Tuesday afternoon was my first time in Santa Clara to watch San Francisco 49ers players and coaches in action since last August — unless one counts the groundbreaking ceremony for the new stadium they’re working on next to the practice facility and team headquarters. Not many of these practices are open to the media, let alone the general public. So even though one can’t really glean anything in terms of strategy from an OTA in May, it’s still a chance to watch a Super Bowl contender prepare for the season in the sunshine. Tough to complain about that.

I laugh even now about that practice I attended back in August, because I had absolutely no idea what I was witnessing. The 49ers looked energetic and busy, sure. But none of the fans in attendance that day, nor anyone in the media, had any clue that they were watching a team that would eventually go 14-4 and finish a play or two away from the Super Bowl. The players probably didn’t even know, partly because they didn’t have time to contemplate such fantasies — they were busy enough as it was trying to install new schemes across the board after the lockout.

The differences between then and now are subtle, but they certainly exist.

The team seems looser on Tuesday than they did on Aug. 19, 2011, and noticeably more vocal. Before last season it was Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the coaches making most of the noise. This year Harbaugh was just as active, gathering players and moving between different quadrants on the two adjoining practice fields, blowing his whistle all the while. But the players contributed more chatter than I remembered last year. Justin Smith in particular was frequently heard shouting encouraging words to teammates after good plays.

“I see ya, Will!” (That was in response to Will Tukuafu intercepting a short pass at the line.)

Fun and games

Recently Harbaugh was on the radio with Kevin Lynch, and mentioned that while the team works hard they like to have fun, too. Then Harbaugh made a joke that went along the lines of, “Why did the cucumber want to hang out with the mushroom? Because he’s a fungi!”

Harbaugh didn’t appear to test the rest of his standup routine during Tuesday’s practice, but one way the 49ers head coach keeps things fun is by stretching the bounds of what players do positionally. For instance…

For about 15 minutes a group of players performed a drill where with a Jugs machine they shot a “kickoff” to a returner, with two gunners sprinting downfield in an attempt to bring him down (one caveat: they were playing flag football, so nobody actually hit the ground). While A.J. Jenkins was caught on this return (pictured below) by Cory Nelms, he did show some burst during another where he got away from both pursuers down the right sideline.

Perrish Cox, Kyle Williams (who looked great all afternoon, both during the return drill and in the offense), Deante Purvis (undrafted FA corner) and Nathan Palmer (undrafted FA receiver) all returned fake kicks, among other players. Pretty standard stuff, right? After glancing over at the other field where the four quarterbacks were alternating in seven-on-seven drills, I looked over and saw this:

That’s right, it’s NaVorro Bowman with a head of steam. While this image looks terrifying (especially if you’re No. 88, Konrad Reuland), Bowman was actually corralled relatively easily by the gunners (the flags on Bowman’s hips helped). But seconds later, Patrick Willis returned a kick up the right sideline, gaining at least 30 yards (it was pretty tough to tell from where we were, behind the opposite end zone). As far as I could tell from 70 yards away, it looked like Willis kept both of his flags.

Judging from the hooting and hollering after the linebackers did their best Ted Ginn impressions, there’s a benefit to lightening things up during these spring OTAs. Even though it’s a job and the players are asked to work until the point just before their bodies give out, it’s also the same game we all played as kids.

Moss this, Moss that

Because he’s a tall, because he’s fast, because he’s a future Hall of Famer who moves unlike anyone else on the team, you can’t help but focus on Randy Moss. It’s impossible, especially in an environment like this where competition comes secondary to coaching and conditioning.

I have no idea what Moss is going to bring in 2012. He didn’t play last year and only caught 28 passes in 2010. But with Michael Crabtree hanging out in Mexico with Chad Ochocinco and Mario Manningham elsewhere,* it was Moss who drew the most looks from both onlookers and quarterbacks.

*Other notable players absent on Tuesday included Vernon Davis, Anthony Davis, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Chris Culliver, along with LaMichael James and Chris Owusu who aren’t allowed to take part in OTAs because their schools are still in session.

I have a lot more material to share from Tuesday afternoon, in the form of several more photos and videos taken during interview sessions with Jonathan Goodwin, Brandon Jacobs, Tarell Brown and Perrish Cox. So I’ll finish this post with a photo journey through a couple passes caught by Sir Randy of Moss.

This catch happened midway through practice. I was able to get several frames, and as an added bonus many of these photos of Moss running the following route against Ahmad Brooks and then Tarell Brown include a big tractor. Brown covered Moss well on this pass from Alex Smith, leading to a fun little battle between an NFL legend and the cornerback who recently guaranteed he’d make the Pro Bowl and lead the league in interceptions in 2012.

Close, but Moss won this one.

Another pass Moss caught came near the end of practice. With one of the 49ers’ employees managing the nearby game clock, the first- and second-team offenses practiced end-of-game scenarios, such as “2:28 left, down by 2, got to get a field goal” (they finished practice like this that time back in August, as well).

Alex Smith saw Moss running a sprint down the right sideline, and he floated one up there. The ball was held up in the air by the wind for a fraction of a second, just long enough to let Moss run under it (there were a few overthrown balls on deep routes to Moss by both Smith and Colin Kaepernick on Tuesday afternoon). All in all, it was about a 35-yard pass and easily the most memorable play of the afternoon (besides the two All-Pro linebackers returning kicks, of course).