Jim Harbaugh will instill a new attitude with the 49ers
Jim Harbaugh takes over as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He will be expected to transform the team back into winners and perennial playoff contenders. It will be a big task, as the 49ers have not been over the .500 mark since the 2002 season.
Harbaugh played 14 years in the NFL and was also a quarterback coach with the Oakland Raiders. He then moved to the collegiate ranks as the head coach at the University of San Diego from 2004 to 2006.
Harbaugh then led the Stanford Cardinal as their head coach from 2007-2010. He resurrected a team that went 16-40 over the previous five years, including a dismal 1-11 in 2006.
Harbaugh left Stanford with a 29-21 record in four years, including going 12-1 in his final season. The Cardinal won the Orange Bowl 40-12 over Virginia Tech and finished as the fourth-ranked team in the nation.
He inherits a 49er team that was expected to make the playoffs, but went 6-10 last year and was fraught with turmoil all season.
I believe he will provide several important positives that will benefit the 49ers. Let's take a look at six of these key factors.
Mike Singletary Reads Alex Smith the Riot Act
Jim Harbaugh will make a name for himself as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, based on his coaching ability and his team's play. Although an intense competitor, we will not see the same bizarre incidents that we came to expect from former coach Mike Singletary.
Gone will be the media-pleasing tirades that would make the late night news. Jim Harbaugh will act in a professional manner when addressing his team and the media.
Consider the following actions unique to Mike Singletary's tenure as head coach of the 49ers.
In his first game, Singletary dropped his trousers during a halftime speech in an effort to motivate his players. When news of this leaked out, Singletary became a laughing stock. David Letterman and Jay Leno had a field-day with that one.
Singletary gave Vernon Davis the ultimate in tough love when he was seen screaming at his young tight end. He ultimately banished him to the locker room during the game. Following this game came Singletary's famous, "I want winners" tirade (as seen on YouTube).
This event actually made Davis evaluate himself and he became a better player. However, the scene of Singletary and Davis going at it on the sideline was aired across the country.
There were also several instances of Singletary hollering at quarterback Alex Smith. Singletary frequently lost control of his emotions on the sidelines. I just don't see Jim Harbaugh doing that.
Also gone will be the infamous Nutcracker Drill, which Singletary employed to instill toughness in his players. Unfortunately, several players were injured doing the drill and it did not serve the best interests of the team.
Press conferences will not be as entertaining and we won't see Harbaugh going wild on the sidelines. He will bring an air of professionalism to the 49ers.
Patrick Willis leads the 49er defense
Jim Harbaugh will be responsible for overseeing the team, running the offense and managing the game. Offense is his specialty and he will focus on that side of the football.
Unlike Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary (who were defense oriented, but tried to meddle in the offense), Harbaugh will delegate the responsibility of the defense to coordinator Vic Fangio.
One of the major failings of Nolan and Singletary was their inability to stay out of an area that they were not qualified to run. Harbaugh will not make the same mistake.
Fangio is a well respected and experienced coach. He has coached in the NFL for 24 years, including 11 as a defensive coordinator. Harbaugh also worked with him in 2010, as Fangio ran the much improved defense at Stanford.
Fangio will be trusted to handle the defense and this shows the confidence Harbaugh has in his abilities.
The 49ers had problems on defense last season, especially against the pass. They drafted pass rusher Aldon Smith and it's hoped that he will bolster an inconsistent pass rush. The 49ers must improve in this area as it takes pressure off of a very porous secondary.
The defensive backfield performed poorly in 2010 and must improve under Fangio. Look for the 49ers to try to acquire a solid cornerback once they are able to sign free agents.
Fangio will do a good job with the 49er defense, but he must have better players to help this unit excel.
Michael Crabtree must improve his work ethic
Jim Harbaugh will not rant and rave on the sidelines or in practice like Mike Singletary often did. However, he will not tolerate lackadaisical effort or poor performance on the field.
Harbaugh is focused and his intensity will be felt by the players. Four players in particular must step up their effort and performance or they will soon find themselves on the bench or playing elsewhere.
On the offensive line, both Chilo Rachal and Anthony Davis struggled in 2010. Rachal will be entering his fourth season with the 49ers and the time is now for him to become a top-flight lineman and show the consistency that is needed from him.
Davis, a rookie in 2010, was thrown into the starting lineup before he was ready. He was often victimized for sacks and committed far too many penalties. If he is going to remain a starter in 2011, he must make substantial improvement in his play.
Michael Crabtree has a world of talent, but the wide receiver has shown a very poor work ethic. Harbaugh will get on him, and stay on him, until he either starts to work harder or is shown the door. Harbaugh will also not stand for the diva attitude that Crabtree often exhibits.
Any lack of effort in training camp, in practice and in running solid routes in the games will be scrutinized by Harbaugh. Crabtree's "me first" approach will not be tolerated.
Nate Clements was a starting corner for San Francisco in 2010. He played poorly and had problems in coverage, especially against the quicker receivers. It is very possible that Clements will not even make the team in 2011, unless he either plays better or moves to a safety position.
Clements has a very high salary and it's questionable if the 49ers pay him to under perform or be a nickel back.
