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New era begins for 49ers, but will San Francisco get any better?

The 49ers were busy during the lockout stenciling new slogans on the inside of their facility doors.

On one exit door to the parking lot, players are reminded: "Take care of: Family, Self, Team." On the inside of another facility door they are encouraged to: "Work Hard, Stay Loose, Stay Focused, Be Accountable, Take Care of One Another."

When they head from the locker room to the practice field they see a banner that tells them: "You are getting better or you are getting worse. You never stay the same."

That last adage will particularly resonate with 49ers fans who have been waiting for their team to get better for most of the past decade. After missing the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, the 49ers have seemed to be either getting worse or staying exactly, woefully the same.

Getting better? That hasn't been part of the 49ers equation.

But all that is supposed to change this year. And 2011 started with a bang, when -- in early January -- the 49ers landed the biggest free agent in the coaching pool. Jim Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback who had worked wonders at the collegiate level turning woebegone Stanford into a BCS contender, agreed to a reported five-year, $25 million contract, replacing overmatched Mike Singletary.

And then the lockout came. And a long, long wait to get the new era started.

It finally got underway last week. Last Friday, Harbaugh bounced around the 49ers practice fields, blowing his whistle like an overcaffeinated gym teacher, snapping balls to rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick, hugging newly re-signed defensive lineman Ray McDonald and exuding the kind of upbeat energy that the 49ers were looking for when they made him their fourth new head coach in eight seasons.

When the lockout finally ended, Harbaugh said -- quite seriously -- that he couldn't wait to smell the players' breath. And when he finally was able to, he said, "It smelled pretty good. And it was good to be smelling it."

But minty-fresh breath and a high-energy coach may not be all the 49ers need. The team's personnel has been mediocre in several critical areas.

And this year the 49ers have several holes in their roster at key positions. Such as:

An experienced starting center. Eric Heitmann had career-ending neck surgery. David Baas signed with the New York Giants. The team re-signed Tony Wragge, who has seen limited time at center.

Depth at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree is in a walking boot with a foot injury and will miss the bulk of training camp for the third straight year.

Depth at running back. Starter Frank Gore held out for the first few days of training camp. Though Gore is expected to report as soon as today, he's coming off a broken hip and needs a backup.

Depth in the secondary. The 49ers released starting cornerback Nate Clements for salary cap reasons. Last year's starting safety, Dashon Goldson, is a free agent.

Experience at quarterback. The 49ers signed Alex Smith to a one-year contract, meaning Smith will have the chance to prove himself in his seventh year with the 49ers. Since Smith can't practice until Aug. 4, rookie Kaepernick is getting the bulk of the snaps.

Sure, the 49ers landed their big free agent last January. But their problems run a lot deeper than just coaching.

Yet, despite all the apparent needs and the free-agent feeding frenzy going on in the NFL in recent days, the 49ers have stayed on the sidelines.

They telegraphed as much before training camp began, with owner Jed York saying the team's priority was signing its own free agents and announcing that he felt his team was close to making the playoffs. He's paying Harbaugh $25 million and he may think that is the primary investment needed for improvement.

General manger Trent Baalke insists that the team has a plan and is sticking to it. "We are going to be patient," he said. "We have been patient. We do have a plan. We're executing the plan."

In addition to Baas, the 49ers lost linebacker and vocal leader Takeo Spikes. They signed kicker David Akers to replace Joe Nedney, who retired last week, and their own defensive lineman McDonald. They were rumored to be in on the Nnamdi Asomugha and Plaxico Burress bidding wars, but came away with neither.

Secondary is an area of particular concern for the 49ers, who ranked 24th in the league in passing yards allowed last year. But despite a wealth of cornerbacks on the open market, the expected upgrade has yet to materialize.

And -- as always in San Francisco -- angst over the quarterback position remains high. Harbaugh verbally wooed Smith throughout the offseason, making sure Smith knew he was welcome back for a fresh start. Smith showed leadership in the offseason, organizing the players' workouts and helping to install Harbaugh's new offense. But whether or not Smith can change his past pattern and finally produce in San Francisco remains to be seen. The 49ers haven't signed a veteran backup to provide any security.

Other NFL teams have been aggressive about improving, including the Arizona Cardinals, the only team to finish below the 49ers in the lackluster NFC West. Arizona signed quarterback Kevin Kolb. St. Louis was on an upturn last season and Seattle won the suspect division. It seems the 49ers have work to do to merely be competitive.

Some 49ers followers are comforting themselves with a morbid thought, hoping that the lack of activity could lead to another bad season and a shot at Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft. They've even started a Twitter hashtag campaign: #Suck4Luck. That's not a slogan you're going to see stenciled on the inside of a door at the 49ers' facility.

The new era has begun. As the sign on their practice field insists, the 49ers are not staying the same. The question is, are they getting better?

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