During the NFL lockout new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh did what many fans have no doubt done during the team's mostly dreary last decade. He queued up tapes of happier times, when the late Bill Walsh was coaching the San Francisco dynasty of the 1980s and early '90s. But unlike the 49ers' faithful, Harbaugh wasn't in it for the nostalgia: He was studying footage of Walsh and his assistants conducting practices and team meetings. He saw Walsh delivering motivational talks to the players, diagramming and breaking down plays, and doing on-field teaching during workouts. "It was valuable stuff," Harbaugh says. "It's like a connection to history."
The Niners are all in favor of connecting to history, as long as it's that golden era, in which San Francisco won five Super Bowls—four under Walsh and one under his former assistant George Seifert—and not the more recent one, in which they have missed the playoffs for eight straight years. Though they might not have realized it, the Niners have essentially been searching for a Walsh-like presence at head coach since their last postseason appearance in 2002. No one has come closer to fitting the profile than Harbaugh, who, like Walsh, came to San Francisco after a successful stretch at Stanford that was marked by creative offenses.
It's that reputation for cerebral football that has Niners Nation thinking—or desperately hoping?—that it has finally found its man, even though the early returns haven't been entirely positive. Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke surprisingly decided to re-sign quarterback Alex Smith, who has been a bust ever since San Francisco drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005, rather than pursue another QB, such as Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb. Smith hasn't exactly made them look like visionaries so far, with a weak showing in the preseason opener against New Orleans (in which, to be fair, he was hampered by woeful pass protection), followed by a decent performance (two scoring drives offset by an interception in one half) against the Raiders.
San Francisco seems to have made only modest improvements through free agency as well. The splashiest signing was receiver Braylon Edwards, whose off-field reputation clearly hurt his market value. The Niners signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million contract. "He's hit some potholes," says Harbaugh. "You don't want that to spiral any further down. It's time to start doing all the little things right."
The Niners seem confident that Harbaugh can transform Smith into at least a competent quarterback, turn Edwards into a homebody, conjure up a way to make underachieving, injury-prone wideout Michael Crabtree into a big-play receiver—and maybe guess what card you just pulled from the deck while he's at it. "He's just the type of guy who makes you believe," says cornerback Shawntae Spencer. "He's sure of himself and his plan, and that makes other people confident in him."
Of course, similar things were said about every new 49ers coach since Steve Mariucci led them to their last winning season nine years ago—and was then dumped. Since then, each fresh start has turned into a false start. Dennis Erickson replaced Mariucci, and the hope was that an established coach with NFL experience could continue the franchise's success. Erickson went 9--23 and was fired after two seasons. Then the Niners went the hot-assistant route with Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who built a reasonably stout D, led by linebacker Patrick Willis. But the 49ers were offensively inept during his tenure, changing coordinators four times. They went 18--37 before Nolan was fired and replaced by Mike Singletary, their linebackers coach, whose fire-and-brimstone style flamed out after 40 games. He was dismissed before the final game of last season.
At this early juncture the Niners' hope that things are finally improving (or "arrow up," as Harbaugh likes to put it) is based more on faith in the new brain trust—Harbaugh brought offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio with him from last year's 11--1 Stanford team—than on anything tangible. The roster looks only marginally better than it did a year ago. Linebacker Aldon Smith, the first-round draft pick out of Missouri, has shown impressive pass-rushing ability in camp, but at 21 he's probably too raw to make an immediate impact. Strong-armed rookie Colin Kaepernick, a fourth-round pick from Nevada, may be San Francisco's quarterback of the future, but for now the job still belongs to Smith.
How long the goodwill toward Harbaugh lasts will depend largely on the result of his decision to stick with Smith. It appeared that he was rethinking that choice after the quarterback's shaky play against New Orleans, after which the Niners went QB shopping, bringing in Daunte Culpepper for a workout (they didn't sign him) and then adding Josh McCown to serve as a mentor.
Perhaps even more surprising than the 49ers' decision to re-sign Smith, an unrestricted free agent, to a one-year, $5 million deal was his agreeing to return after years of being booed. But he was intrigued by Harbaugh's reputation as a quarterback guru. In 2002, during Harbaugh's first season as the Raiders' QB coach, Rich Gannon threw for a team-record 4,689 yards; last year Harbaugh's signal-caller, Andrew Luck, was the Heisman runner-up. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about going somewhere for a fresh start," Smith says, "but in a lot of ways this is a fresh start. The chance to learn under him was a big part of it."
