Jim Harbaugh San Francisco 49ers: 20 Bold Questions for His 2011 Rookie Season
Jim Harbaugh has agreed to become the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, as the now former coach of the Stanford Cardinal has agreed to terms on a five-year deal that will pay him $25 million.
There's no doubt that the 49ers are definitely getting the man they probably wanted all along and we can take it for granted at this point that Harbaugh is certainly an upgrade over Mike Singletary.
But, of course, we can't hand Harbaugh and the Niners the Lombardi Trophy quite yet. After all, Harbaugh is taking over a team that is more or less in disarray.
With that in mind, here are 20 bold questions for Harbaugh's 2011 rookie season in the NFL.
20. What Changes Will He Make to the Coaching Staff?
First things first. Now that Harbaugh is in the fold, he needs to figure out what the rest of the puzzle will look like.
If the Jimmy Raye debacle was any indication, Mike Singletary didn't make the best decisions when it came to his coaching staff.
After firing Raye as his offensive coordinator and replacing him with Mike Johnson, the offense did perform better, no doubt about that.
But make no mistake, Harbaugh is going to bring in his own crew and do things his way. Exactly who he's going to hire to rebuild the Niners, well, we shall see.
19. Will He Try To Bring On Any Stanford Coaches?
Even if Harbaugh might prefer to bring any of his coaches from Stanford along for the ride, it might be difficult considering the program will probably look to replace him from within.
This is probably particularly true as it pertains to offensive coordinator David Shaw, who will likely emerge as a logical candidate to step into Harbaugh's shoes.
But aside from him, the notion of Harbaugh handpicking a couple Stanford coaches to follow him to the NFL isn't all that outlandish.
18. Who Will He Look To Draft?
Harbaugh and the 49ers will have the luxury of a high draft pick when the draft rolls around in April, as the Niners are slotted to have the No. 7 pick.
They will likely have their shot at drafting Prince Amukamara, who would help shore up a secondary that was largely ineffective in 2010. He could also draft a quarterback such as Cam Newton, Jake Locker and maybe even Ryan Mallett (assuming Blaine Gabbert is the first off the board, of course).
The Niners have no shortage of needs, but which among them Harbaugh will prefer to address in the draft remains to be seen. And, of course, his preference might not be the same as that of his superiors.
17. What Kind of Acquisitions Will He Look To Make?
Harbaugh will obviously have to coordinate with the 49ers' new GM, Trent Baalke, when it comes to decisions about acquiring personnel from outside the organization. But make no mistake, the Niners have holes and he's going to have his say about how they can fill them.
If they don't get one in the draft, the 49ers are going to have to go out and find a quarterback (more on that in a moment). The pass rush could also use a boost, as well as the secondary.
There are going to be plenty of good free agents on the market this offseason, so we shall see if Harbaugh covets any of them.
16. Can He Help Reform the Defense?
Coming into the 2010 season, the 49ers' biggest strength was supposed to be their defense.
But thanks in large part to the fact that the offense simply couldn't stay on the field, the defense severely underachieved. They allowed 21.6 points and 327.8 yards per game and had some pretty bad struggles against the pass.
Harbaugh is obviously an offensive guy, but let's not forget that the Cardinal's defense was one of its biggest strengths this past season. As such, he might have some knowledge that could come in handy as far as the defense is concerned?
15. Can He Match His Offensive Philosophy with Existing Personnel?
One of the biggest problems the 49ers had this season is that Singletary was overly insistent on making the Niners a power running team.
When you have guys like Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree (more on them shortly), suffice it to say that this really wasn't the best idea for the team.
Besides, these are the San Francisco 49ers, not the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harbaugh will undoubtedly look to install an entirely different offensive system and how he's going to match it to the team's existing personnel should be his biggest priority.
14. Will He Re-Establish Vernon Davis As the Team's Biggest Threat?
One of the things he's going to figure out is how to get the ball to Vernon Davis as often as possible.
To be sure, Davis actually ended up with some pretty good numbers in 2010. He was second among NFL tight ends in receiving yards with 914, and he also caught seven touchdowns.
But he saw his receptions decrease from 78 to 56 from 2009 to 2010, and he also caught 13 TDs in 2009.
Moreover, there were too many games throughout the course of the season in which Davis simply wasn't all that involved, as he posted seven games with three or fewer catches. He's one of the biggest weapons Harbaugh is inheriting and he needs to make it a point to re-establish him as the team's biggest threat on offense.
13. Can He Get More Production out of Michael Crabtree?
In 11 games worth of action in his rookie season, Crabtree caught 48 balls for 625 yards. Surely, in his first full season, he would be a true force at wide receiver.
Not so much. He caught just 55 passes for 741 yards and it just seemed like he was largely absent from a handful of games in 2010.
True enough, this has a lot to do with the Niners' much-publicized quarterback problems, which is something Harbaugh has to resolve. But one of the ways he can make the best of his quarterback situation is by telling whoever is under center to get Crabtree the ball at all costs.
12. How Will He Handle the Running Game?
Put simply, the 49ers offense over the last several years has been Frank Gore and then everyone else.
Those days might be coming to an end. Gore is a very good running back, but the fractured hip he suffered this season should be a major concern given the amount of wear and tear the team's power run game has already inflicted on his body. Moreover, unless the team knows something about Anthony Dixon that the rest of us don't, there is no heir apparent for Gore.
