Much like when they came together for training camp last summer, the San Francisco 49ers return yet again determined to take another important step this season — from Super Bowl runner-up to champion.
Last July, the goal was to get to the Super Bowl after falling short in the NFC championship game. Now, the Niners have been back to football's biggest stage — only to fall three points shy of the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy in February against the Baltimore Ravens and John Harbaugh, big brother of San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh.
The 49ers had three chances from the 5 with less than 2 minutes left in the 34-31 loss in the New Orleans Superdome, and Colin Kaepernick threw three straight incomplete passes intended for Michael Crabtree.
Kaepernick had directed four second-half scoring drives already, but San Francisco failed to deliver in the waning moments.
"We have our team back for the most part, added some other pieces," All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith said. "The goal is still the same as last year. Got close. Didn't get it done. Hopefully we get it done this year."
The Niners will have to do it without top 2012 wide receiver Crabtree, who tore his right Achilles tendon in May and underwent surgery.
1. KAEPERNICK'S SECOND YEAR: After taking over as the full-time starter over now-departed Alex Smith in November, Kaepernick dazzled under center as a second-year pro with his ability to run, throw deep and downright improvise to get his team downfield. Now, everybody wants to see what kind of numbers he can put up in a full season as the No. 1. Especially with Smith long gone to Kansas City, where he will be the Chiefs' starter under new coach Andy Reid. Kaepernick went 7-3 as a starter last season, passing for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
2. NEW-LOOK RECEIVING CORPS: Anquan Boldin must fill the void with Crabtree sidelined until at least midseason. The Niners acquired Boldin in a trade with the Ravens. He had 65 catches for 921 yards and four touchdowns last season. The 25-year-old Crabtree, the team's 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Texas Tech, had career highs last season with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. First-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins has something to prove after he failed to catch a pass in his highly scrutinized rookie season, and is determined to prove the critics wrong. So far, he has impressed the coaching staff with his hard work during the offseason with Kaepernick in Atlanta. "Any work is good. We believe more is more and they did more work," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "Therefore they're further along than they would be had they not done that. Wideouts Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are each working back from knee surgery, though there isn't a timeline for their return.
3. THE KICKING GAME: Phil Dawson left Cleveland to take over in San Francisco for David Akers, who couldn't match his spectacular 2011 season in an inconsistent year. San Francisco parted ways with the six-time Pro Bowler Akers on March 6, released with a year remaining on the 38-year-old's contract following a year in which he made only 29 of 42 attempts. That after he kicked an NFL single-season record 44 field goals in 2011. Dawson went 29 for 31 on field goals last season in his 14th year with the Browns, making all 13 of his attempts from 40 yards or beyond, including 7 for 7 from 50-plus.
4. SECONDARY: Safety Dashon Goldson finally landed his desired long-term deal, receiving a five-year contract across the country with Tampa Bay at the start of free agency. San Francisco helped fill the void by signing safety Craig Dahl to a three-year contract. Dahl spent the past four seasons with the St. Louis Rams and had 78 tackles and an interception in 2012. Also in the mix to earn secondary jobs during training camp are Nnamdi Asomugha and rookie first-round draft pick Eric Reid. Asomugha, determined to show he can still defend after a disappointing stint in Philadelphia, is among a crowded cornerback corps featuring Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver.
5. MOTIVATED HARBAUGH: What wacky thing might Harbaugh do next as he begins his third season as an NFL head coach? Never lacking in entertainment value, he took aim at the Seahawks with their series of performance-enhancing drug infractions. And no doubt Harbaugh, as much as anyone, wants to get back to the Super Bowl and win it this time.
Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org