San Francisco 49ers' window of opportunity only just opening

NEW ORLEANS -- Donte Whitner tried to depart Dodge as quickly as he could, but the San Francisco 49ers safety couldn't beat the confetti, nor could he outrun the noise of a world champion being crowned.

"It'll stick," Whitner said, an hour after Super Bowl XLVII's completion. "Hearing them screaming and yelling, that'll stick."

This time it was Baltimore, not San Francisco, doing the shouting as the season came to an end.

The 49ers, though, aren't done. Not by a long shot.

Seventeen of the 22 starters who took the field in San Francisco's 34-31 loss are still in their 20s. The sparkplug of a quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is 25. His top two targets, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, are 25 and 29, respectively, and his left tackle, Joe Staley, is 28. On the other side of the ball, the four studs at linebacker for San Francisco -- Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith -- are 28, 28, 24 and 23, respectively.

The window of opportunity for the Niners didn't close Sunday night. It's only just opening.

"When I look at this year, this season, I look at it as a blessing, because this right here let us know where we are as a team, and what we have to look forward to coming back in here next year," Davis said. "So I'm excited, man. I'm excited about what we have, the young guys that we have and what we can do, what we're capable of as we move forward."

Like any other team, the Niners have some tough calls to make in the coming months.

Four Super Bowl starters will be free agents this offseason: tight end Delanie Walker, free safety Dashon Goldson, wide receiver Randy Moss and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Davis makes Walker a luxury, and if A.J. Jenkins develops and Mario Manningham progresses in the Niners' system, Moss will be dispensable, as well. The decision about Goldson, who would cost $7.5 million to franchise for a second straight year and could be costly to keep long term, might be toughest of all.

The club also has to consider extending Crabtree, who's headed into a contract season.

But looking at the big picture, there's little reason to believe the Niners, who held on to their coordinators and top personnel lieutenant Tom Gamble through the January job cycle, won't be in position to reach New Jersey next year. Or Arizona the year after that. Or Santa Clara or Miami the year after that.

"As long as we keep doing what we're doing, this team will be fine," guard Alex Boone said. Then, shaking his head, Boone added, "In a situation like that, first-and-goal, you gotta put it in the end zone. We'll have to learn from that. We gotta do it next time."

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Baltimore Ravens' 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. ET.

For the next six months, until training camp opens, they'll have to live with it. But they should get a few more good cracks at it. And their potential goes beyond a promising young core.

Start with the coach, Jim Harbaugh, who has established himself as one of the very best in the profession and is backed by a loaded staff. Continue with general manager Trent Baalke, who built this budding juggernaut, and his well-respected group.

Then there's the roster. Staley, Mike Iupati, Boone, Anthony Davis, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Kaepernick, Brooks, Bowman, Willis, Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald and Carlos Rogers are all locked up for at least the next two seasons. Guys like Justin Smith and Jonathan Goodwin are aging (Smith and Goodwin have just a year left on their respective deals), but San Francisco has a staggering 14 picks in April's draft with which to bolster depth.

New Niners will be integrated into a developmental system that brought along the team's star-studded 2011 draft class and helped a large number of NFL veterans perform better than they had previously.

"It's a program," said Whitner, a former Buffalo Bills washout. "We have a protocol that we go about every week, meetings always at the same time; everything we do to take steps towards winning. So I feel like this is a really, really good program we have here with the 49ers. And we have to keep it going. Guys are gonna rest up and use this as fuel."

For large chunks of Sunday night, the Niners looked like they were ready to take over the game. Early in the second quarter, a LaMichael James fumble killed one of their potential rallies. The other big surge was counteracted by Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense, who caught their second wind at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth.

So the Niners might never have quite hit on all cylinders Sunday. There's no question that two costly turnovers, five tough-to-take penalties and other lapses contributed to the team's fits and starts.

The good news here is, again, there's plenty of time for this San Francisco group to grow up.

"It's rough. It's real rough," said Goldson, who told me he wants to return. "It took a lot of hard work. But if everyone's still intact, I don't see why we can't get back here."

And neither should anyone else.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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