San Francisco 49ers: 4 Reasons New Coach Jim Harbaugh Has Them Winning
This season, the five-time Super Bowl champions find themselves in “recently unfamiliar” territory atop the NFL.
Now 5-1 heading into their bye week, the 49ers are a single win away from equaling their win total from the previous season.
Considering the squad will be well-rested going into Week 8 after the bye, and the opposition will be a visiting 2-3 Cleveland Browns team, I would be willing to bet my house, my car and heck, even my girlfriend—no, I insist—that they won’t have to wait until Week 9 to meet last season’s mark.
That said, six wins over an entire season is by no means impressive, but considering the past and current state of the NFC West, it may be more than enough to clinch a playoff appearance with eight weeks to spare.
The second most successful team in the division currently sits at a woeful 2-3.
Jim Harbaugh has completely transformed the mentality of a roster that remains largely unchanged from the year before, aside from a few key draft selections and an MIA Braylon Edwards.
This season’s success has by no means been mere luck, coincidence or fluke. It is the direct result of the former Stanford head coach’s hiring back in January, and his ability to bring the very best out of his players.
The Renaissance of Alex Smith
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Not many people would have expected Alex Smith—the No. 1 overall pick of 2005—to be ranked among the Top 10 quarterbacks in passer rating (898).
But he is.
The former University of Utah standout has thrown eight touchdowns to just two interceptions with a completion percentage of 63.3 up to this point in the young season, setting the underachiever on pace for a career year statistically.
Jim Harbaugh effectively accomplished in a matter of months what predecessors Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary couldn’t in five years—even being interrupted by a labor strike.
Harbaugh’s key to success has been in accepting Smith for his flaws and adjusting the system in a manner to emphasize his strengths as a player.
Simply put, Smith doesn’t possess anything close to elite arm strength or even throw tight spirals the majority of the time.
But the 27-year-old is an exceptionally intelligent individual with enough athletic ability to facilitate the offense and squeeze out of tight spots—although you wouldn’t know it looking at the number of sack he’s taken thus far (16).
Many may still be looking back on that fateful day the 49ers passed on Aaron Rodgers with insurmountable disdain, but Smith still has the time and the defense to get the 49ers to the promise land—if he can stay healthy.
Didn't Change the Defense
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Despite being considered more of an offensive specialist or "QB guru" by reputation, coach Jim Harbaugh made an invaluable contribution to the defensive side of the ball through his influence on personnel decisions and the system itself.
Avoiding the oft-taken, ego-driven decision to brand his team with unnecessary changes, Harbaugh chose to leave the defensive scheme imparted upon the 49ers by his predecessors. The most significant change was the inclusion of a couple new player packages for multiple receiver sets.
The decision to let Nate Clements go in the offseason proved wise through the acquisition of Carlos Rogers. He has already managed three interceptions—one of which he took back for six—so far this season.
The coach’s wisest move, albeit a collaborative decision by the staff, was the selection of Missouri’s Aldon Smith with the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Smith has amassed 5.5 sacks in the last three games.
Allowing only 16.2 points per game, only second to the Baltimore Ravens (14.2), the 49ers have made a marketable improvement from last year’s figure of 21.6 within the same category.
Weakest Division in Football
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Quarterback struggles are aplenty and defenses are comparable to Swiss cheeses.
That statement pretty much sums up every team in the NFC West besides of the 49ers this year.
It is also probably the only aspect of the team’s success that Jim Harbaugh hasn’t had a hand in.
St. Louis’ Sam Bradford—last season’s rookie of the year—is on his back more often than Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers. The Seattle Seahawks drop Matt Hasselbeck for the greatness that is Tarvaris Jackson. The Arizona Cardinals throw in their best cover corner to get Kevin Kolb when a second round pick. This all seems a bit too fortuitous to be coincidence alone.
The division is weak, horribly weak (in terms of record strength).
So great is the disparity between the NFC West and the other divisions that some owners had actually been pressing for changes—perhaps that the Top Eight teams of each respective conference, regardless of division stature, be granted a playoff berth, or that teams will simply be reseeded by record upon entering the playoffs.
Somewhat ill-thought motions considering such a change would need a vote of approval from the majority of owners to pass. A group of people the NFC West and a number of other lackluster franchise owners happen are in favor.
Eight wins will win the division but the 49ers will win at least 10 this season.
Keeping Gore Fresh
After a horrible two-game start to the season, where the featured back didn’t break 50-yards or average over 2.5 yards an attempt in either appearance, Frank Gore has rumbled back with a vengeance, playing catalyst to the 49ers last three victories.
This is just a couple weeks after a number of reputable media outlets judged the 49ers’ confidence and investment in Gore—who has only played a complete season once in his entire career—to be both misplaced and irresponsible.
The two-time Pro Bowler has climbed to fifth in the league in total rushing yards.
The boost can be attributed to the back’s return from an ankle injury that limited his production in the very early-goings of the season.
Another important factor has been the fourth-round selection of Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter. He's been able to provide a real change of pace for the offense and come on the field to give his veteran counterpart some much-needed rest.
This strategy employed by Jim Harbaugh, which isn’t a genuine two-back system, generally places the younger Hunter on the field in both run and pass situations.
In trusting the rookie to pick up some pass protections, Harbaugh has effectively diminished the number of plays Gore is forced to exert himself over the course of a game. He also maintains enough variation to avoid tipping off opposing defenses to the play call.
At this point, Harbaugh has been able to walk that fine line successfully. Gore is actually on pace to carry the ball more times than he ever has, and remain healthy too.