4 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

September 04, 2011

New coach Jim Harbaugh has energized a once-proud franchise

There are moments when Jim Harbaugh gets the Look. His brows furrow, his eyes glaze, and a smile creeps slowly across his face. When his eyes meet yours, it's as if he is looking through you, not at you—such as when he's discussing his jump to the 49ers this year after four seasons at Stanford.

"I love coaching these guys—these pro guys, these mighty men, the guys that are the best at what they do," he says, enthusiasm and intensity mounting. "Growing up, from my childhood on, my heroes have always been uncommon men, and these are uncommon men. I love coaching them, coaching against them, just seeing them on the field competing. It's been great. It's been exciting."

It also figures to be challenging. The 49ers have not had a winning season since 2002. They lack a proven quarterback and an established pass rusher—the most important positions on each side of the ball.

Yet when asked why 2011 will be a breakthrough season, veteran players sound as if they're reading from a script. The first thing out of their mouths is: Coach Harbaugh.

"One of the things that jumped out at me right away about him and his staff was just the pure enthusiasm for football," says quarterback Alex Smith. "Not to say that the other staffs didn't have it, but it's just infectious with Coach Harbaugh and his staff."

"It just feels right, like it's meant to be," says tight end Vernon Davis. "He has great energy. You can just feel it. I think he's a surprise gift for us, and I think it's going to work just right."

Harbaugh was in the middle of everything in training camp, including a serious yet playful argument with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio during a two-minute drill. The veteran assistant did not like that his unit was called for being offside; Fangio argued in colorful language that the offensive tackle had moved first.

Harbaugh calmly made his point, gave the offense an extra five yards, then watched Smith find Davis on a seam route for a touchdown on the next play.

If the season goes that smoothly, the 49ers could be in for big improvement. It will take more than the Harbaugh touch, however, to lift the dark cloud that has been hovering over the franchise for nearly a decade. The offensive line was wildly inconsistent in the preseason (11 sacks through three games); running back Frank Gore wanted a new contract and might seek a trade if the team doesn't satisfy him before the season opener; wide receiver Michael Crabtree is not expected to return from a left foot injury until at least the start of the season; and new wideout Braylon Edwards was a late acquisition.

Harbaugh isn't one to get into specifics about how the team will address these issues. He often speaks in generalities when pressed for details. His favorite phrase is "working through something" when asked why a player missed practice. He knows reporters want more, but that's the fighter in Harbaugh. He is not a man who'll be intimidated. Once during his 14 years as an NFL quarterback, he went after teammate Mike Dumas in the tunnel when Dumas was critical of Harbaugh's play in a loss. (Teammates intervened before the situation escalated.)

He also chastised a reporter on national TV after last January's Orange Bowl for asking whether Harbaugh had coached his final game on The Farm. It would have been easy for the 47-year-old to remain at Stanford after taking a Cardinal team that was 1--11 the year before he arrived to 12--1 and a No. 4 ranking in only his fourth year. And not many would have passed up a chance to make another run at the national title with quarterback Andrew Luck, the Heisman runner-up, returning. But that's not Harbaugh's style. Being comfortable makes him uncomfortable.

"Pretty much the way I think is the opposite of what others may think," Harbaugh says. "You could look at it as, Hey, you've got a good thing going. You could be here 20 years doing exactly what you're doing, so why leave? But that's just not the way I think, right or wrong. I can tell you that I love coaching these guys who I have now. I had been out of the league since 2003 [when he was Oakland's quarterbacks coach], and the one thing I thought, based on the public perception of pro athletes, is that these guys would be a bunch of prima donnas. But I have not found that to be the case."

Suddenly the Look starts to creep across his face. His speech begins to accelerate, and his intensity rises.

"Our guys, they want to be good," he says. "They want to be coached. They want to be prepared so that they can be successful. That's what we're working toward, and I believe we'll get there."

