and Baltimore. This is essentially the same team that Mike Nolan fielded last season, with a new coat of paint and less one pretty good offensive coordinator (Norv Turner). The key newcomers:

• The 49ers earn kudos for signing free agent cornerback Nate Clements from Buffalo, although his eight-year, $80 million contract evokes visions of another expensive SF acquisition, Barry Zito. Clemens was the most sought after defensive player on the free agent market, but people are comparing him to a young Ronnie Lott, and that's a big stretch.

• Darrell Jackson comes over from the Seahawks to become the team's No. 1 wide receiver. Arnaz Battle will be the other starter at a position where the 49ers are unusually deep.

• Rookie Patrick Willis (Mississippi) has done so well that he was elevated to the starting lineup on Monday, supplanting Derek Smith at weak inside linebacker, moving Smith to strong inside linebacker. Brandon Moore, who led the team in tackles last season with 114, is the odd man out. Of course, promoting someone after having just played the Raiders is fraught with peril, but we'll deal with that as it comes.

So, defense much improved. But remember, last year it was practically unwatchable on that side of the ball. They're rebuilding from the ground up, and that takes time.

For the first time in a long time, the 49ers actually have competition at several positions. For instance, rookie Joe Staley is pushing Kwame Harris at right tackle. And Joe Baas is doing the same to Justin Smiley at right guard. Shawntae Spencer and Keith Lewis, starters last season at cornerback and safety, respectively, are now backups to Clements and fellow newcomer Michael Lewis.

And then there's the 49ers' two greatest assets: Quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore. Smith has improved more than anyone outside of San Francisco is willing to acknowledge; his performances in brief stints against Denver and Oakland in the preseason were outstanding. Gore is coming off a broken hand and should be ready for the opener.

Something else you should know: The City of San Francisco has named the playing surface Bill Walsh Field, so it's now officially Bill Walsh Field at Monster Park at Candlestick Point. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

And they'll be wearing their throwback '80s Super Bowl-era duds in the opener. Fear the Thick White Stripe. Oh yes, fear it, Will. The 49ers are who you thought they were. Crown 'em.