SANTA CLARA — Three straight seasons of being so close have the 49ers yearning for a Super Bowl championship they believe is right within reach. So now, no more near misses.
Especially after watching the rival Seahawks win it all last season following San Francisco’s six-point loss at Seattle in the NFC championship game that could have gone either way.
“It’s a new year, this is a rebirth,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “One of the things, we’re reborn this year into some very high expectations. We welcome that. My young son, Jack, was born and put some very high expectations on him. Happy to report that he’s exceeding them. And we’d like to do the same.”
In the inaugural season at new Levi’s Stadium, San Francisco is striving to establish a home-field advantage much like it had during a memorable four-decade run at Candlestick Park.
Players say they won’t settle for anything less than a Super Bowl ring. The 49ers also are bracing for word on whether star linebacker Aldon Smith will be suspended by the NFL for his legal issues.
“No. 1, looking back on it you’re always happy to be in a situation to have a chance to compete for a Super Bowl,” defensive lineman Justin Smith said. “The mindset is, ‘We’re there.’ It’s not talking about ‘Let’s get in the playoffs’ or ‘hopefully try to get to the NFC championship game or the Super Bowl.’ Our goal is to get to the Super Bowl and win it. You can actually say it, like we’ve been saying it the last couple years, with a straight face. It’s a good feeling to be in that situation.”
Here are some things to watch for with the 49ers:
LEVI’S STADIUM INAUGURAL SEASON: The 49ers certainly hope their preseason debut at Levi’s is a far cry from how they will defend their home field in the first year at their sparkling new digs.
It was Denver 34, San Francisco 0, which sent fans for the exits midway through the third quarter Aug. 17. They bounced back to beat San Diego 21-7 last Sunday.
Their first chance in the regular season comes in prime time on Sept. 14 against the Bears.
The stadium is being sodded for a third time in four months in an effort to find the right grass and soil combination that will stay rooted for the long haul. The initial grass put down in April failed to hold and was re-sodded for last Sunday’s game against the Chargers.
BIG-MONEY KAEPERNICK: Colin Kaepernick landed that big-money new contract he wanted during the offseason, and now it’s time to back it up.
In June, the fourth-year QB received a $126 million, six-year extension through the 2020 season. The deal includes $61 million in guaranteed money.
Kaepernick insists it’s not all about the money, and that he has come a long way in “our players having confidence in me.”
SKINNY PLAYBOOK: Without offering specifics, San Francisco has simplified its typically thick offensive playbook. Whether that will contribute to more efficiency getting the play called in the huddle in time remains to be seen; it was an issue for the offense the past two seasons.
“Generally, we cleaned things up,” Kaepernick said. “Looks great to me. Took out a little bit of the indecision in some of things. I think everyone is excited with what we’ve done and the strides we’ve made.”
NO BO: Star linebacker NaVorro Bowman tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee during the NFC championship game loss at Seattle and underwent surgery.
“There’s no question NaVorro has held down that position, been a big part of our defense being as good as it has been for the past few years,” Willis said. “To go without him the first half of the season, he’s truly going to be missed.”
The 49ers also could be without Aldon Smith if he receives an NFL suspension for his offseason legal issues.
“We’ve just all got to step our game up and see what we can do, especially with Bo being out,” Justin Smith said. “We feel good about where we’re at.”
RECEIVING DEPTH: Kaepernick’s talented receiving corps is deeper than ever since he took over as the starter midway through the 2012 season. From Anquan Boldin and a healthy Michael Crabtree, to newcomer Stevie Johnson, returnee Brandon Lloyd, and tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick has ample options.
“It does make my job easier. You don’t have to worry about matchups as much, necessarily whose running what part of the route,” Kaepernick said. “I want to get the ball in their hands and see what they can do with it because I know they’re going to be competing just the way everyone else is.”