SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- I was thinking when I pulled into the San Francisco 49ers training facility, the once state-of-the-art Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre, how much times have changed for the 49ers.
Because I couldn't pull into the place.
On Monday, the first steel beams were laid in place for the 49ers' new stadium -- set to open in August 2014 -- and there was the core of a steel structure in the parking lot and street in front of the building where I'd usually park when reporting on the 49ers. So now parking is on the opposite side of the complex.
Progress is everywhere. When I talked with GM Trent Baalke up in his second floor office, he pointed out his window at the new $1.75 million indoor-outdoor weight-training facility being built; that should open this fall. The practice fields were dug up after the 2011 season and replaced with sturdy sod. The stadium will be a green one, with solar panels set to provide all the electricity needed for the game-day operation of the place. And there will be a huge 49er Hall of Fame inside the place; former 49er PR czar Jerry Walker is organizing it.
On the practice field Monday, I met the new team president, Gideon Yu, who CEO Jed York hired from Facebook. I looked out and saw a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The NFC's best defense in 2011 -- the stingiest in both yards and points allowed -- was back intact. How often does a top defense in the Free Agency Era return all 11 starters? The Niners are doing it. On offense, Randy Moss beat corners Carlos Rogers and Perrish Cox in one-on-one drills; who knows if he'll be able to put a Mossian season together, but the reviews are all good so far. LaMichael James, the quick Oregon rookie, and Brandon Jacobs, the giant ex-Giant runner motivated to prove the Super Bowl champs made a big mistake by letting him go, began to show the new dimensions Jim Harbaugh hopes to have at his disposal.
There were times, many times, I never thought I'd see all things Niner hum so smoothly. For eight years before last season, San Francisco hadn't had a winning season. The team kept butting its head against walls trying to get a new stadium built in and around San Francisco. But York, in charge here since late 2008, kept at it and finally got the shovels in the ground in Santa Clara. He hired Baalke, a Bill Parcells disciple, and wooed Harbaugh after his Orange Bowl season at Stanford, and now the personnel and coaching side seem to be set for a few years.
Short-term the 49ers might be limited by the passing game, though Baalke has upgraded Alex Smith's options (Moss, Mario Manningham) in the offseason. Long-term this is the best I've felt about the 49ers since Steve Young walked off the field for the last time in 1999. The NFL has long wrung its hands about the three California franchises (and the fourth one it wants to see in Los Angeles someday) because of stadium issues. But scratch one off the list. The NFL shouldn't have any worries about the 49ers for a long time.
Now for your email:
THE MARKET FOR MIKE WALLACE.
Doubt they could get a first-round pick for him. I fear Wallace has overplayed his hand. This season in the NFL, paying a wide receiver $10 million a year on average -- in addition to the draft-choice compensation it would cost -- is not something many teams would consider. With the cap relatively flat this year and next, this is the way teams think: Why pay a very good receiver $10 million a year, plus surrender a top prospect plus the cost certainty of what the top prospect would earn over the next four years? I don't think the Steelers will trade Wallace, and if they were inclined to consider it, the market would be poor.
I DESERVE THE COLD SHOULDER FROM THE SAINTS.
Let me ask you a question: Why would the commissioner of the National Football League take one of the great feel-good franchises in the league, a team that lifted a city that the NFL actively worked to save, and drag it through the dirt with, as you say, a fabricated or exaggerated story? Give me a reason. Please.
Does the NFL have enough evidence to ding the Saints for a total sanction of 77 games? I don't think so. Does the NFL have evidence of a wide-ranging pay-for-performance system over a three-year period -- which is illegal? Yes. You could be right about the exaggerated bounty portion of the story. We haven't seen overwhelming evidence of it, though we did see evidence that Roman Harper was credited $1,000 for knocking Brandon Jacobs out of a 2009 game. The NFL is convinced of Vilma's guilt because multiple sources said he offered teammates $10,000 to knock Kurt Warner or Brett Favre out of a playoff game. That's the big point of contention.
As for my role in this, I accept the criticism and understand it. It doesn't do me any good to defend myself because you and most people won't believe me anyway. I try to present both sides of a story. It's up to you to decide if you agree or disagree with it.
MORE ON THE SAINTS.
Thanks, Michael. You should keep rooting for the Saints. It's a great franchise with great fans and a fun team to watch.
STOP PICKING ON THE JAGS.
Because I think the fan base is on a slippery slope there. You think if the Jags go 3-13 this year that there will be a 95 percent season-ticket-renewal rate? The team has done a good job rallying the community to support the team in the last couple of years, but I'm not sure the Jags are out of the woods when it comes to the long-term fan support.