Alex Smith's development will be a big factor on whether the 49ers can get to the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh brought in a new enthusiasm by replacing the tyrannical leadership of Mike Singletary, whose tendency to shout at his players initially worked before they grew tired of it and stopped listening.
Harbaugh was able to work with and develop Alex Smith, who had played far below expectations following his selection as the top overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.
Harbaugh’s hiring laid the foundation for the 49ers as they continue to build their blueprint for a return to NFC dominance.
San Francisco nearly got there last season before falling at home in the NFC Championship Game. The only thing that can improve on last year’s success is a return to the Super Bowl—somewhere the 49ers haven’t been since the 1994 season.
“We have great expectations,” Harbaugh told reporters last Friday. “We’ve got big hopes. We’ve got big dreams.”
If defense wins championships, then the 49ers should win one soon.
They have one of the NFL’s most dominant units, led by inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Next to Willis is NaVorro Bowman, who had his breakout season last year and was named first-team All-Pro.
Bowman led the team in tackles and broke Willis’ streak of four years in that category. Willis and Bowman combined for 250 tackles and led a defense that did not allow a rushing touchdown through 14 games.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive end Justin Smith were dominant pass-rushers last season. Aldon Smith, the team’s first-round draft pick from Missouri in 2011, had 14 sacks, and could do even better as he improves as a run stopper and pass defender. He is healthy and practicing despite getting stabbed a month ago.
Justin Smith keeps trucking along. He has started every game for either the Bengals or the 49ers since 2002—the last four being in San Francisco. Smith, also from Missouri, has 72.5 career sacks with 14 forced fumbles and three interceptions.
In the secondary, the Niners have a pair of playmakers in safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers. The two shared the team lead in interceptions with six apiece.
The Niners have playmakers at each level of their defense, and that’s a necessity for a championship-caliber team.
Offensively, it all begins with the quarterback. Harbaugh did a commendable job with Alex Smith last year. Smith threw for a career-best 3,144 yards last year with 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
Despite a 13-3 record, there is obviously still some room for Smith to grow and throw for more than 20 touchdowns for the first time. Former 49ers great Jerry Rice said “the diaper” has to come off, meaning Smith has to become a playmaker instead of a caretaker.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said he’s excited about the explosive potential. Explosiveness is one thing the offense has been missing and could be the last remaining piece to get the Niners back to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco’s offensive line is solid and has added a new piece in guard Leonard Davis, who will compete with Alex Boone for the starting job at right guard. Mike Iupati, at left guard, is one of the league’s best.
Center Jonathan Goodwin and tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis are entrenched as the other starters on a unit that paved the way for Frank Gore to have another 1,000-yard rushing season. However, they also allowed 44 sacks. That number is a bit too high and will surely be a point of emphasis in 2012.
A good running game is also key, and the 49ers have a great back in Frank Gore, who ran for 1,211 yards and eight scores last year. Gore has had 7,625 career rushing yards with 43 touchdowns in his seven-year career. The 49ers drafted speedster LaMichael James in the draft and he can be that change-of-pace back to give San Francisco a dangerous 1-2 punch.
James can also complement Ginn in the return game, and the 49ers have one of the league’s best special teams units. Punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers might comprise the NFL’s best kicking tandem.
All the ingredients needed for a Super Bowl recipe are in place. Now it’s up to Harbaugh and his coaching staff to cook up a meal worthy of a real San Francisco treat.