Turning around a hopeless franchise was nothing for Jim Harbaugh; in fact, he did in one year what Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary couldn't do: win.
The San Francisco 49ers had not seen a winning season since 2002, Steve Mariucci's final year with the team. In one season, with very little turnover on the roster, Harbaugh led the 49ers to 13 wins, a division title and the NFC Championship game. Whatever Harbaugh is doing, it's working. And that's why we want to know, what is he doing?
Harbaugh isn't doing anything new and crazy. There is no Wildcat offense, no spread option-style trickery. Instead, Harbaugh is going back to basics. Power football at its best.
1. Two Tight End Sets
The New England Patriots are making news with their athletic two-tight sets, but the 49ers are employing a more powerful duo in their own way. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are the perfect fit for the Harbaugh offense, and more so than any players on the field, they are the catalyst for everything the 49ers do offensively.
The 49ers love to move around Davis and Walker, and they are able to because of the individual athleticism of the two players. Walker and Davis are both exceptionally quick, but they are also strong players who can block from an in-line position (like we see above) or from the slot and in motion.
The two tight end set was one of Harbaugh's pet projects at Stanford, and it's easily been the most vital component he brought with him to the 49ers. And if it weren't for those tight ends, this would have never happened:
2. Power Run Game
The power run game is key to Harbaugh's blueprint of low turnovers on offense and high-efficiency plays. With Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter running between the tackles, and almost always with a lead blocker, the 49ers are limiting their negative plays. Gore and Hunter are each strong enough to carry the load between the tackles and break free for big gains.
The San Francisco run game's strength comes from the agility of the offensive linemen to move off the ball and generate push off the line of scrimmage. Here, we see a perfect example of a Jim Harbaugh play.
The 49ers have overloaded the right side with a two tight end formation. When the ball is snapped, it's simple mathematics, and the 49ers are set up to win.
Frank Gore could drive a Mack truck through the hole the 49ers offensive linemen open for him.
3. High-Efficiency, Simple Passing
The beauty of running heavy sets like a two-tight end offense and then committing to the run game is that it sets the offense up for play-action passing. Quarterback Alex Smith has had the best production of his career in this offense, and it's no secret why.
Smith benefits from high-percentage passes in the 49ers' playbook, and that works because Jim Harbaugh's offense is designed to limit what Smith must do once the ball is snapped. The 49ers do a great job of pulling safeties into the box with their run game, and by using play-action, Smith is able to freeze those safeties and make one read before delivering the ball.
By asking Smith to make one read, as he does here, Harbaugh is not only taking pressure off his quarterback, he's getting the ball out faster. Smith isn't holding the ball for four or five seconds; he's delivering the football on three or five-step drops, with the ball out of his hand quickly.
4. Takeaways vs. Giveaways
A key to the Harbaugh blueprint, and we see this in Baltimore, where brother John is the head coach, is creating turnovers on defense. The 2011 49ers were first in the NFL in takeaway/giveaway differential. Some of that can be credited to an efficient offense, but the defense in San Francisco deserves a ton of credit.
Harbaugh inherited a defense built by Mike Singletary, and his trademark toughness radiates off the players. It's become a cliche by now, but the San Francisco defense truly believes in "gang tackling," and that shows up each week.
The 49ers were able to cause 38 turnovers last year with hard-hitting and aggressive coverage that allowed them to intercept 23 passes—second-most in the NFL. With a Harbaugh-inspired playbook on offense, Alex Smith had his best season as a professional, tossing just five interceptions all year.
There are many wrinkles to what has made the San Francisco 49ers so successful under Jim Harbaugh, but the best word to describe his offense is efficient. There are no wasted movements, and very little high-risk plays. Add that to the hard-hitting defense inherited from Singletary, and it's easy to see why the 49ers are once again a Super Bowl contender.