February 26, 2024
Hoarding top-level talent and held together by an all-moxie quarterback, the 2023 49ers are built to match the franchise's best-ever teams.

There is only one acceptable outcome for the San Francisco 49ers this season: a championship.

No more long-term plans. No more “wait until next year.” No more considering coming close a success. No more blaming injuries or bad luck for coming up short.

It’s been 29 years since the 49ers last won the Super Bowl. That streak cannot reach 30.

And while the Super Bowl LVIII is five months away, Sunday’s 2023 season opener in Pittsburgh against the Steelers (10 a.m., KTVU-TV) will let everyone know if these 49ers understand the assignment.

Strangely, this all-or-nothing pressure — a force that could fortify or break this squad throughout the season — is refreshing.

An uncompromising standard was once implicit for this organization, a bedrock of American professional sports.

I’m glad it’s back.

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Let those other teams and cities revel in making the playoffs or even a conference title game — that’s all they’ll ever achieve.

The 49ers used to be — and still should be — above all that.

Somewhere in the last three decades, the organization’s standards slipped. There were a few delirious but fleeting seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh where the standard was raised, only for the Niners to revert in the most embarrassing ways following his ignominious (for the team) exit.

But after a swift but comprehensive rebuild, Kyle Shanahan has returned the Niners to the precipice of their rightful place atop the league, going to three NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl in the last four seasons.

Now he needs to get this team over the hump and raise a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

“That’s one of the reasons we came here,” Shanahan said of the expectations.

“Every day we feel it,” general manager John Lynch said of the pressure.

The good news is that Shanahan and Lynch have built a team that will make the old boss, former owner Eddie DeBartolo, proud.

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The modern NFL is built for roster parity and defined by quarterbacks, but — in a nod to DeBartolo’s old forget-you attitude — the Niners are bucking that trend to reach the top.

These Niners are downright greedy, hoarding top-level talent like DeBartolo once did — price be damned. The Niners have bent the salary cap every which way — a constraint DeBartolo didn’t need to reckon with during the Niners’ hey-days — to build a roster with arguably the best running back, tight end, wide-receiver duo, left tackle, defensive end, defensive tackle tandem, linebackers, and strong safety in the league.

The standard for the best Niner team of all time is high. The 1984 and 1989 Niners are two of the best teams in league history. The 1994 team was no slouch, either. The 2023 team has the talent to enter the debate, but that can only happen if it wins a title.

Holding all that talent together is a quarterback who lacks the imposing size, big arm, foot speed, or big contract of the NFL’s biggest stars.

What Brock Purdy does have is smarts, accuracy, and levels of moxie that cannot be taught.

Does that remind you of any Niners quarterbacks from years past?

Now, pundits nationwide can’t get enough of San Francisco heading into the season. They’re an easy buy if you buy into Purdy.

What other team boasts elite players at every level? Save for the Eagles, what other teams should the 49ers fear in their conference?

But all that talk won’t mean much come the opening kickoff on Sunday.

That’s when the Niners have to start turning hype into reality with a second-to-none defense with an unholy combination of speed and strength and an offense that spins opponents’ heads with brilliant tactics and unmatched versatility.

That’s when the standard needs to start being upheld.

“All you want in this league is a chance. Not everybody has that,” Lynch said. “I think we have a really good one… Now we have to go do it.”

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