Just when it seemed like the San Francisco 49ers were again going to prove to the rest of the NFL, and it's fan base, that they are really an organization more akin to a rudder-less ship then a football team. Just when it seemed like the team's hunt for a head coach was going to turn into another debacle similar to it's hunt for an offensive coordinator a couple of seasons ago, the tides of fortune for the team may have changed.
After the Miami Dolphins' briefly showed that there are more desperate and floundering organizations than the 49ers out there, a brief flirtation with the Denver Broncos and the University of Michigan, and a last ditch effort by Stanford, the 49ers get the man they coveted all along by signing Jim Harbaugh to a five year deal worth a reported 25 million dollars.
So now that Jed York and Trent Baalke have saved face and kept the organizations reputation—and theirs—from further damage, what's next?
The logical assumption is that Harbaugh will come in and clean house. He will bring a lot of his coaching staff with him from Stanford and key positions will be announced in the next few weeks—offensive and defensive coordinators.
But what is the immediate impact of the Harbaugh hire?
We have heard recently that players were playing "scared" under former head coach Mike Singletary, but how will they respond to their new coach?
I would think that there are still a few players out there that should be scared, don't you?
But on the other hand, with the suffocating aura of "Iron Mike" gone, and an offensive minded coach hired to harness the talents of all those 49ers "play-makers", which players are dancing in the streets right about now?
Some might be inclined to think that with an offensive minded coach that likes to move the ball around that Gore may have less carries.
That may be true, but Gore is a versatile back and one of the team's best receivers. Gore also has a passion to win and he knows that the team's best chance is by getting everybody involved in the game.
Gore also knows that spreading the ball around will ultimately open up bigger holes for him.
Update: Nate Davis was not offered a new contract by the team and is now a free agent.
Let's face it, Singletary had it in for Davis since training camp, right or wrong, Davis never had a chance to see the field this past year.
Harbaugh brings a fresh start for Davis—that is if the team decides to re-sign him. Davis has made every indication that he wants to return to San Francisco, and if Harbaugh and Baalke bring him back, the conditions could be ripe for Davis to flourish.
Now I'm not advocating that Davis should start, I think the team will bring in a free agent and draft a quarterback as well, but Davis should be given an opportunity to prove himself.
An offensive minded coach who just happens to be a former NFL quarterback and more Singletary's doghouse—what else could the kid hope for.
Note to Davis: Study the playbook!
One of the most explosive players on the team was curiously underused this past season. Sure he had defenses keying on him more, but a player of Davis' caliber is paid to perform regardless.
Although Davis did increase his yards per catch average from 12.4 last season to 16.3 this season, his number of receptions dropped form 78 to 56. His touchdown totals dropped from 13 to seven, and his reception yardage dropped from 965 to 914.
Getting away from the run first, "punch you in the nose" offense, should help Davis return to his 2009 season form.
Walker seems to get better every year. He is just a bit smaller than Davis, and not quite as fast—although he is fast enough to give linebackers trying to cover him fits, but that is somewhat of a moot point if you have ever seen him play.
Walker isn't even close to realizing his potential if he can stay healthy.
The 49ers did run quite a few multiple tight-end sets this year, but with Harbaugh at the reigns, I would expect to see both Davis and Walker on the field together significantly more next season.
I wouldn't even mind seeing Crabtree sit while Walker lines up opposite Josh Morgan.
Speaking of Josh Morgan.
For all the attention that Michael Crabtree gets, the 49ers other receiver didn't fare too bad this year. He was a mere 43 yards behind Crabtrees total of 741 and his average yards per reception of 15.9 bested Crabtree's by nearly two and a half yards.
Morgan took some vicious hits this season, and for the most part, he hung onto the ball and kept going back out there for more.
He earned the respect of his teammates and many fans, and perhaps he has earned a bigger role in the offense.
Much like Delanie Walker, Morgan is a player who has yet to realize his potential. I'm betting that Harbaugh helps get him there.
I have to think the jury is still out on Crabs. He has shown some promise, but he made a lot route running errors and dropped a few balls. He has at least one more year to prove himself worthy of a first round pick, but I sure am glad the organization didn't cave and give him top five (draft pick) money.
