In the preseason, fans joked that Jim Harbaugh was going to be the next Bill Walsh (both ditched coaching gigs at Stanford to come north and try out the NFL). Nearing the end of the season, this seems to be less of a joke and more a prophecy.
After securing a playoff birth in his first year as an NFL head coach, Jim Harbaugh has changed the mindset of the franchise. Not only has he exceeded expectations, but he has created even higher expectations for seasons to come.
Having already been compared to Walsh, Harbaugh will be expected to revive the dynasty the 49ers created in the early 1980s. The following is an agenda the 49ers must follow in order reestablish that dynasty.
Vic Fangio, defensive coordinator
In the last eight years (known as the "Difficult Years" on wikipedia) San Francisco has experienced many turnovers, both on and off the field. During this time, the 49ers experimented with three coaches (Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary), who all played around with different coordinator combinations.
This lack of coaching consistency defined the "Difficult Years" and has been the team's biggest deterrent to winning than any other factor.
Jim Harbaugh will be the head coach for San Francisco for a long time, that much is guaranteed. What is not so certain is whether his coordinators will always be by his side.
When Harbaugh was named head coach, the first thing he did was tell his offensive and defensive coordinators at Stanford that they would be joining him in San Francisco. Greg Roman and Vic Fangio both deserve the utmost credit for what they have done for the 49ers.
Roman has designed an offense that has made Alex Smith look slightly better than average (which is no easy feat). Fangio transformed a good defense into a great defense.
In order for the 49ers to create a dynasty, they must try to keep their coaching staff intact. This will prove difficult once Roman and Fangio start gaining more recognition around the league for what they have done.
Other coaches worth mentioning are Brad Seely (special teams), Tom Rathman (running backs) and Jim Tomsula (defensive line). Each one of these guys has done an outstanding job influencing the players they coach.
The head coach and quarterback are always the face of a dynasty: Lombardi/Starr, Walsh/Montana, Belichick/Brady.
San Francisco has their coach in place, but is still looking for a quarterback. For the Harbaugh-led 49ers to become a dynasty, Alex Smith cannot be starting in the future.
Smith deserves respect for staying in San Francisco when the entire city wanted him gone. This year he has proven that he is a decent quarterback, but nothing more.
Sadly, it is (and always has been) clear that when the pressure is on, Smith cannot deliver. He is a solid backup quarterback at best.
The 49ers' best hope is Colin Kaepernick, whom Harbaugh jumped on in the second round of the 2011 draft. If Harbaugh is able to coach Kaepernick the way he did Josh Johnson at the University of San Diego or Andrew Luck at Stanford, Kaepernick could be the next name in line of 49er greats after Montana and Young.
Kaepernick's athletic ability and strong arm are assets which cannot be taught. If Kaepernick can learn the fundamentals and adapt to NFL speed, he has the potential to be a very special player.
If Kaepernick does not live up to his potential, it is imperative that the 49ers either bring in a veteran or find someone through the draft sooner rather than later.
For the 49ers to create a dynasty, they must either adjust the play of their young offensive linemen or bring in new players who are capable of protecting the backfield.
San Francisco has been trying to bring in top talent to their offensive line through the draft for a number of years. Three starters on the offensive line (Joe Staley, Mike Lupati and Anthony Davis) are first round picks.
Chilo Rachal, who was replaced as the starting guard this season, was picked in the second round. Despite the high prices the 49ers have paid for these players, the offensive line remains one the the teams's biggest liabilities.
Kaepernick's potential is very high. The No. 1 factor that will determine if he is able to perform to his potential is whether or not the offensive line can improve.
He has more than enough athletic ability to escape pass-rushers, but if he is constantly ducking defenders his confidence will plummet (ask Alex Smith about that).
A successful running game is critical to take the pressure off a young quarterback. However, if the line is not capable of creating running room, the quarterback will be forced to carry a heavier load.
Frank Gore is nearing the end of his productive career. Kendall Hunter, and to a lesser extent Anthony Dixon, will soon be asked to carry the load on the ground. Like Kaepernick, Hunter and Dixon's productivity will be decided by the play of the offensive line.
Under Vic Fangio, the defense has established themselves as one of the best in the league.
Built around LB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith, the defense is impenetrable against the run. Their weakness is against the pass.
The additions of rookie OLB/DE Aldon Smith and CB Carlos Rodgers have boosted the pass defense, but they are still another pass-rusher and corner back away from being all-around dominant.
Outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson are both solid players, but they lack the athletic ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. Finding another player who can consistently get ten or more sacks a season would cause nightmares for opposing quarterbacks for years to come.
Carlos Rodgers has come into his own since being picked up by the 49ers this offseason. Additionally, Chris Culliver (who was picked in the third round of this years NFL Draft) has overachieved this year and should be a starter in the future.
Both Rodgers and Culliver are solid, but neither are shut-down corners. Bringing in a corner whom quarterbacks fear throwing towards would bring a new dimension to the defense.
The 49ers will be relying on their defense for the next few years until they find their franchise quarterback. If San Francisco is planning on creating a dynasty, they must start by shoring up their defense to make up for their average offense.
Jim Harbaugh has rejuvenated the roster and already has people believing that they will be a team to beat for years to come.
Future drafts and free agent pickups will play a big part in determining whether or not the 49ers continue to improve.
For the last eight years the 49ers have gone into the offseason with the mentality that they are in rebuilding mode. This offseason will be different.
Instead of rebuilding the team, Harbaugh must add to what is already in place. San Francisco needs depth. This is most evident in the offensive and defensive lines.
The defensive line needs backups who can give Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald breathers when needed.
The offensive line needs to bring in experienced starters to replace the young developing linemen who are holding the team back (Anthony Davis).
In future drafts the 49ers should look to add another playmaker receiver (to compliment Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis), a shut-down corner (to help Carlos Rodgers and the secondary) and an elite pass rusher (to line up opposite from Aldon Smith).
The infusion of both experienced and raw talent can help improve the team not only for the immediate future but for years to come.
And BOOM! a dynasty is reborn.