SANTA CLARA (CBS / AP) — Alex Smith jokingly compared his blossoming relationship with wide receiver Randy Moss to a new girlfriend. Jim Harbaugh offered excitement, angst and little insight all at once. Moss even offered his opinion again.
And so it began.
The day the San Francisco 49ers had waited for since losing to the New York Giants in overtime of the NFC championship game in January finally arrived Friday, beginning training camp ahead of the franchise’s most anticipated season in more than a decade.
“You sense so many emotions,” said an ever-enthusiastic Harbaugh, the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. “They’re off-the-charts kind of emotions. There’s extreme excitement. There’s nervousness. There’s anticipation. There’s angst. How do I know they have the emotions? Because I’ve got them, too.”
Easy to see why.
The NFC West champions return every starter from one of the NFL’s best defenses, which propelled resurgent San Francisco back to prominence after nine years out of the playoffs. The offense also added receivers Moss, Mario Manningham and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins along with running backs Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James.
All are on the field together with one goal this season: a Super Bowl title.
“I don’t like living off the past but it’s hard to forget the past when you start having success,” said the 35-year-old Moss, who spoke to reporters for the first time since he signed a one-year deal March 12 after a year away from football. “I see the expectations we have for one another, and as a whole unit, we set the bar high. The good thing is we come to work. Everybody is attentive, taking notes, asking questions. Everybody is a professional athlete. The sky is the limit.”
Day One of training camp was more about show than substance.
San Francisco held a pad-free practice under a blue sky and temperatures in the 70s at the team’s Silicon Valley headquarters, where cranes and bulldozers are blasting all around the facility as workers are months into building a planned $1.2 billion stadium that the 49ers hope to open for the 2014 season.
While it’s easy to see the team’s future rising all around, how strong the present’s foundation will be is harder to project.
Harbaugh has ingrained it in players to “get better each day” —which has also become his routine answer to most questions—and plastered the motivational slogans all over the facility since last year. But staying focused and not looking too far ahead will be a bigger challenge this season than ever.
Expectations are soaring following a 13-3 regular season and that thrilling 36-32 victory over the favored New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs showed Smith—the 2005 No. 1 overall pick who had been booed for most of his career—might be a reliable quarterback after all. So many since have selected San Francisco as a Super Bowl favorite, a moniker that brings added pressure and attention, both of which Harbaugh tries to deflect.
“We have great expectations. We have big hopes. We’ve got big dreams,” Harbaugh said. “As it relates to our expectations, they are to go out and have a great practice this afternoon, and great expectations for tonight’s meeting. The other things are irrelevant at this point.”
How the quarterback plays this season will be most relevant.
Smith showed incredible efficiency last season, tossing 17 touchdown passes to only five interceptions. But he also ranked 19th in the NFL with a career-high 3,144 yards passing and struggled to find wide receivers in the NFC title game.
After the 49ers flirted with free agent Peyton Manning until he chose Denver, they settled on Smith with a three-year deal that has some $16.5 million guaranteed. Now Smith also has a retooled receiver corps that is expected to significantly improve a passing game that relied mostly on tight ends last year.
First thing on the agenda: developing a relationship with Moss— just not that kind of a relationship.
“No one-on-one date yet. We’re not there just yet, still more in the courting stage,” Smith joked when asked if he and Moss have spent any time together off the field yet. “We’re not exclusive.”
Both will have plenty of time to get more acquainted.
The 49ers’ first preseason game is Aug. 10 against the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park, where Kyle Williams’ fumble on a punt return led to Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard field goal that ended San Francisco’s season. Some seven months since that rain-soaked title game, the 49ers will be fueled this season by that heartbreaking loss.
“I think that feeling is still there,” Smith said. “As much as we all talk about pressing delete on last year. I mean, obviously a lot of excitement going to the playoffs and the 13-3 (record) and things like that and getting a playoff win, but I don’t think that anyone is pressing delete on the taste in our mouth.
“Working that hard to get that close to your goal and not get there is definitely, I think, even more bitter than some of the losing seasons that I’ve been a part of. So, no question, that is still there. Whether or not it’s a good thing, we’ll see.”
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