Harbaugh, 49ers’ savior...for now.

Mar 7, 2011 at 7:32 PM

I'll begin this article by stating that I agree with the Harbaugh hire. For the first time in a long time, the San Francisco 49ers set their sights on a target and nailed it. There's something to be said for that during a decade of "settling". 49er fans have had to endure coaching hardship since 2002. Now the organization wins the most-coveted college coach of the year. Harbaugh is known around the league as a meticulous quarterback-grooming guru and one who has a nose for offensive innovation. The fact that he's bringing back the cherished West Coast Offense is another aspect of this hire that has fans drooling. After season upon season of heartbreak and failure, 49ers fans have a reason for hope. Sound familiar?

If it does, it might be because those same fans were gushing with confidence and hope heading into the 2010 season. Mike Singletary was in his second season as head coach, Jimmy Raye was also in year 2 as offensive coordinator, and Alex Smith was finally afforded a chance to succeed thanks to offensive continuity. Turns out, things went to hell in a hand-basket quickly. After preaching offensive continuity, Singletary canned Raye after 3 weeks, Alex Smith was put in a quarterback carousel with Troy Smith and Singletary was fired as the 49ers crawled to a 6-10 record. What happened to all the optimism? How did the 49ers lose in the dismal NFC West, a division they were handed in the offseason? The answer: terrible coaching and abysmal play from the quarterback.

Fast forward to present day and the 49ers still have two huge questions marks (go figure) in both of those areas. It appears obvious that despite his lack of NFL head-coaching experience, Harbaugh is light years ahead of Singletary. This guy knows how to gameplan, knows how to develop quarterbacks and has proven success at the college level. The bottom line, however, is that he still has done nothing on the NFL coaching landscape other than quarterback coach Rich Gannon in Oakland eight years ago. He would be wise to not follow in the footsteps of Samurai Mike.

The NFL labor dispute is making things extremely difficult on the 49ers because of the precarious quarterback situation they're in. It will be vital that this gets resolved quickly so the 49ers can attempt to land a quarterback in free agency or via trade. If they don't like their options there, they can take a shot at a mid-round quarterback such as Christian Ponder or Colin Kaepernick. Yet one has to wonder whether the praise that Harbaugh heaped upon Alex Smith in recent weeks was due to the labor predicament or because he truly has a strong opinion about Smith. If it's the former, there is no worry to be had. If it's the latter, one has to seriously consider Harbaugh's logic. Two coaches have tied their fate to Smith and both have lost their jobs. What's concerning is that with Harbaugh's brimming young confidence and track record with Andrew Luck/Josh Johnson, maybe he feels he can turn water (Alex Smith) into wine (a competent NFL quarterback). Don't get me wrong, everyone likes a confident coach, it's a necessary quality of all the great ones. The problem is that too much confidence can lead to bad decisions.

Mike Singletary found that out the hard way, constantly trying to will his team to victory. He talked brashly about an offensive line that would "impose its will" and boldly proclaimed that he "wanted winners". Fans love that kind of talk. What they didn't like was an offensive line that saw minimal improvement from the 2009 campaign and a non-winning season streak that extended to eight consecutive seasons. So much for "winning". Harbaugh told fans upon his hiring that he "wants to build a bully". Fans ate that up like the coveted playoff berth they yearn for, but for some it's "I'll believe it when I see it". That should be the sentiment of not just some, but of all.

After years of empty promises, talk, and high draft picks, the 49ers still have many of the same deficiencies that have plagued them for years: an inexperienced head coach, no viable option at quarterback and no pass-rush specialist. The pass rush, though a significant issue, is not nearly as much of a concern as the other two factors. Sure, Harbaugh has pleased the masses with his stellar performance at Stanford, his ties to the beloved Bill Walsh and the development of Andrew Luck, but it's going to take more than that. Hype is not going to work this time. The only thing that is going to work is results. Those results have to start with the quarterback. Much like his predecessors, Harbaugh's success is contingent upon what he does with the game's most important position. Unfortunately, this is not the year to have uncertainty at quarterback, but the city by the bay should allow excuses no longer. Excuses are what have kept the Niners reeling for the past eight years. If Harbaugh's truly the quarterback king that fans have anointed him as, then he'll make do with what the team can get during the offseason. If they do find success during the 2011 season, Harbaugh's hype will be justified. If they stumble, prepare for more excuses. Whether those excuses are valid or not, the bottom line is they amount to nothing, especially after a decade of futility.
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.


