49ers' Jim Harbaugh off to strong start in debut 

click to enlarge Keeping it professional: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, right, got the early upper hand as his rivalry with Seahawks coach Peter Carroll moves from college to the NFL. (Paul Sakuma/AP) - KEEPING IT PROFESSIONAL: 49ERS COACH JIM HARBAUGH, RIGHT, GOT THE EARLY UPPER HAND AS HIS RIVALRY WITH SEAHAWKS COACH PETER CARROLL MOVES FROM COLLEGE TO THE NFL. (PAUL SAKUMA/AP)
  • Keeping it professional: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, right, got the early upper hand as his rivalry with Seahawks coach Peter Carroll moves from college to the NFL. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
  • Keeping it professional: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, right, got the early upper hand as his rivalry with Seahawks coach Peter Carroll moves from college to the NFL. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

The Jim Harbaugh Era has officially begun as the NFL kicked off its 2011 season with solemn and sincere tributes to the victims of 9/11 and their families. So what have we learned after watching the premiere of this long-awaited show?

Well, one thing Harbaugh learned is that Alex Smith is no Andrew Luck. Smith’s 124 yards in the air was an average quarter’s work for Harbaugh’s QB at Stanford last season, and the Niners’ 219 yards of total offense was evidence of work in the early stages of progress.

Fortunately for Harbaugh, he also learned that his nemesis, Pete Carroll, doesn’t have nearly as loaded a team in Seattle as his teams were at USC.

Probably not as well-paid, either.

Still, the Seahawks were marching right back into this game, cutting the Niners’ lead to 19-17 with less than 4 minutes to play when Ted Ginn Jr. provided the Niners with more explosive offense through special teams than the actual offense had generated all day. He returned a back-to-back kickoff and punt for a combined 157 yards and two touchdowns to put the game away, making Harbaugh’s debut a successful one.

But was his the most impressive debut of the weekend? Not quite. Let’s look around the league …

Best debut: Plenty of contenders in this category, including Redskins’ QB Rex Grossman, who was 21 of 34 for 305 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his new team’s 28-14 win over the Giants, and Kevin Kolb, who rewarded Arizona’s faith in him with a 309-yard, two-touchdown performance in his first game as a Cardinal.

But it was Carolina’s Cam Newton, in a losing effort against the Cards, who gave critics like me plenty of crow to chew on, becoming the first rookie to ever throw for 400 yards in his opener. The top pick in April’s NFL draft finished 24 of 37 for 422 yards and two scoress.

Worst debut: Kerry Collins struggled mightily wearing Peyton Manning’s shoes in Indianapolis, but this one goes to Donovan McNabb, hands-down. The Vikings’ new passer, trying to prove that his miserable season in Washington was just a fluke, was even more miserable in his new city. McNabb was just 7 of 15 for 39 yards in Minnesota’s 24-17 loss in San Diego.

Most Misleading: Michael Vick threw for 187 yards and ran for 98 in Philly’s 31-13 win over the Rams, but was just 14 of 32 passing, showing, at times, the scattershot arm that troubled him in Atlanta before he was sent to prison. His accuracy, which was markedly improved in 2010, will be the key to the Eagles’ season.

Most Impressive Team: Hard not to go with the defending champion Packers, who laid 42 points on the Saints Thursday night, but we’ll give this one to the Ravens. Baltimore forced a team-record seven turnovers, including three interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger, in their 35-7 rout of the Steelers in the most hate-filled rivalry in football. The Ravens looked simply dominant.

Least Impressive Team: The Kansas City Chiefs generated just 213 yards of offense in an embarrassing 41-7 loss at the hands of the (usually) lowly Buffalo Bills.

Biggest Surprise: Got to be the Bills. Apparently no one bothered to tell Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw four touchdown passes against the Chiefs, that his team was supposed to be waiting for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes to begin.

Biggest Disappointment:  A two-way tie here, between the Falcons and Steelers. Pittsburgh’s horrendous showing against the Ravens has already been covered, but how about Atlanta’s lay-down against the Bears? The Falcons have been a trendy Super Bowl pick, but looked out of sync in getting blown out in the opener.

Biggest Question Mark: The Raiders, naturally, since they open tonight against the hated Broncos in Denver, as head coach Hue Jackson takes his turn at the Raider wheel.

Bob Frantz is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. Email him at bfrantz@sfexaminer.com.

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