6 Things That Stood out in the San Francisco 49ers Training Camp
The word is out: The San Francisco 49ers are operating at a different pace this year. Workouts during training camp at the team’s headquarters in Santa Clara carried on at a fast-paced clip, coaches scurrying the field as they hollered instructions and comments, players always on the move. More plays, more running, more everything; the activity level is definitely higher, and so are the team’s spirits.
New coach Jim Harbaugh was in the middle of it all. From telling a tight end who just dropped a sideline throw on how to frame his hands in order to make a catch, to running after another player like a pursuing defender, Harbaugh’s presence powers the upbeat practices.
Said All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, “It’s being fast on every play. It’s beating the clock, and getting the conditioning in as well. Everything we do is moving at a fast tempo.”
Whether talking with the team or local media, Harbaugh has an intense gaze. He rarely blinks, his gaze unwavering as if he wants to look through the question to find how the answer can be framed within the recent experience of trying to shape 90 players and about a dozen coaches into a winning professional organization.
It’s a level of attention one would expect from a first-year law student in class before a storied professor. There’s no joshing like Rex Ryan of the Jets, no indifferent dismissal a la Bill Parcells. Harbaugh receives questions and expresses himself. If he disagrees, he says so, but doesn’t launch into reasons why for the difference of opinion.
After three weeks of camp, he got a first-hand look of not just an NFL team—he’s been an assistant—but his NFL team.
Here are the six things that stood out about the 2011 San Francisco 49ers training camp.
Note: The 49ers ended camp on Aug. 18, and Ted Johnson attended to get insight into the team from Jim Harbaugh and team.
The Quarterback Is Everything
Almost daily, Harbaugh had to field questions about Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, the second-round draft pick out of Nevada. And Harbaugh even noted earlier in the week that the media seem to be focused on quarterbacks.
But then, it is widely accepted that the NFL is a sport in which a first-rate player at that position is absolutely essential for success. And the play of Alex Smith has absolutely been less than stellar during his six-year career. And Harbaugh knows that, but here’s his thinking: It isn’t only Alex Smith that has to get better. Everyone has to get better.
“You don’t fix a flat tire by changing the driver,” Harbaugh said.
Heckuva Camp but a Ways to Go
As Harbaugh provided a review of camp, the phrase “he had a heckuva camp” came up several times.
Justin Smith: “A quintessential a pro.”
Ahmad Brooks: “You want to talk about critical positions. Being able to rush the passer or drop into coverages. He has made several plays on the ball.”
Offensive players: “Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker—both outstanding. Great camps. Joe Staley had the best camp. (Starting right guard) Chilo Rachal has been a real surprise, having a heckuva camp. I’m pleased with that.”
But that doesn’t mean Harbaugh thinks the team is ready. No. There’s a long way to go.
“I wouldn’t limit it to three or four steps,” Harbaugh said by way of answering what he’d like to see in terms of improvement for the second preseason game. “We’re trying to get better in a lot of areas. To be successful this season, there are a lot of things we have to do well. There are probably a thousand things, and we’re on a step 50. There are certainly more than 3-4 steps away. We’re improving throughout in all facets of the game.”
Nothing Set in Granite
Backup tackle Alex Boone has been getting reps at right tackle with the first unit. Adam Snyder has also taken turns working at right guard. It’s Harbaugh’s way of getting seven solid players who are capable of playing more than one position on the offensive line.
“We have to have that versatility,” Harbaugh said. “The left tackle has to be able to move over and play right tackle. We have two versatile guys (Boone and Snyder) we want to get them more work there."
“I’m not saying anything is set in stone,” the coach added. “Right now, the first unit is carved out, but I want to get the mentality that there are seven guys in there who are starter caliber. I’m not making bold or definitive statements. It’s taking shape very well.”
Versatility Adds Insurance
Sixth-round draft pick Colin Jones is a safety by trade, but Harbaugh had him working on some at receiver. Rookie Bruce Miller is slated as a fullback but he’s also worked at linebacker. Of course, Harbaugh had perhaps the most talented two-way player at Stanford last year in Owen Marecic.
Versatility is essential for those who are trying to secure a roster spot.
“We’re getting down to the final 48 and 53 spots, and the more things you can do the better chances of making the football team,” Harbaugh said. “We’re trying to take advantage of Bruce’s ability as a pass rusher, which he played in college. Colin Jones has quite a bit of speed and wants to give him a chance on the offensive of ball.”
Building, Not Blaming
The first preseason game against New Orleans revealed a 49er team incapable of handling the Saints’ blitzes. Protecting the quarterback carries a high priority this week, obviously, since the Niners did such a poor job last week.
“Some of that I agree with,” Harbaugh said. “One thing for sure is we want to protect the quarterback better in this game. We have to handle the blitz or teams are going to blitz you if you can’t handle it. That’s an important factor for us. Improvement, execution…that’s a major focus.”
Question: Is this an area of high concern?
“It was a good learning,” Harbaugh said. “Good teachable moments for our football team.” And right there you can see that Harbaugh is focused on execution, and more than that a mindset that speaks to a constant demand for execution. He didn’t blame players or coaches or himself.
“In offensive football, with the line calls and the quarterbacks, there are so many people working together, or in tandem, that communication has to grow. That’s how you get the confidence for what the guy next to you is doing. On offense and on special teams, that’s an area I look for in improvement.
“It’s more about getting the confidence of playing together,” he continued. “Individuals missed assignments, maybe one on a play. But that’s the thing about offensive football. It’s so important. One guy makes a mistake, and you can say that it is only one, but every time that happens it’s a negative play for the whole unit."
“We’re getting better, perfecting, going over every detail, to make sure there’s no screw ups when you get to game night. And our team is progressing.”
One thing that surprised him, Harbaugh said, is the willingness of these NFL players to learn, to accept coaching, to try to get better.
“Because when many think of the NFL, they think of players as prima donnas. I did, because it’s out there. These are real men. Strong men. Family men. They like coaching. They’re always trying to get better. That’s my big surprise.”
And with that, it might behoove the 49er fan to remember that Harbaugh has a five-year contract, and getting the team to play at an elite level may take more than one year. Maybe three. And perhaps that’s why Harbaugh seems so intense when he answers questions about the 49ers.
There aren’t going to be any easy answers, and it might take longer than what many expect. But he’s not going let up on his drive to achieve excellence.