For good reason, Jim Harbaugh has established a reputation for being one of the NFL’s finest head coaches since taking over the 49ers in 2011.
His team is 17-5 in the regular season, he won the NFC West title last season for a franchise that had missed the playoffs eight straight years and he had his team within one victory of going to the Super Bowl.
Yet the Niners coach now faces perhaps his most crucial test since becoming an NFL head coach.
After his 4-2 team was thoroughly outplayed Sunday in a 26-3 loss to the New York Giants at Candlestick Park, the 49ers now must regroup in just three days and host a resurgent Seattle Seahawks team in a nationally televised matchup Thursday night.
After coming back to beat the Patriots in Seattle Sunday, 24-23, the Seahawks are 4-2 and tied with the 49ers and Cardinals atop the NFC West, and they’re doing it with a more dynamic offense under rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, a strong running game and a physical, dominating defense.
Since Harbaugh took control of the Niners, San Francisco has yet to lose two games in a row. Coming off the loss to the Giants and with little time to prepare for Seattle, the Niners will be severely challenged to keep that record intact.
The 49ers under Harbaugh have been a team that has controlled the football and played solid defense. But against the Giants, much went wrong. Quarterback Alex Smith was intercepted three times, New York’s Ahmad Bradshaw ran for more than 100 yards against them and San Francisco’s offensive game plan seemed strange at times, with the insertion of backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick often breaking the Niners’ momentum.
“The plan wasn’t the best plan,” Harbaugh told reporters after the game. “And we’ll work to make a good one this week. (It) wasn’t a great day for any of us. I don’t know that I have the lesson learned right at this moment. But we’ll think it through and see if we can get it corrected.”
After the last 49ers loss, to the Vikings in September, the Niners rebounded by outscoring the Jets and Bills 79-3 to improve to 4-1 as they headed into their game with the Giants, a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game.
And, after each of their three losses last season, the Niners rebounded with wins, including a dominating 20-3 decision over the Steelers in December after they had lost to the Cardinals.
Now, however, the 49ers don’t have as much time to regroup.
“If we let this one linger, it can go into (Thursday’s) game, and we don’t need that,” safety Donte Whitner told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “We don’t need two (losses) in a row. So we have to quickly forget about this one.”
The 49ers also will likely go into Thursday night’s game with a reshuffled offensive line. Left tackle Joe Staley suffered a concussion Sunday, and was replaced by Alex Boone, who moved over from right guard, with Leonard Davis replacing Boone in the lineup. Staley may not play until the 49ers’ following game, a Monday night matchup (Oct. 29) at Arizona.
Now, Harbaugh and his coaching staff have a challenge. Will they be up to the task of getting their team ready to beat the Seahawks?
As Bay Area News Group columnist Monte Poole noted, this is a position Harbaugh is not used to being in. This is new territory.
“On Sunday, for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, the 49ers were beaten up, knocked down and thoroughly humbled,” Poole wrote after Sunday’s defeat. “Left with a feeling of helplessness, something they’ve never known in their 24 games under Harbaugh.
“And they slipped into the evening curious about how they will recover after their comprehensive collapse.”
So, too, are Niners fans throughout the Bay Area.