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Photo by David Butler II of USA Today Sports

Can Harbaugh Adjust to the Team He’s Built?

Jesse Dumas
Aug 10, 2014 at 9:18 AM

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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.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Paul A.
    Jesse, Would help if you knew the history of the 49ers. They went away from the west cost offence and toward the run first concept when the hired Nolan in 95. He drafted big slow line men and a brusing running back named Frank Gore, the rest is history!
    Aug 10, 2014 at 12:52 PM
    Response: I don't have to bone up on my history too much to know it was still George Seifert patrolling the sidelines in 95 and that Frank isn't entering an unprecedented 19th season in the league, Paul. Probably just a typo I'm guessing, but to your point, long before Nolan took the reigns in the mid 2000's, Steve Mariucci was running the ball far more than what we'd seen in the past 2 decades. He also brought in some heavier beef up front such as Kevin Gogan and Ray Brown, a departure from the quick pulling guards of the Shannahan and Holmgren OC years like Guy McIntyre and Jesse Sapolou when he wasn't playing center.
  • Ladale
    I think the real question is whether his O.C. (Roman) has the ingenuity to do more than call exotic run plays which defenses simply follow the fullback and the running back is sure to follow. Maybe they'll be good at screen passes and passes to running backs with more receivers on the field to cover.
    Aug 10, 2014 at 11:44 AM
    Response: I think I recall some mention that Harbaugh will be more involved in the offense this year but I can't remember exactly where that came from. Regardless, the team goes as Harbaugh wants it to. I have a hard time envisioning him being satisfied for long if it's another parade of 2WR sets and points aren't going up as he'd expect.
  • Joe
    Niners need to resign coach Harbaugh, to average 12 wins a season & play in 3 straight Championship Games tells it all. The team he inherited had talent, but was going nowhere, Harbaugh comes in & changes all that. I think that first year run through east coast trip, especially dismissing the Lions coach after a win, cemented a new mentality. Resign Harbaugh now, to a few million less than Belickick
    Aug 10, 2014 at 11:43 AM
    Response: Mostly agree, but it's not altogether unwise to see what he's able to make happen after an exceptionally tough offseason.
  • 49erz4Life
    Good points you bring up. I agree this is a very important year for coach. However I see it a little differently. I think this is as talented a team as Harbaugh has had. With the amount of youth they have collected over the last 2 drafts I think the odds are with him not against him. I actually think the run game will be better with the addition of Hyde and an improved pass attack. I think Looney turns out to be an adequate replacement and between Martin and Kilgore they will have upgraded at C. With the depth at WR and another year for Kaep in this system teams won't be able to stack the box which will help Frank and Carlos find more running room. As far as the D goes I believe you are right it will be a little in flux at first but once Bowman comes back and if Aldon can stay out of trouble I think this D has a chance to be dominant going into the playoffs. With the addition of The Tank you add him to a D with Brooks, The Cowboy, Aldon and Lemonier in his second year the 49ers have a D that can rusher the passer as well as any D we have had in the last 20 years. Get NT figured out and the arrow should be pointing up come December. IMO the tools are in place.
    Aug 10, 2014 at 11:00 AM
    Response: There are a lot of "ifs" to consider on either side of the argument. The last 3 years, the team has benefitted from some pretty good luck. That stuff can't last forever. The first 8 games without those key players are significant. We saw how costly dropping even one game you should win can be just last season having to play in Seattle instead of a Candlestick grand finale.
  • Jim Buckner
    My error... It's just the headline that appears a little misleading that Jim H is in the final year of his contract
    Aug 10, 2014 at 10:39 AM
  • Jay49er
    No, harbaugh will forever be the reason this team never gets over the top. What team in the league plays conservative year long then. When the playoffs come try to open it up? That's the harbaugh niners. His paranoia with a open passing will be our doom. I hate to say it but the progressive way the Seahawks play is why they eventually topped the 49ers
    Aug 10, 2014 at 10:35 AM
    Response: Whatever you say bud. If I was Jed York I'd probably roll the dice on the guy again and again if he keeps knocking on the door of the Super Bowl year after year. You do remember where this team was 4 years ago, right?
  • Big O
    Good write up. Every year they say they're going to expand the offense but like you said this is the first time we'll have the options and/or potential need to do so. If the O line holds up I'm not too worried about the D. The X factor is Kaep. Maiocco or Barrows wrote an article about the O being slow calling plays against the Ravens D in practice. Hope that and him going through his reads improves as well.
    Aug 10, 2014 at 10:30 AM
    Response: Kaepernick comes into his own and he'll make all this other stuff academic. Look at how much Aaron Rogers covers up in Green Bay. That team has more holes than Wisconsin made Swiss cheese but he can still win any game he's in.
  • Esco
    Good article
    Aug 10, 2014 at 10:17 AM
    Response: Thanks.
  • Niner
    Bill Walsh proved in 1981 a run dominate team is not necessary to win a Super Bowl. Since then I believe only emit and the cowboys have won sb leading the league in rushing. Being near last in passing is not acceptable in modern football. It's dumb football. 2 lousy passes to Crabtree to end our seasons proves it. To beat Wilson in Seattle , we need to be able to score and covert on third and medium through the air . This a it rocket science.
    Aug 10, 2014 at 9:59 AM

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