Perspective is a word fans do not like and often don’t understand. They are looking for wins and championships, not explanations or reference points. Yet for the 49ers, in what surely will be a transition season, perspective may become the saving grace.
Jim Harbaugh has arrived as the coach with a big contract and big expectations, but also with big problems. It’s much like Bill Walsh — 32 years earlier also came from Stanford to a Niners team desperately attempting to escape its past.
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Walsh succeeded, but not immediately. He put in a new offense, which would become his trademark. Still, while a rookie named Joe Montana watched and learned, the Niners had to rely on a veteran quarterback, Steve DeBerg.
DeBerg at best was competent. The defense at best was not.
The Niners finished 2-14 in the 1979 season, and the word “genius” was as far removed from everyone’s vocabulary as the thought that two years later the team would be Super Bowl champions.
Alex Smith is not exactly the Steve DeBerg of 2011, but for better or worse, he probably will have to start at quarterback while a rookie named Colin Kaepernick, in Montana fashion, watches and learns.
And if the offensive line doesn’t look better than it did in the preseason games, such as the ugly 30-7 loss to the Houston Texans, it might not matter if Montana at his ultimate were playing for the Niners.
Quick fixes are rare in the NFL. A new coach must put together the pieces from the draft, free agency and trades.
Other than their selections from April’s draft and a couple of signings, such as receiver Braylon Edwards, the Niners’ personnel isn’t greatly changed from 2010.
That’s fine when alluding to All-Pros such as Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Justin Smith. But four players do not create winning seasons. And maybe only Harbaugh knows whether Smith, in his seventh year, will ever be a winner.
Alex forever will carry the stigma of being the first player taken in the 2005 draft. Whatever he does, short of winning a Super Bowl, never will satisfy the so-called Faithful, more accurately the “Boo-full.”
He can complete a dozen passes, but to them, that means less than one interception.
A one-time NFL quarterback himself, Harbaugh should be able to figure out whether Smith’s failings are correctable. Maybe through the few weeks of training camp he already has figured it out.
After the one-sided loss to Houston, even if it was in an exhibition game, Harbaugh conceded, “It’s a bitter pill to swallow to be beaten that thoroughly, in pretty much all phases. I think defense wasn’t quite as bad as special teams, and special teams wasn’t quite as bad as offense.”
The year before Walsh was hired, 1978, DeBerg was 28th in passing in the then 29-team NFL. In ’79, the Niners led the conference in passing. In that case, offense, to borrow from the Harbaugh analysis, wasn’t quite as bad as defense.
Harbaugh, like Walsh, knows offense. He also knows he was hired because the men who preceded him — Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan — were unable to win. The new coach may correct that major overnight, but, as history reminds, not without swallowing those bitter pills.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Harbaugh is taking a big chance by giving quarterback Alex Smith a second chance. Or third, fourth or fifth chance depending who’s counting.
Smith has played for three different coaches and a new offensive coordinator in each of his seven seasons with the 49ers.
Change is all he knows. This time, he’s thrilled about it. And Smith’s play very well could define Harbaugh’s first year.
“I didn’t have any expectations coming off last year and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Smith said. “To have him kind of have that trust in me and to see something on film that he liked and to have me come back, it definitely excited me.”
How long Smith lasts as the starter depends on performance. Rookie second-round pick Colin Kaepernick is waiting for his shot, and there are plenty of Smith skeptics who believe that time could come sooner than later.
The talented but sometimes troubled wide receiver signed a one-year deal with the 49ers in the offseason and gives QB Alex Smith a big target to throw to. At 6-foot-3, 214 pounds, Edwards has all the talent and athletic ability in the world, but consistency is an issue. The Niners need him to find his 2007 form, when he picked up 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns with the Cleveland Browns.
The backbone of the 49ers has tallied at least 128 tackles in all four of his NFL seasons. A perennial All-Pro, Willis upped his game in 2010, recording a career-high six sacks. With defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now calling the shots, Willis could be called upon even more to rush the passer and a double-digit sack season could be in the cards for San Francisco’s defensive catalyst.
GAME TO WATCH
Harbaugh bowl: When the NFL schedule was released, one game immediately stood out: the inaugural Harbaugh Bowl. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh will lead his team into Baltimore to take on his brother, John Harbaugh, and the Ravens on Thanksgiving night. The sibling rivalry will surely be a focal point of the NFL Network broadcast, which kicks off at 5:20 p.m.
After several years of defensive-minded coaches, Jim Harbaugh brings a different philosophy to town. The weak NFC West offers Harbaugh’s troops a chance to compete immediately, but there could be growing pains. The defensive secondary needs to show improvement and QB Alex Smith can’t turn the ball over. A playoff berth seems like a stretch.
BY THE NUMBERS
19.1 Points per game the 49ers averaged in 2010 (24th in NFL)
82.1 Alex Smith’s QB rating in 2010, a career best
2002 Last season the 49ers reached the playoffs 2002