Dear Coach Harbaugh:

Even now, it isn't easy to understand.

How could we even dare imagine? You were the hottest coaching prospect alive, having built a winning program from scratch despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The Niners, meanwhile, were a model of total dysfunction, essentially a Bengals West. In hiring their LAST head-coach, they'd made a simply awful decision that virtually napalmed any remaining vestige of their long-lost glory. Their owner-in-chief was a silver spoon who meant well but lacked a certain credibility. To wit: after vowing to search high and low for a general manager with proven chops as an organization-builder, he just handed the keys to the guy down the hall, whose most salient qualification was that he was there.

You could've had any job in the league. Hell, you could've had most of the jobs that were FILLED.

Why on earth would you choose the Niners?

Even now, there's no easy answer. The romantics among us leak tears as we theorize how determined you were to follow in the footsteps of your mentor, and our savior. How you poetically swore to rescue his franchise from the philosophical caveman who'd torn it asunder, to bring his West Coast Offense home. The cynics, on the other hand, assume merely that your wife didn't want your NFL dreams to uproot your family from its Bay Area niche. That you'd join us from Stanford, but wouldn't have done so from UCLA.

I myself prefer the romantic theory. But whatever. After a will-he-or-won't-he ordeal that put our hearts in our throats more than once, you were our coach.

For the first time in years, there was light in the darkness.

It was tough to sustain our momentum, though. The lockout kept you from installing your system, putting you immediately behind your opponents. Trent Baalke's draft showed some long-term potential but didn't produce any short-term starters. His free-agent class held some intriguing talent but featured no transformative star. And our exhibitions were, shall we say, mixed.

As a result, our emotions have swung wildly, along with our expectations. We promptly surrendered our initial fantasy of an immediate Super Bowl run, but the increasingly conventional wisdom, that once again we'll be at or near the bottom of our awful division...well, that's a bit too much reality to take.

Nevertheless, we've accepted that this is much more likely to be a transitional year than a championship one. Your preseason expressions, both verbal and facial, seemed to convey your recognition of the enormity of your task: you're trying not only to TURN the Queen Mary, but also to turn it completely around. Though our patience is thin after nearly a decade of misery, we understand. This'll take more than your mere arrival. Unfortunately, this'll take time.

So don't panic if you lose a few games. We know what you're up against, but more importantly, we trust you. Faith-leap or no, we believe in you, like no coach since Walsh, and a pile of losses is not gonna change that. (Not THIS year, anyway....)

But as much as we trust you, we still can offer a bit of advice. You might be a whiz of a football coach, but we've been watching the Niners for a long, LONG time, and we've picked up some special, inside-type knowledge that might help you raise the Niners up, instead of letting 'em drag you down. To that end, we humbly offer the following suggestions. After all, even a genius needs a little help.

1. Keep Alex Smith at a distance.

We know you're a quarterback-whisperer. We know that the lockout required some desperate measures. And we know it's tempting to think that within Alex Smith is a nugget of greatness still waiting to be unearthed. But it was very difficult--and dangerous--to watch you so aggressively recruit the single most divisive player in the history of the franchise. No one denies that Smith has had some of the worst head-coaches of all time, and no one denies that the revolving door of coordinators hasn't helped. But don't forget that among those coordinators were some superstars, much like yourself: Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Mike Martz. Four Super Bowl rings among 'em, and none of 'em worked any magic with Smith. Indeed, though Smith's apologists routinely point to just how many coaches he's had, they tend to obscure the larger truth: precisely BECAUSE of the revolving door, the only constant, in all this losing, has been Smith. No doubt, if you turn Smith around, you'll become a legend, immediately. But don't stake your reputation on this. You've got your QB of the future, as rough as he's looked. Let Smith drive your transition, and then, please, just let him go.

2. Stick with the WCO, no matter what.

As you've recently discovered, our last head-coach's cavemanism wasn't just a matter of philosophy. It was also a matter of personnel. Look at that offensive line, with all those bruisers who create plenty of holes for our running backs but just as many for opposing pass-rushers. Look at that fullback, who plows nicely into linebackers but can't even dream about catching passes. Clearly, this roster isn't built for the WCO, and if losses mount, you'll be sorely tempted to throw up your hands and revert to the brain-dead style you're here to replace. Don't do it. We might've been built for a run-first vision, but that doesn't make it a WINNING vision. And if we're gonna lose, let's lose while still restoring the single most crucial component of our glorious identity. Since you've arrived, you've made some bold promises. Yet none was more important than the first: "We will install the West Coast Offense in San Francisco, the birthplace of the West Coast Offense." We'll accept some transitional losses, Coach. But the WCO is an absolute must.

3. Don't be afraid to put Baalke in his place.

You've done a lot for Baalke. First, of course, you took the job; otherwise Baalke would've been lynched. And since then, you've said all the right things, showering him with outlandish praise and deferring to his status above you on the org chart. But we all know that the org chart is upside down. And if, again, the losses mount, you must show us that you know it too. The jury might be out on Baalke, but the fact that he outranks you--the notion that he controls your fate--is ridiculous. If you want him to be your John McVay, fine. But if things go south, don't let him become your Terry Donahue. YOU are the star here. Take charge.

4. Don't give up on us.

It's entirely possible--though terrifying--that Stanford's wins will double your own. At some point, you might find yourself wondering why you bothered, why you didn't just wait for a better chance. Contract or no, you'll always have opportunities, and you might be tempted to work your way toward one. Please don't. We know we aren't Walsh's Niners; we aren't even anywhere close. But Walsh had early struggles too, until his genius just couldn't be stopped. Oh, sure, it's a different age; all of us want the quicker fix. But once you take your rightful place, fulfilling Walsh's prophecy, the rewards for you will be utterly limitless.

See, Coach, you are the one. The vessel of our hopes and dreams, the keeper of a glorious flame. The road to greatness might not be as short or smooth as we might want. But we're with you, Coach. We are with you, absolutely.

And if you won't give up on us, we will not give up on you.

Sincerely yours,

Jeff Kaplan
Staff Writer