On the field and on the scoreboard this summer, there was little to suggest that new head coach Jim Harbaugh is the difference-maker the 49ers have been looking for.
At times, the offensive line was a shambles. In losses to the Saints and Texans, San Francisco looked overwhelmed. And quarterbacks Alex Smith and rookie Colin Kaepernick, still tryng to master Harbaugh’s new West Coast offense, took their lumps.
But now that the 49ers’ 2-2 exhibition season is behind it and the team is jamming for its first regular-season test Sunday against the visiting Seahawks, San Francisco’s players and close observers are still expressing strong faith in the former Stanford coach as the man who can turn the franchise around.
Both Smith and Kaepernick say the knowledge Harbaugh brings as a disciple of Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh and a former winning NFL quarterback is invaluable. His attention to detail and to teaching will pay dividends, they say, and his demeanor – sometimes intense, sometimes laid-back – has a way of connecting with players.
“Sometimes we’re in a meeting room … and he’s very laid back,” Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “Sometimes we’re on the field and he’s getting fired up.”
Count former 49ers executive Carmen Policy, former Niners QBs Joe Montana and Steve Young and former Raiders coach and broadcaster John Madden as believers in Harbaugh.
“Harbaugh has me pumped up and excited emotionally,” Policy told Inman. “He has a true and deep appreciation for the quarterbacks and the offense. Also, I know Bill Walsh was high on Jim Harbaugh and that tells me a lot.”
Madden says he believes Harbaugh is likely to get off to a rough start, but will be a good coach in the NFL in the same way his brother (John Harbaugh) has been successful with the Baltimore Ravens and his father (Jack Harbaugh) was as a longtime college coach.
“I’ve always liked him,” Madden told Inman. “I like what he stood for as a player. I did a lot of his games and he was a stand-up, no-nonsense guy.”
Harbaugh has made a difference in other areas, too. His upbeat attitude and experience have been infectious, and he’s also been the reason some players have signed with San Francisco.
When free-agent wide receiver Braylon Edwards was looking for a team, he chose to sign with the 49ers largely because of his long relationship with Harbaugh, a fellow Michigan alum.
Said Edwards, previously dogged by some off-field issues in Cleveland and New York: “Coming out here is a good, fresh start to get clean personally, with people that I trust.”
Now, with the trust of his organization and players, Harbaugh officially begins his tenure as 49ers head coach, following the failed footsteps of recent predecessors Mike Singletary, Mike Nolan and Dennis Erickson, each of whom never reached the playoffs.
“Losing is not an option,” Harbaugh said when he was introduced as head coach in January.
Now, we’ll see.