I have a feeling Harbaugh is too.
When Kyle Williams was drafted, many fans—including myself, anticipated him lining up in the slot and giving the 49ers offense another dimension.
The New England Patriots have effectively used this with Wes Welker as well as the Cincinnati Bengals with rookie Jordan Shipley.
Back in 1995 the 49ers beat the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys-in Dallas, by a score of 38-20 behind an inexperienced quarterback named Elvis Grbac who was forced to start for an injured Steve Young.
In addition to an inspired defense that had three interceptions and a fumble recovery for a touchdown, the 49ers moved Jerry Rice into the slot. Early in the first quarter, Grbac found Rice who ripped off an 81 yard touchdown. Rice would finish the game five receptions for 181 yards.
Okay, so I might be getting a bit ahead of myself, but with Harbaugh's proclamation of restoring the WCO in San Francisco, guys like Williams need to be ready.
Dominque Ziegler could also play into the mix here if he can put on a few pounds and stay healthy.
Anthony Dixon had his moments this past year, he had a couple of touchdowns and a nifty run of 34 yards, but his per carry average was only a pedestrian 3.4.
Part of the problem was Dixon was seldom used and as any running back will tell you, it takes a few carries before you get into the ebb and flow of the game. With Frank Gore getting the majority of the snaps—and then Westbrook when Gore got injured, Dixon saw limited action off the bench.
However with the return of the WCO, a two back offense is a must and crucial to it's success.
Past championship teams featured Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler, Roger Craig and Tom Rathman and William Floyd and Ricky Watters.
With Brian Westbrook probably leaving for a team he can start for, Dixon's role could dramatically increase next season—not to mention his yards per carry average.
For most of the season, Alex Boone sat on the benched and watched rookie Anthony Davis struggle.
Boone had worked himself into excellent shape and came ready to play and prove to the team what he can bring.
Boone didn't get his chance until late in the last game of the season. For his limited role he performed admirably.
Singletary's stubbornness of keeping Davis in games while he struggled, not only hurt the development of Davis, but it hindered the development of Boone as well.
Harbaugh, one can only hope, should see the value of rotating offensive linemen in and out of games.
Not only does it keep your linemen fresh, but it gives the coaching staff a chance to actually coach a player who may have just made a mistake.
You don't have to bench a guy, but you can pull him out for a play or two, let him know what he did wrong and/or tell him how to do it right and then put him back in.
Davis should be better in 2011, but that's no reason to keep Boone on the sidelines. Hell, even Joe Staley struggled at times this year.
You can't have too many good offensive lineman, and the only way to develop them is to get them in the game.
Patrick Willis loves to play, but you can't keep a defense out on the field forever.
You also can't always expect your defense to win games for you. There job really is to keep you in games.
So if you go out there and make 16 tackles, give up your body, and pin the other team deep; wouldn't it be nice to know that your efforts are not all for naught?
Now I'm not saying we shouldn't continue to improve our defense—Willis can't do it all by himself, and the defense certainly needs help in the secondary and a pass rusher, but an offense that can move the ball and score points can at least give that defense a rest from time to time.
How many times have we seen a tired defense give up the go-ahead score late in the game?
There is a chance the not a single quarterback on the current roster will return in 2011. Alex Smith and David Carr are almost sure bets to be gone-although Carr is the only quarterback under contract for next season. It remains to be seen if Troy Smith and Nate Davis will return.
That may seem a bit scary at first, but the fact is, it is probably an ideal situation for Harbaugh.
He can bring in who he—and Baalke, want as a free agent to steer the ship in 2011 and perhaps beyond. But he can also draft a player who thinks he can develop into a starting NFL quarterback.
We can discuss names like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Cam Newton, and Ryan Mallet all day long, and when the team picks at number seven this year, I'm sure at least two of these guys will be there.
But with a coach of Harbaugh's background, he just may have his eyes on some guys that will be drafted further down the line like Nathan Enderle or Ricky Stanzi, or perhaps someone else that Harabaugh may see something in that the rest of us don't.
It's a great time to have a head coach that knows a bit about the quarterback position.
Welcome Jim Harbaugh, and welcome back West Coast Offense!