Jim Harbaugh’s foresight will mitigate the damage done to the 49ers by the NFL lockout.
With a complete turnover in the coaching staff, the 49ers needed spring workouts more than other teams. In years past, teams with coaching changes were allowed an extra minicamp. The 49ers, along with every other NFL team, were prohibited this year from having any spring workouts.
Looking ahead, Harbaugh got playbooks into the hands of returning players. He also decided Alex Smith would be his quarterback, so, though a contract is not yet in place for Smith, he got him a playbook, too. That has enabled Smith to arrange workouts with his receivers to help learn Harbaugh’s offense. That’s not as good as organized team workouts, but it’s a start.
Many fans will not be happy with Smith’s return. Nor will many writers. One of them wrote that the 49ers would regret not waiting to see if they could pick up a better quarterback when teams were freed from the lockout.
Personally, I’ve always felt it was better to listen to coaches who really know their business than to form an independent opinion from the press box. Harbaugh is a very intelligent man and his specialty is quarterbacks. If he feels Smith can run his offense, that means much more to me than a writer’s opinon.
Fans and writers who blame Smith for the 49ers’ woes ignore one important reality: Though the quarterback is the single most important player, football is a team game.
Even the best of quarterbacks struggle if the team does not have a strong defense. I saw this first with the 49ers when a much-maligned Y.A. Tittle was traded to the New York Giants and became a Hall of Fame quarterback.
With the 49ers, Tittle and John Brodie would have quarterback meetings before each game and decide how many touchdowns they had to produce to have a chance to win. Often, the answer was four. That puts tremendous pressure on the quarterback. When Tittle went to the Giants, linebacker Sam Huff told him, "Don’t worry. If you can’t get many points, [the defense] will still find a way to win."
Meanwhile, Brodie was criticized by fans and writers because he threw interceptions while gambling to try to overcome a weak defense. Finally, Dick Nolan put together a strong defense and the Niners were in the playoffs three years running — with Brodie.
Joe Montana didn’t have much offensive help in 1981 but he had a strong defense that helped win the Super Bowl, and the 49ers’ defense remained strong through Montana’s three more Super Bowl wins and Steve Young’s triumph after the 1994 season.
Smith has never had that kind of defensive backing. He knew last year, for instance, that no matter how well he played, chances were high that the opposing team would sweep down the field in the final two minutes for a winning touchdown.
Having Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator will make the defense better this season. Harbaugh has the knowledge and experience to bring out the best in Smith. Perhaps then, fans and writers will understand the 49ers’ problems have gone much beyond Alex Smith.