San Francisco 49ers: 6 Reasons Jim Harbaugh Era's off to a Great Start
That sound you hear way off in the distance – something of a high-pitched screech that brings with it a whiff of burned rubber – comes from new San Francisco 49er Coach Jim Harbaugh spinning his wheels.
Having been in the position since January, Harbaugh has barely had any contact with the team, thanks to the lockout between the owners and the players. Like most coaches at this level, Harbaugh has that focused high level energy meant to convince 60 individuals to subject their personal needs to the needs of the team.
Looking over what Harbaugh has done and said since he’s taken over, there’s very little in terms of actual hands-on evidence of his ability to achieve that coaching ideal of building a competitive, adaptive and resilient team. But there are indications that Harbaugh has the characteristics of what the team rather than specific individuals need.
In that light, here are six reasons why the Jim Harbaugh Era is off to a promising start.
The news came out this week that second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback out of Nevada, is getting a first-hand tutorial in Harbaugh’s offense. If Kaepernick had any contact with team officials, it would be in violation of the lockout rules imposed by the league.
But Kaepernick is getting it from Andrew Luck, the Stanford quarterback who stayed in school after Harbaugh took the 49er job.
It’s a think-outside-the-rules move because Kaepernick, as talented as he is, played in an offense that required very little time for him to take the snap from under the center. That means his footwork will be a big issue as he develops timing and touch needed for the three- and five-step drops.
More importantly, getting to know the terminology and the basic formations will help him develop confidence, something that most rookies need in getting up to speed in the NFL.
The post-2011 draft press conference had Harbaugh answering questions about the new additions to the squad, but Harbaugh made it clear that when it came to the final calls, General Manager Trent Baalke had the power.
It’s the first year of an organizational relationship that, if the Niners are to return to the league’s elite franchises, has to work and work well. Teams like the Colts and the Patriots have walls between coaches and personnel people.
In today’s world, where salary cap and roster move regulations limit movement, those two distinct jobs require a great deal of attention and energy. It’s difficult for one person to do both, a la Bill Parcell's belief in wanting to be the chef who also wanted to buy the groceries.
As I’ve said all along, the Niners needed defensive help much more than offensive, specifically a quarterback. They took Aldon Smith of Missouri, passing on what many thought was the best QB in the draft, Blaine Gabbert, and then moved up early in the second round to snare Kaepernick.
It was a move that achieved both desires – improved defense and a leader for the future – through the draft, which Baalke controlled. Harbaugh obviously had an input into the selections, as seen in the three draft choices used in the move up to get the quarterback.
In short, they worked together because they trusted each other.
One thing that marks successful people in a highly competitive environment is their undying, bright-burning belief in each other. They know what they like and they aren’t afraid to risk their reputation in making a project a success.
In that light, Harbaugh’s out-and-out wooing of Alex Smith to return to the Niners drives more than a few fans batty. Understandably so. Smith has not lived up to anything close to the performance of the first player taken in the 2005 draft.
To which, apparently, Harbaugh cares not a wit. Standard operating procedure in this situation is the new guy (Harbaugh) can’t really be judged until he has his own guy calling the shots, or in this case throwing the ball and calling the audibles.
Harbaugh, to the contrary, sees an experienced quarterback with obvious strengths (movement, short-range accuracy) and faults (poor decisions, indecisiveness). There must be something Harbaugh likes about Smith, and perhaps it is knowing that his West Coast offense plays more into Smith’s strengths than weaknesses.
It’s one thing to coach at Stanford and watch Mike Nolan and then Mike Singletary struggle to organize and motivate the team. He must have had that compelling competitive urge kick in. The one that says, “I can do better than those guys.” If Smith excels in 2011, 49er fans will come to worship Harbaugh’s competitiveness.
At the same time, everyone predicted that a lockout was coming, and that would limit every NFL coaching staff and front office in their dealings with the team. It also meant no free agency and no trades. And everyone knows that there’s a good chance the thing won’t get settled until the last minute, which means limited preparation time.
So Harbaugh is just being a realist. Alex Smith has the most experience in working with the team. Harbaugh knows that working with Smith is going to be much easier than trying to bring in another quarterback, even a veteran like Matt Hasselback and Carson Palmer, to get to the team.
Success breeds success, and improving on last year’s 6-10 record is the priority. Given the circumstances that all teams must operate under, Smith is the most likely candidate.
It is one thing to take a Division 1-AA school like San Diego and turn it around, quite another to transform Stanford into a regional power. That Harbaugh got into the grill of USC’s Pete Carroll in 2009, and then continued to pound the Trojans in 2010, is a statement that underscores his profound drive.
Stanford was coming off a 1-11 season upon Harbaugh’s arrival. He re-lit the program and did it against a national power like USC, which has greater freedom in attracting players, many of whom see a Trojan uniform as the launching pad into NFL success.
Harbaugh turned that around on The Farm. Can he do that in 49er headquarters in Santa Clara? History suggests that he can.
It all adds up.
Harbaugh’s past, including growing up as a son of a coach, playing in the NFL, coaching in the NFL, and then building his resume through the college ranks.
He knows how to be successful. Now it’s up to him to transfer that belief into his team, that is, when he’s allowed to. But it must encourage the hopes of 49er fans that they know this team has more talent than their record indicates.
Harbaugh’s job will be chipping away at the inconsistencies and enabling the team’s talent to shine. If he does, San Francisco can move up the ladder and perhaps sit among the elite teams in the NFL.