We will not see the histrionics on the field from Harbaugh, but we will see a very driven coach who will not stand for a lack of effort or too many mistakes. Players that fall into this category will either be benched or be looking for another job.
Frank Gore will be counted on to return from last year's injury
Over the past few seasons, the 49ers were one of the worst teams in the league at making adjustments during the game or at halftime. They were routinely out coached in this area. This will no longer occur under Jim Harbaugh and with Vic Fangio running the defense.
Offensively, Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will be miles ahead of Mike Singletary and Jimmy Raye or Mike Johnson. Harbaugh runs a complex offensive system and he will be able to make quick and decisive adjustments, which were absent under Singletary.
If something isn't working, or if Harbaugh and Roman see a vulnerability in the opposing defense, they have the knowledge and expertise to exploit those weaknesses.
Defensively, Fangio will not be afraid to mix things up to counter an opposing offense. He will also not need to look over his shoulder and get permission from Harbaugh to try different things because he will be in charge of that unit.
Many times in the past we saw the same boring plays and under utilization of personnel. Harbaugh's offense calls for multiple options and a full utilization of his personnel.
Brian Westbrook is a classic example of this. He hardly touched the football until Frank Gore was injured. There is no way that Harbaugh would have let a talented player like Westbrook languish on the bench.
In 2011, look for the 49ers to be making critical in-game and halftime adjustments that will help the team have the best chance for success. They will be much more proactive in dictating the game, as opposed to reactive to counter the moves of the opposition.
Vernon Davis will be a big part of Harbaugh's offense
Jim Harbaugh will install a complex West Coast-style offense with the 49ers. Due to the lockout, this may come along slower than hoped, but it will ultimately be a dynamic, multifaceted system that opponents will have a lot of trouble with.
The 49ers will have much better preparation and offensive game plans under Harbaugh. Gone will be the days of constantly running Frank Gore up the gut into a defense with eight or nine men in the box.
Harbaugh will implement a varied offensive scheme that incorporates multiple options in the pass patterns and outlets if the pass protection is overwhelmed. The 49ers will be much more effective at utilizing their personnel. I am looking forward to seeing the creativity that Harbaugh will employ with the 49er offense.
The days of the Neanderthal ground-and-pound offense that we saw under Mike Singletary will be extinct. We will see a whole new offensive awakening, reminiscent of the Bill Walsh era.
Alex Smith will be Jim Harbaugh's quarterback in 2011
The biggest challenge for Jim Harbaugh will be to turn Alex Smith into a decent NFL quarterback. Harbaugh is well known for developing quarterbacks and his work with Alex Smith will be crucial to the 49ers' success.
In the six years that Alex Smith has been with the 49ers he has struggled. The reasons for this, including his own poor play, have been widely discussed. However, Jim Harbaugh believes Smith can be a good quarterback and I am willing to give them both a chance to prove it.
Harbaugh is credited for turning a relatively unheralded Josh Johnson into an NFL-caliber player at the University of San Diego. Johnson is now a quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
At Stanford, Harbaugh was instrumental in the development of Andrew Luck. Possessing good fundamental skills and a strong understanding of the game, Harbaugh honed the skills and instincts of Luck to the point where Luck is now the top quarterback in college football.
Had he entered the 2011 draft, Luck would have been the first player selected. He is already better than half of the quarterbacks starting in the NFL and Jim Harbaugh has prepared him well to make the jump to pro football.
Harbaugh will need to work his magic with Alex Smith, but he believes in him and can teach him far more than any of Smith's former head coaches or offensive coordinators, except for maybe Norv Turner. I believe Smith will show marked improvement in the upcoming season.
Colin Kaepernick, selected in Round 2 of the 2011 draft, will also get the benefit of Harbaugh's coaching. Kaepernick played in the Pistol offense, which was designed by Nevada head coach Chris Ault. He will have a lot to learn about a pro-style offense and Harbaugh is the right man to teach him.
Kaepernick is the quarterback of the future, but it will take a year or two before he's ready to play. He will not only need to learn the 49er offense, but he will also need to learn NFL defenses and how to progress through multiple reads quickly.
Kaepernick is an excellent athlete and I believe he will make the transition to become a quality starter in the NFL. We will just need to be patient, because he has a lot to learn.
Justin Smith is a mainstay of the 49er defense
I am looking forward to seeing what Jim Harbaugh can accomplish with the 49ers. Unfortunately, every day the lockout and labor impasse continues will make it harder for him and the 49ers.
No team in the league is hurt more the San Francisco, due to the labor issues. Harbaugh is a coach coming most recently from the collegiate ranks, as are his top assistants, Fangio and Roman.
They will need time to learn the opposing teams in the league, although they have plenty of time to look at films right now, due to the lockout.
The main issue will be installing and teaching a complex offense, with completely new nomenclature to the 49ers. They will be hard pressed to learn the plays and play-calls in time for the regular season, if there is an abbreviated training camp period.
In addition, the 49ers will not have the proper time to practice and go through the repetitions needed to make this second nature to them. For this reason, if the labor dispute is not resolved very soon, we will need to temper our expectations and be patient with Harbaugh and the team.
I have no doubt that Harbaugh will ultimately lead the 49ers back to being a winning team and a perennial playoff contender. It may take a couple of years, but I am convinced that he will get them there.