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 24

QB ALEX SMITH

ATT 342

COMP 204

PCT 59.6

YARDS 2,370

YD/ATT 6.93

TD 14

INT 10

RATING 82.1

RB FRANK GORE

ATT 203

YARDS 853

REC 46

TTD 5

FB MORAN NORRIS

ATT 3

YARDS 0

REC 4

TTD 0

WR BRAYLON EDWARDS

REC 53

YARDS 904

AVG 17.1

TTD 7

WR MICHAEL CRABTREE

REC 55

YARDS 741

AVG 13.5

TTD 6

TE VERNON DAVIS

REC 56

YARDS 914

AVG 16.3

TTD 7

LT JOE STALEY

G 9

SACKS 3

HOLD 3

FALSE 2

LG MIKE IUPATI

G 16

SACKS 2¾

HOLD 0

FALSE 3

C JONATHAN GOODWIN

G 16

SACKS 1½

HOLD 0

FALSE 1

RG CHILO RACHAL

G 15

SACKS 5¼

HOLD 1

FALSE 0

RT ANTHONY DAVIS

G 16

SACKS 10½

HOLD 2

FALSE 7

RB ANTHONY DIXON

ATT 70

YARDS 237

REC 5

TTD 2

WR JOSH MORGAN

REC 44

YARDS 698

AVG 15.9

TTD 2

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 13

DE ISAAC SAPOAGA

TACKLES 25

SACKS 1½

INT 0

NT RICKY JEAN-FRANÇOIS

TACKLES 11

SACKS 1

INT 0

DE JUSTIN SMITH

TACKLES 70

SACKS 8½

INT 0

LB AHMAD BROOKS

TACKLES 26

SACKS 5

INT 1

LB NAVORRO BOWMAN

TACKLES 26

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB PATRICK WILLIS

TACKLES 128

SACKS 6

INT 0

LB ALDON SMITH (R)

TACKLES 48

SACKS 5½

INT 1

CB SHAWNTAE SPENCER

TACKLES 42

SACKS ½

INT 3

SS DONTE WHITNER

TACKLES 138

SACKS ½

INT 1

FS MADIEU WILLIAMS

TACKLES 74

SACKS ½

INT 1

CB CARLOS ROGERS

TACKLES 54

SACKS 0

INT 2

DB REGGIE SMITH

TACKLES 31

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIALISTS

K DAVID AKERS

FG 32

FGA 38

XP 47

PTS 143

P ANDY LEE

PUNTS 91

GROSS 46.2

NET 38.2

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 6--10

September

11 Seattle

18 Dallas

25 at Cincinnati

October

2 at Philadelphia

9 Tampa Bay

16 at Detroit

23 BYE

30 Cleveland

November

6 at Washington

13 N.Y. Giants

20 Arizona

24 at Baltimore (Thu)

December

4 St. Louis

11 at Arizona

19 Pittsburgh (Mon)

24 at Seattle (Sat)

January

1 at St. Louis

COACH: JIM HARBAUGH

AGE: 47

FIRST SEASON WITH THE 49ERS

Whether at the University of San Diego or Stanford, Harbaugh has turned around the fortunes of the teams he inherited. Doing the same in San Francisco would mean restoring the luster to a franchise that had only three losing seasons from 1981 through 2002 but has gone eight straight years without a winning mark. Harbaugh has his players' respect, but he'll need wins to keep it.

SPOTLIGHT

ALDON SMITH, Linebacker

Despite Smith's being selected seventh in this year's draft, casual 49ers fans still arch their eyebrows when his name is mentioned. He did, after all, play just two years at Missouri. Fans' reaction could change, however, if his performance in training camp is any indication. Smith, who made 17 sacks at Mizzou, has shown explosiveness, physicality and a knack for rushing the passer in his short time with the Niners. At 6'4" and 258 pounds, he uses his long arms and a strong jab to keep blockers at a distance. His strength (he bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times at the combine) is deceptive.

San Francisco desperately needs an edge rusher because no 49er had more than 8½ sacks last season. The team finished the year with just 36 (15th in the NFL) and had only 11 in its final seven games.

Smith is making the transition from playing with a hand on the ground as a defensive end at Missouri to standing up as an outside linebacker. While far from polished, he appears comfortable with the switch. He has shown promise in the preseason, making a sack in the opener against the Saints. Consistency, however, will be the key.

If the Niners are wise, they won't drop him into coverage often. With the talent he has, he needs to get after the quarterback.

PHOTODERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE PHOTOTONY MEDINA/ICON SMI (EDWARDS)JET FUEL Edwards (above) left New York as a free agent to bolster the 49ers' receiving corps, but there are more offensive problems than one man can handle. PHOTORIC TAPIA/ICON SMI (SMITH)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)