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The 49ers' three-hour padded practice last Saturday was conducted before an overflow crowd at their year-round training facility in Santa Clara, Calif. Having covered Jim Harbaugh in his final season as a player, in 2000 with the Chargers, I was eager to get a glimpse of his first training camp as an NFL coach. One thing was obvious: Harbaugh was in the middle of everything. His passion for the game and his players was as glaring as the late-afternoon sun. Another thing: The man loves his whistle. More accurately, he loves blowing it. Between drills, after plays, to end practice -- the chirps rang loud and often.
1. This is no place for the timid. Instead of easing his players into football shape after the four-month lockout -- as many other coaches are doing -- Harbaugh has his team getting after it. Saturday was the fifth time in six practices his players were in full pads, and they went full speed in goal-line, short-yardage and two-minute situations. Normally teams will hit and release in these drills because coaches are fearful of injuries. The 49ers, however, were allowed to tackle to the ground.
"He's definitely going with the approach that there's only one way to get in football shape, and that's to do it," says defensive end Justin Smith. "I really can't say that this camp has been easier than in the past. We've been out on the field for three hours a day, banging. It's been a physical camp."
Harbaugh played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, so you'd think he has as good a feel as anyone on just how hard and how far he can push the players. Still, Saturday's workout had the feel and the sound of an old-school college practice, not an NFL training camp. Maybe change is good for a franchise that has not been to the playoffs since 2002.
2. Patrick Willis is maniacal. The All-Pro middle linebacker has only one speed, and it's search and destroy. During a goal-line drill, he tracked down Anthony Dixon off tackle and stripped him of the ball, which Ray McDonald picked up and returned for what would have been a touchdown; then, during a 9-on-7 pass drill, he read an underneath route and stepped in front of tight end Vernon Davis to intercept a pass from Alex Smith.
Seemingly each time you heard the crack of a hard hit, Willis was involved. He had the crowd oohing and aahing during a pass-protection drill when he blew up fullback Bruce Miller and running back Kendall Hunter on separate occasions. Willis has always treated practices like games, believing if he can accomplish something during workouts it will carry over to Sundays. Based on his play Saturday, he appears to be in mid-season form.
3. The passing game needs work. Yes, the Niners are learning a new (West Coast) offense while the defense is running what is fundamentally the same 3-4 system as years past. However, their struggles to complete passes (and protect the quarterbacks) went beyond that Saturday.
Injuries and personnel changes have hindered the ability of Smith and rookie QB Colin Kaepernick to develop a rapport with projected starting wideouts Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards. Crabtree will miss most or all of camp for the third straight year with a foot injury, and Edwards signed a free agent deal only last week. The rust on Edwards' game was obvious. He dropped at least three passes that should have been caught. Afterward, running back Frank Gore attributed it to Edwards doing too much thinking while learning a new offense, but that should not be an excuse for a player of Edwards' ability.
Alex Smith, quarterback. The first pick of the 2005 draft is back for another go-around after signing a one-year deal. There is no doubt the franchise views Kaepernick as its future, maybe even its immediate future. But until the coaching staff is comfortable with the idea of sending him into the fire, Smith will be the guy.
Smith ran hot and cold Saturday. He was picked off a couple of times, failed to get off a play before the two-minute warning during a hurry-up drill, and forced his receivers to wait on the ball on a couple of deep throws. He also, however, threw a beautiful touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis during that same hurry-up drill.
The 49ers believe that the West Coast offense is a better fit for Smith's abilities. The system will allow him to use his athleticism outside the pocket and get rid of the ball quicker. According to one staff member, the 49ers attempted just 17 passes off three-step drops last season, and 37 percent of their pass attempts were off seven-step drops. With a young offensive line and fairly green wideout corps, that made a tough situation even more difficult for Smith.
"Coach and myself are on the same page regarding Alex," says general manager Trent Baalke. "He's got all the characteristics you're looking for. He's had a lot of productive games, but has he had the consistency? Have we been consistent as an offense? There have been a lot of different coordinators (six in Smith's first six seasons, including one early season replacement), and so now time will tell. Right now Alex is one of four competing for that starting spot. Coach has said, and I've made very clear, we're going to play the best player at every position."
Braylon Edwards, wide receiver. After the Jets chose to re-sign wideout Santonio Holmes instead of Edwards when free agency started, Edwards was linked to two teams: Arizona and San Francisco. When he opted for a less lucrative deal with the 49ers, the speculation in Arizona was that he wanted to go where he felt had a better chance of being a No. 1 receiver (the Cardinals already had Larry Fitzgerald) and could put up bigger numbers for a potential big free agent deal in 2012.
"There's maybe a smidgen of truth to that," Edwards says. "At the end of the day I just saw this as a better situation. I saw this as a future situation. Even though I signed a one-year deal I don't see this as a stop on Braylon's World Tour. I plan on shutting it down here if things go right. I just couldn't see myself shutting it down in Arizona. They're ever-changing. They're always making drastic decisions. At the same time I can see myself being a No. 1 here. I can see there being two No. 1s here, myself and Crabtree. We could just go after each other and make each other better. Larry is that franchise's face, but that was just a small part of my decision. I just ... didn't feel right about Arizona in my heart. I just didn't really see that as where I was supposed to be. I saw this as where I was supposed to be."
If the 49ers can at least tread water through the first nine games, they should have an opportunity to decide their fate. The reason? Five of their final seven games are within the division. Their only NFC West game before Nov. 20 is the season opener against visiting Seattle.