If everyone in Niners-land seems a tad overeager to believe that Harbaugh will provide some long-awaited stability and success, perhaps it's because the memory of Walsh is still part of the 49ers' DNA. Even more than most teams, the Niners love the idea of the genius coach. It's why they chased Harbaugh so doggedly during the off-season even though his track record—he turned around programs at I-AA San Diego and Stanford—hardly stamps him as a surefire miracle worker at the pro level. The sophisticated offense that he and Roman ran with the Cardinal, with its multiple formations and constant shifting, had more complicated choreography than a Broadway musical, and the prospect of a San Francisco attack that out-thinks opposing defenses brings back memories of the Joe Montana--Jerry Rice--Steve Young days of dominance.
But anyone smart enough to be considered at all reminiscent of Walsh is also bright enough to know it's a losing battle to compete with the memory of the legendary coach. "I've got a long way to go before any comparisons can even begin to be made," Harbaugh says. He has, however, hit enough right notes to endear himself to those who long for the return of the Walshian culture. Those old tapes he and his staff studied weren't easy to find; many of them had disappeared from team headquarters over the years, and one of Harbaugh's first orders of business was to initiate an all-points bulletin when he heard they existed. Eventually the team received a shipment of old tapes and DVDs from the office of NFL Films. "Anybody who loves the old Niners has to think, Well, if he's that interested in studying Walsh, that's got to be a good sign," says tight end Vernon Davis, a sixth-year veteran.
Singletary, whose offensive philosophy centered around a pounding ground game, famously declared that quarterback was not necessarily the most important offensive position. Harbaugh quickly declared that he was returning to the West Coast offense popularized by Walsh. It's not hard to guess which message played better with the Niners' fan base.
Though there are obvious similarities in their résumés and offensive approaches, Harbaugh is clearly no Walsh clone. Walsh was the distinguished professor; Harbaugh is the energetic teacher who dashes around the classroom as he lectures. Walsh was the polished sophisticate; Harbaugh is more the blunt firebrand, who has wasted no time instilling his high energy. On one play during the first week of practice, the offense went to the line of scrimmage without anyone lining up at tight end, so Harbaugh quickly jumped into the position and gave the defensive end a forearm shiver on the snap. When the Niners work out in pads, they wear full game uniforms instead of practice jerseys because Harbaugh wants gamelike intensity at all times. Coaches and players can be heard shouting "Tempo, tempo, tempo!" as the players move between drills, reinforcing Harbaugh's emphasis on crisp, efficient practices. "It feels like things are changing for the better," says Davis.
San Francisco's new beginnings have always seemed to lead to the same old ending, and that has extended to off-the-field issues as well. The franchise has been attempting for the better part of a decade to have a new stadium built to replace Candlestick Park, and last week it unveiled yet another model for a proposed facility, a 68,500-seat venue in Santa Clara, though it still isn't clear where all of the funding would come from. The city of Santa Clara passed a $114 million bond measure in 2010, which is just a fraction of the estimated $987 million cost of the project.
Yet the Niners keep pushing the rock up the hill, declaring a target date of 2015 even though the facility is far from a certainty. The possibility of sharing the stadium with their Bay Area neighbors, the Raiders, has been floated, though owner and noted contrarian Al Davis would seem more likely to move his team to North Dakota than enter a partnership with his rivals.
By the time the new stadium is built or the plan fizzles once again, the Niners will have a clearer idea of what they have in Harbaugh. His biggest advantage may be the unwavering support he and his staff seem to already have from the players, who have been hard at work trying to make up for lost time in learning yet another new system. Roman, whose offense is known for making tight ends prominent in the passing game, developed a quick fondness for Vernon Davis, a 2009 Pro Bowl selection, early in camp, when he saw that the pages of Davis's playbook were crammed with notes that the tight end had taken during team meetings. "It looked like War and Peace, he had so much written down," Roman says.
War and Peace might be the perfect symbol for the new, thinking man's Niners. It's deep, complex, requires a certain intellect—and, most of all, brings to life an era gone by.
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THE NINERS LOVE THE IDEA OF THE GENIUS COACH. IT'S WHY THEY CHASED HARBAUGH.
Photographs by JED JACOBSOHN
WHAT, ME WORRY? Harbaugh (left) raised eyebrows by sticking with Smith, whose command of the offense has been shaky during the preseason.
Photograph by JED JACOBSOHN
END IN SIGHT A featured role in Harbaugh's system could mean a return to the Pro Bowl for Davis.
MICHAEL ZAGARIS (WALSH)
OLD SCHOOL SCHOOLING The staid Walsh (below, left) wasn't above getting his trousers dirty to draw up a play with Montana.