09/24/2010 03:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: A Slow Climb to the Top

My introduction to the game of football came on January 29,1995, Super Bowl XXIX. On that day, both before and after the Indiana Jones halftime show, Steve Young and Jerry Rice were seen bludgeoning the San Diego Chargers in front of millions of people.

My eight year old brain didn't understand what it was watching. Why were so many people tuned in to watch a blowout; and more importantly, who were these hapless guys from San Diego and why did they deserve a shot at the title? If they were second best and the Niners were the class of the sport, what did that say about the other 20 something teams?

With 13 members in the hall of fame (one more than the Dallas Cowboys) the San Francisco 49ers have as much tradition as anyone. Their fan base is, rightfully so, a proud one.

As this fan base can attest to, these past 10 years have been different. Dark and different. Despite hope, promise, and the fading expectation of success come each August, the organization has sadly been clinging to the tall peak of irrelevance. But this year's team promises to glow, and right now they're as perplexing as it gets.

I like puzzling teams; they're interesting and the underlying reason why sports keep us coming back. If the good teams were always good and the bad teams were always terrible, why would we care? It's the overachievers, the underachievers, the squads who live up to expectations, and the ones who send analysts to the unemployment line that makes sports viewable year after year.

San Francisco is what one might call a sleeper. They compete in the league's worst division with the grand luxury of playing St. Louis, Arizona, and Seattle in six out of their 16 games. (So far, the division is winless against everyone but themselves.)

Their head coach is either insane or a genius, depending on who you ask, and their starting quarterback has all the physical tools, and then some, to be one of the league's best at his position. So far he's a franchise quarterback undeserving of the title.

The week 1 loss to Seattle was viewed as one of the sport's bigger upsets, and their defense's gutting at the hands of a washed up Matt Hasselback was as mystifying as the day is long. (A defense, mind you, that heading into the season was ranked No. 1 in most fantasy leagues. Not that this should account for too much, but still, it means something.)

Patrick Willis, their middle linebacker, (a position viewed as the quarterback of the defense) is the league's best. He is the Peyton Manning of defenders. Takeo Spikes is a poor man's Ray Lewis, but he hits just as hard and their expensive cornerbacks might not deserve every single penny, but they shouldn't be playing for free, either.

Vernon Davis, the highest paid tight end in the history of football, treats every open field run like the cameras on him are filming an Under Armour commercial. He's quickly gaining a reputation as the league's hardest man to bring down. Justin Smith is an All-Pro defensive end, and Taylor Mays and Michael Crabtree have the physical skills to be household names.

If San Francisco does in fact break through and assert their dominance in a division that very well should be theirs for the taking, their defense is one no offensive coordinator will want to meet in December. Will they put up 55 points to win a Super Bowl? Most likely, no. Could they make a run if Mike Singletary tightens up the ship and they stop turning the ball over? Crazier things have happened.

Monday night's loss to the Saints reminded me of the infamous "They Are Who We Thought They Were" heartbreaker a few years ago. The loser in that game found themselves two minutes from winning a Super Bowl just a couple seasons later.

After starting their season 0-2, this may not be San Francisco's year to run the table, but their pieces are in place; don't be surprised if in a year or two the Niners are winning with a different identity than they did 20 years ago. Instead of the dominant trendsetter, Mike Singletary's crew will be the underdog.