So while it doesn't seem likely that Harbaugh will make any major additions, it's going to be interesting to see how he handles things if the ground game struggles in 2011.
11. Does He Have Any Ideas for Fixing the Offensive Line?
The 49ers' offensive line definitely had its issues in 2010, which likely had a lot to do with the fact that they started two rookies.
And while Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati did improve as the season went along and are likely to be even better in 2011, the fact that the 49ers allowed 44 sacks in 2010 and had their issues with penalties is a lingering concern.
As a former quarterback, you have to expect that Harbaugh has a few notions of his own for how he wants his offensive line to play. If the offensive line goes from being a liability to a strength in 2011, you can bet Harbaugh had something to do with it.
10. Would He Consider Bringing Alex Smith Back?
Alex Smith is a free agent and the chances of the 49ers of bringing him back are slim to none.
But there's always going to be weird "what if" scenarios to consider and one of them in this case is whether or not Harbaugh might view Smith as the best option for his team.
If so, he better have a good argument for Trent Baalke and Jed York.
9. If Not with Smith, How Is He Going To Solve the Team's Quarterback Crisis?
Calling the 49ers quarterback situation a "crisis" may sound a bit harsh. But here in the Bay Area, it's suffice to say that both local fans and football pundits alike are very much concerned about it.
And because it seems likely that Alex Smith is on his way out, the starting gig is thus wide open. After all, you can bet that it won't go to Troy Smith either, and it sure as heck won't go to David Carr.
So what is Harbaugh going to do? Will he draft a quarterback? Or would he rather acquire somebody like Kyle Orton or Vince Young?
8. Can He Earn His Money?
It probably doesn't break down so simply, but Harbaugh's five-year, $25 million contract is going to pay him an average of $5 million a year.
That puts him in the same territory as coaches like Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid and is a lot of money for a guy who's only NFL coaching experience was as an assistant coach for the Raiders almost a decade ago.
True, he may not be making Pete Carroll money (close to $7 million per year), but the amount of dollars the Niners are forking over more or less demand playoffs—and nothing less.
7. Can He Make the 49ers the Class of a Very Weak NFC West?
Earning his money starts with making the 49ers what they should have been in 2010—the class of the NFC West.
But while there's plenty of hope in St. Louis, the Seahawks, Cardinals and 49ers are in something of a rut. As such, whether or not Harbaugh can immediately come in and make the Niners a division champion is going to be his biggest challenge.
If he doesn't, well, that just wouldn't be very good.
6. Will the Niners Be More Competitive against the Rest of the NFC?
Truth be told, the Niners didn't have much trouble within the division, as they went 4-2 against NFC West opponents.
Instead, what they really need to improve on in 2011 is their play against the rest of the NFC. The 49ers went 0-6 against NFC teams outside their own division. Had they won even two of those games, they would have gone 8-8 and made the playoffs.
So as much as Harbaugh needs to make the 49ers the class of the NFC West, he also needs to improve them to the point where they can go toe-to-toe against the rest of the conference.
5. Will He Beat His Brother Head-To-Head?
In addition to playing with the rest of the NFC, the Niners can also make a statement in 2011 by beating one AFC team in particular.
The 49ers' schedule for 2011 isn't yet set in stone, but we do know they will play one of their road games against the Baltimore Ravens.
That would have been just another game. But now that Harbaugh is on board, it's personal.
After all, his brother John is the head coach of the Ravens and their matchup is going to be the NFL story du jour when it comes time for it.
So can Jim make a statement by beating his brother?
4. What If the Niners Don't Show Improvement?
And indeed, as with any coaching hire, the worst case scenario is that the new boss will be the same as the old boss.
Well, Singletary was a bad head coach and the team's struggles under him were no accident.
In the event that the team fails to show any improvement under Harbaugh, which would look especially bad considering the quality of competition in the division, what then?
No, I'm not going to use the dreaded F word here, but another bad season certainly wouldn't do Harbaugh any favors.
3. Will He Lead the 49ers to the Playoffs?
The last head coach to take the Niners to the playoffs was Steve Mariucci and that was all the way back in 2002.
Since then, it has been a parade of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, each of whom was seemingly more ineffective than the last.
The good news is that Harbaugh is undoubtedly more promising than any of the three. But the San Francisco faithful are already impatient, especially now that the Giants have brought a championship to the Bay Area. If the 49ers don't make the playoffs in Harbaugh's first season, it will be a failure.
So will they?
2. Will His Team Be Good Enough To Go Deep in the Playoffs?
To be sure, people in and around the 49ers are likely going to be quite satisfied if the team so much as makes the playoffs.
But if Harbaugh's team does make the playoffs, actually making a playoff run would be a huge step forward for the franchise, as the 49ers haven't made it beyond the divisional round since 1997.
So in the event that the 49ers do make a deep playoff run under Harbaugh, what then?
Well, read on...
1. Will 2011 Be the Start of a New Dynasty in San Francisco?
Making the playoffs will of course be Harbaugh's main priority in his rookie season, but the organization didn't target him because they want a quick fix.
Indeed, this is one of the proudest and most storied franchises in the NFL and the fans are hungry not just for the playoffs, but for a Super Bowl.
Harbaugh doesn't necessarily have to deliver a Lombardi Trophy in his first season, but the hope in the Bay Area is already he is the guy to lead them back to greatness.
One way or another, 2011 will be merely the first step.