One of the more noteworthy storylines leading up to this season for the 49ers is the fact that Jim Harbaugh is in the 4th year of his 5-year contract and it's been mutually agreed between him and the organization that they'll table negotiations on an extension until after the season. I think conventional wisdom would say that it's highly unlikely we see him flipping out on the sidelines for any other franchise in 2016, but for a coach to have as much success as has Harbaugh, to actually make it to the last year of his first contract with no extension has to be unique. However you look at the backstory, this is shaping up to be the most important season in his coaching career.
Whether Harbaugh likes it or not, the chemistry and the philosophy of the team is changing. For the last decade-plus this team has been built around solid defense and a run-first mentality. It began with the Mariucci era and continued on until we got to our present-day regime. A lot of that was predicated on the fact that the team couldn't find a suitable replacement for Jeff Garcia let alone an heir to Joe Montana and Steve Young . A lot of it also had to do with the talent the team was able to cull out of the draft, namely Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, that dictated how the winning formula would be developed.
This is the first season, early on at least, where that formula of winning football games will be seriously in question. Injuries and suspensions are going to drastically change the look of this defense for a significant portion of the year, particularly in the front seven. Coupled with a new set of young defensive backs patrolling the back end, there are clearly more questions than answers on that side of the ball.
Furthermore, the offensive line for the 49ers is in a state of flux they haven't had to endure in several years. Introducing a new center and potentially a new right guard (should Boone not decide to play ball finally), will seriously compromise the team's run game dominance. Coupled with the recovery of Anthony Davis through the preseason, things could be shaky at best up front with the big men early on in the year.
Where the team does not have any lack of depth is, for the first time in what feels like decades, at wide receiver. It's shaping up like there could be 5 legitimate receiving threats in the WR corps and Vernon Davis is still as dangerous as he's ever been in the passing game. Those of you who watched the early part of last year, the no-Crabtree part, know that the team truly only had 2 receivers that scared anybody on the other side of the ball. Now, with Crabtree back at full strength, Anquan Boldin back for another season, the additions of veterans Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, as well as the further development of Quinton Patton, it's legitimately looking like there could be as many as six (!) viable options on the field for Kaepernick to find on passing downs.
All this is pointing to a big, big change in the offensive game plan for the early part of the season. It's smart to play with your best 11 men on the field and with question marks on the offensive line, it might be a better option to get the ball in Kaepernick's hands so he can buy time with his legs when necessary. With more credible receiving options than he's ever had in his career, he shouldn't have to run around for very long.
All of this begs the question, will Harbaugh adapt to the team he's got right now? In the league today, it's hard to say there's a more accomplished coach than the one they have in New England and of all the words used to describe Bill Belichick, one that has to be towards the top is "adaptable". He's turned that team from a blue-collar, smash mouth mentality to a wide-open scoring juggernaut and then back again, all while keeping them in the hunt for the Super Bowl each and every year. It's becoming obvious the 49er defense will not be the pillar of strength it has been, at least early on in the season. There may not be much Harbaugh can do about that, but can he hit the gas on the offense and compensate for the extra points they'll likely be giving up?
Harbaugh has bet on himself winning it all this year letting the contract situation go on as it has. The odds are against him if you look at it objectively, but if he pulls it off there's little doubt he'll be one of the highest paid coaches in league history. If he does it and completely does an about-face on this team's methodology, it will be leverage for him to say his game is complete. He can win with any team, in any league, with all kinds of players, and with multiple methods of approach. If he proves that to be true, I'm sure Jed York will be more than happy to sign off on the big paycheck.