Now at an unanticipated 6-1—good enough for the second best record in the entire NFL— the San Francisco 49ers may have already decidedly clinched their horrendously weak division which features no other team with more than two wins.
We all saw how intense Jim Harbaugh was following his team’s impressive comeback victory over the Lions in the game’s dire moments, but what about his players?
Who on the roster are most enjoying the new mentality that the “Harbaugh Era” has brought to the entire squad?
Leading the team with 6.5 sacks, this year’s seventh-overall pick out of Missouri has proved to be every bit the player the front office envisioned him to be and so much more.
Donning the No. 99 jersey previously worn by the first-round edge-rushing linebacker that proceeded him—Manny Lawson—Aldon Smith may be able to match the five-year sack total (14.5) of the man he replaced in his first season alone.
The pleasant surprise of the season, NaVorro Bowman has taken full advantage of the opportunity presented before him as he currently leads the entire team with 68 total tackles.
Not even a first-choice starter in college at Penn State—he got his chance following the graduation of Dan Connor and injury to Sean Lee—Bowman is no stranger to making the most of all situations set before him.
At 23-year old former third-round pick paired with All-Pro Patrick Willis could go on to not only form the backbone of the San Francisco 49ers’ defense for years to come but eventually develop into one of the very best inside linebacker tandems the NFL has ever seen.
Now 32 years old, there is no player on the roster happier than the former Bengals defensive end.
Having endured the pains of playing for an organization seemingly committed to mediocrity over a number of years, Justin Smith may be the only one who can truly appreciate the team’s success and Jim Harbaugh’s impact going into the halfway point.
Quietly enjoying one of the best seasons of his 11-year career thus far—4.5 sacks—the talented run-stopper has never garnered the attention he has truly deserved as one of the best lineman in football today.
Let go by the Washington Redskins this past offseason, the former Jim Thorpe Award winner and ninth overall pick has never lived up to his billing as the top defensive back prospect in the draft coming out of Auburn in 2005.
A disappointment that has in large part been due to his lack of interception production over the course of his first six seasons prior to landing in San Francisco on a one-year deal to replace the departed Nate Clements.
However, going back to Rodgers’ college career, he had never had more than two interceptions in any given season as his game was hallmarked by defending passes (swatting balls), being physical with receivers at the line and being a solid tackling corner more often than not.
This season the 30-year-old corner leads the entire team with three interceptions (a career high) and eight passes defended through seven games.
Finally in a city where the staff has chosen him (rather than a high-paid holdover from a previous regime) and on a team that has become a serious title contender, Rodgers is seeking a contract to keep him in San Francisco for the remainder of his career.
Statistically speaking, Patrick Willis is not in the process of putting up career-year numbers, but that has nothing to do with his form.
The inside linebacker has continued to be an absolute beast on the field and an endearing leader in all settings just as he has always been since coming on as a rookie in 2007.
The difference lies in the actions and work rate of his teammates who are all striving to make plays.
No longer alone or recognized as the single destructive entity of the San Francisco 49ers’ defense, the entire team appears to be competing for tackles on every down as do sharks in a “feeding frenzy.”
Defensive morale is not often, if ever, found in individual accolades, but in the confidence that one of the other 10 guys on the field with you can make the stop you expect them to make.
Willis—rated as far and away the best player at his position by ESPN and among those in the conversation for best overall defensive player in the league—now finds himself surrounded by a cast of players imbued with the fire of their new head coach.
Handing a three-year extension worth $21 million to a running back coming off a hip-fracture that landed him on the IR the season prior—with a history of notable injuries—seemed like financial suicide at its best.
A single touchdown, an embarrassing average of barely over 2.5 yards per carry and three weeks into the regular season later, Frank Gore’s skeptics appeared to be proven completely right.
Yet Jim Harbaugh continued to feed Gore the ball and in a week that he was not even guaranteed to play, the back would rip and rumble through the Eagles’ defense in Philadelphia.
That day that would mark the first of a continuing four-game-tear of 125-yard plus performances.
There is absolutely no coincidence that the Miami alum is off to his best season since 2006 (1,695-yards, 5.4 average, eight touchdowns) in the same year in which he received a full vote of confidence from a new head coach with all the reason to abandon him.
Frail, injury prone, inconsistent, bust, backup and underachiever are all words that would have been fit to describe the former first-overall pick coming into the 2011 season.
But now, Alex Smith appears to be a model of efficiency under the tutelage of new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
After five seasons and about as many different offensive schemes, Smith has finally been granted the stability that every developing quarterback requires to be successful in the NFL.
Solid, yet not spectacular, the 27-year-old has not been asked to win games as much as he has been asked not to lose them, and he has performed admirably in that role.
Having only thrown two interceptions up to this point compared to nine touchdown throws through seven games —boasting a 63.2 completion percentage and a 95.7 rating—he looks apt to justify his high-draft status.
Smith appears to have finally been placed back upon the promising trajectory he had been on under the direction of Norv Turner prior to the coordinator’s decision to depart for San Diego and injuries took their toll.
No one can be more ecstatic about the “Jim Harbaugh Era” than Alex Smith.