  • George
    Steve, I disagreed withn your comment to Riberyx that we don't need a major over haul. We do. Smith and Willis are the only players on defense. Frankilin, Goldson and Lawson never showed up last year and should not be offered a contract. Clements and Spencer are over-priced. On offense, we have a big hole to fill, Quarterback! Also depth at WR and RB. To sum up, NO OLB's, NO CB's, No NT, need 3 QB's, 2 WR's and one short yardage back. I recommend trading down in 1st with Wash. They want a QB we should trade the 7th pick, Sopoaga and Ginn for McNabb, Haynesworth and 10th pick (JJ Watt). Next yr. 4-3 def. we have no OLB's. 2nd rd take Hankerson, trade Gore for another 2nd, take K Ellis, DT. 3rd. Murray (RB), future 3rd for Devlin (QB). R Sands and D Van Dyke in 4th. A Robinson, R Helu, McElroy and A. Bradford in last two rds. The reason to trade Gore, RB's have short shelf life and he is one of our best players (value) Just like Cowboys did with H. Walker, they knew how to build a dynasty. RBs are the last player you draft, just look at Green Bay. Incredidble talent and depth everywhere on field except RB. If you don't like McNabb, flip for Palmer or Young. NINERS BUILD THE DYNASTY!
    Mar 10, 2011 at 3:05 PM
    Response: Every team has its holes George, but there's a great nucleus of talent on this team. It's also amazing how those hole you mentioned are masked when you have a competent QB. Look at the Rams, they still had a bunch of holes last year but thanks to a franchise QB, they were able to fight down to the wire and almost make the playoffs. I agree that the team should look into trading down to receive more picks. I just feel that once the Niners get a competent QB, our other holes won't be as glaring and will be manageable.
  • DieHard
    Smith's play was not "abysmal". You should go back and watch the tape. If you look at it through a coaches eyes, you'll see that Smith can actually be pretty good with the right coach. He needs to tighten up the short throws, but other than that, if he comes back, Harbaugh can fine tune his game. Saying that Alex Smith got Singletary and Nolan fired is ridiculous. They did that on their own. Are you kidding me? Two defensive minded head coaches that couldn't get their defenses to elite levels, let alone put together a decent offensive staff, and that's Smith's fault? Go back and watch how those losers dealt with their own players, not to mention game management. Again, go back and watch the tape. Watch every offensive snap that Smith took, which Jim Harbaugh did, and take into account: play call, down & distance, pressure, and offensive execution (meaning did the receiver catch the ball) and you'll see that for the MOST part Smith was not to blame. Now, he did have some really bad throws, but go back and watch the tape and you'll see that Harbaugh has a diamond in the rough with Smith. Mock me if you like, but until you actually go back and watch the tape, you're ill informed.
    Mar 10, 2011 at 9:03 AM
    Response: I don't feel I'm "ill-informed" at all. If you kindly take off the rose colored glasses, you'll see that Smith did indeed have an awful season. Click rewind on that Philly game where he (go figure) ALMOST had a comeback, but didn't. You'll watch him roll out and completely unnecessarily fumble the ball and fumble the gamea way in the process. The fact that he still misfires on wide open short throws is astounding and something not likely to be corrected six years into the league. Let's not even mention the fact that he can't read defenses, can't anticipate receivers being open and can't go through his reads to find a second option (other than dumping it to a RB who isn't expecting the ball). I'm not going to turn this into a Smith debate. All I'll say is I've seen enough of him and excuses have run dry. Harbaugh might be a guru but he's not going to change a guy with shattered confidence and fundamental mechanical flaws.
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Interesting article. Here's where I disagree. I think your analogy comparing Sing with Harbaugh is a strech. I don't think it is a valid analogy. Heres why, Sing had absoluetely no head coaching experience. Harbaugh was a successful coach with two programs at the college level. Ok, so college is not the NFL Fair enough, but its not like Habarough is not unfamilar with the NFL. He was successful as a QB and an assistant coach. You say that there is a huge question mark that the 49ers have in terms of coaching. Well, when do you not have a question mark when you make a new hire? We know that new hires sometimes don't work out even when you hire the best available. Just ask Dallas when they hired Bill Parsels and Miami when they hired Jimmy Johnson. I don't think that this is any kind of a revelation. As far as Alex Smith goes, isn't just as probable that Harbaugh sees something we don't? After all Smith performed pretty good under Norv Turner. I personally think Smith's confidnece is ruined by bad coaching but we don't know what Harbough's motives are maybe he can turn him around. Stranger things have happened. So no blind optimism but at least a level of comfort. Is that fair?
    Mar 10, 2011 at 8:10 AM
