The San Francisco 49ers should be one of the best stories in football this year.
Their former No. 1 overall draft pick is finally showing he isn’t a complete bust. Their rookie coach has brought an infectious swagger to what was a listless, uninspired locker room. They win games with daring trick plays and a physical, play-making defense.
They’re on the verge of resuscitating one the NFL's golden franchises.
And yet somehow, for some strange reasons, the 49ers’ story has failed to resonate across the country.
All the elements are there. So too is the validation after Sunday's impressive 27-20 win over the New York Giants.
But instead of basking in the same feel-good adulation the previously exciting Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills enjoyed earlier this season, the 49ers are being received with a collective shrug.
America neither loves nor loathes them. It’s worse -- no one seems to care much.
The easy explanation is that the 49ers are winning in spectacularly ugly fashion. At times their games seem more like Australian rules football action with tough, physical defensive scrums and wild, improvisational offensive calls.
A more cynical view would be that the 49ers have played too many late afternoon games against awful opponents to register with East Coast viewers.
Both of those theories have merit. But what's really going on here is far more superficial.
No matter how many games they've already won, or how many fourth-quarter comebacks they’ve staged, the 49ers just aren’t a good story yet. There’s nothing lovable about them, nothing that grips you, no star player to connect to and root for.
Alex Smith, their redeemed-by-the-game quarterback, hasn’t been a big enough reason why San Francisco has been able to turn things around.
Frank Gore, who came into Sunday’s game having rushed for at least 100 yards in his past five games, has always been seen as a good NFL back, not an electrifying one.
Harbaugh has all the qualities to be a media darling and fan favorite – he’s charismatic, passionate, occasionally witty and gutsy -- but there just seems to be something about him that rubs people the wrong way.
Harbaugh, of course, doesn’t care much how he is perceived.
As coaches in his position tend to do, he’s effectively redirected any slight made against his team into feeding what had been a rather small chip on his team's shoulder.
“I believe in you guys. You guys in the media, I believe that you will find a way. As long as everything is written against us, we’ll be happy,” Harbaugh said in his postgame press conference.
“You can write whatever you want. The more against, us the better.”
It is a familiar refrain, but it works more often than you think it might. Never underestimate a player’s need to be liked by his peers and appreciated by his fans. But that’s not exactly what’s been happening to the 49ers.
The closest anyone important came to insulting San Francisco came last week when Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said, “I think they are asking Alex not to lose the game.”
If that’s the kind of thing that would get under Smith’s skin, he’s not nearly as mature and resilient as I thought.
No, what’s been happening to San Francisco is far more insulting. Fans and foes neither hate them nor love them. They’ve remained indifferent.
Sunday afternoon was the kind of game that should have ended that storyline. Not only did the 49ers beat a quality playoff-bound opponent, they did so without Gore, who injured his leg and ended his day with no yards on just six carries.
But instead of credit, the 49ers earned another shrug. Nationally their game was buried behind the Jets-Patriots game, the Falcons-Saints game and the Steelers-Bengals games, all of which had important divisional playoff implications.
The 49ers might be relevant again. They could even be dangerous in the NFC playoffs. But at least for now, they haven’t become a good enough story for anyone to notice.