    Response: Agreed. I was quick to point out that comparing to Singletary isn't across the board. I noted that it already apparent that Harbaugh is leaps and bounds more knowledgeable/competent than Singletary was. I just stated that the premature hype is very much similar. Again, I really do support the Harbaugh hire and feel he'll do a good job, but I'm just at the point where it has to be proven to me first.
  • Isaiah
    Coach Harbaugh will perform significantly better than coach Singletary did last year. And I think he could succeed even with Alex Smith. As bad as Alex Smith is, we could have won the division with him at QB. Here is a list of the games we should have won last year: NO, KC, CAR and ATL. In all of those games, bad coaching was our undoing. Alex was only responsible for the SEA and PHI losses. Considering that coach Harbaugh played QB in the NFL, and considering that his staff is superior to Singletary's last year, I think he can win 10 games with Alex Smith. Ten victories will win the NFC West.
    Mar 8, 2011 at 6:44 PM
    Response: Agree: "Coach Harbaugh will perform significantly better than coach Singletary did last year." Disagree: "And I think he could succeed even with Alex Smith. As bad as Alex Smith is, we could have won the division with him at QB. Here is a list of the games we should have won last year: NO, KC, CAR and ATL. In all of those games, bad coaching was our undoing. Alex was only responsible for the SEA and PHI losses. Considering that coach Harbaugh played QB in the NFL, and considering that his staff is superior to Singletary's last year, I think he can win 10 games with Alex Smith." Smith is a bad player. Everyone has their opinion of him... that's mine.
  • ninefan56
    I wasn't sure what I supposed to get from this article. It sounded to me like sourgrapes from Singletary and that you wanted to give your sourgrapes to Harbaugh and have him solve the last ten years worth of problems before the NFL CBA is finished. I am not sure why you need to drag on Harbaugh before he has a chance to do anything realistic other than hire his staff. What is it that you would like him to do to give you some peace of mind? If they win you should be happy, if they don't win then you will have some real data to complain about. So what do you want to do until the season starts?
    Mar 8, 2011 at 5:25 PM
    Response: Appreciate the feedback. I certainly didn't "rag" on Harbaugh, I began the article by stating that I supported the hire. I merely pointed out the fact that much of the fan base (myself included) was just as excited when Singletary took over. That isn't to say that the excitement around Harbaugh isn't valid, it's just premature. Think of this piece as a word of caution. I like Harbaugh and hope that he'll do a great job, I'm just not going to take that as gospel just yet thanks to past experience. There's not significant statistical data because there's not much to talk of with the labor dispute. For that I apologize. I really just wanted to get back to writing articles and this was more an op/ed piece. Not my finest work but it was nice to get something down. Keep reading... I'll be sure to post more intruiging stuff as the offseason progresses.
  • rjberryx
    Steve, I like this article. Harbaugh was by far the best hire Jed York could have made. I commend him. Lets not forget we are trying to turn around a very large ship in the bay - a process for which the laws of physics draws a timeline for. As fans - an as a society - we have grown impatient beyond reason. My fear is that the turning ship will exhaust our patience. In the past our team has not only made mistakes selecting its players and teachers but compounded the mistakes by failing to have a foundation in place to develop these players - again, which takes time. I fear we are not patient enough to build a winning franchise by selecting the right players, teachers and developing our foundation over time. This is how all sustainable dynasties were and are built - over time. As a fan I will provide patience and support as long as I see progress, however incremental. Flash is nice but I want/need more.
    Mar 8, 2011 at 5:35 AM
    Response: Thanks for reading dude. I agree that dynasties are not built over night but I also feel that we're not in position for a massive overhaul. Yes, we have a lot to do in terms of implementing the offense and finding a quarterback but we have a lot of the pieces in place here to succeed. Harbaugh isn't taking over the team that Nolan inherited in 2005. We have a pro-bowl caliber running back, a top TE and a decent receiving corps. On the defensive side of the ball, the 49ers are really only lacking a pass-rusher, secondary help and deensive line depth. Sure, those are a few holes, but nothing that can't be overcome quickly. Mike Smith had a rapid turnaround in Atlanta and have other coaches (Carroll even got to the second round of the playoffs this year as horrible as his team was). I don't feel that we should start making excuses already. If Harbaugh is the coach that we all expect him to be, he'll have this team markedly improved as the season rolls on. I don't feel that 49er fans are impatient, I feel they are anything but. We've waited long and agonized for years, it's time for us to stop accepting losing.

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