The last two weeks have seen interesting changes in the life of this Niners fan. Whether or not you have noticed I have been out of the office so to speak or more correctly out of the Niner Noise web site office. I am sure you did not notice I have been gone as the site was kept updated by Niner Noise’s talented two writers, Matt Hamm and Jared Quan. The reason for me being away from Niner Noise is I was off getting married and on my honeymoon. I knew what getting married entailed, one of which was not being able to watch two weeks of 49ers football because of the wedding festivities and being out of the country on a honeymoon. Before the week five game against the Buccaneers I knew the next two games would define the 49ers for the rest of the season heading into the bye in week seven. What I did not anticipate was the 49ers giving me a wedding gift of a 5-1 record with wins over two really good teams who are playoff caliber. Nor did I anticipate the culture of losing for the 49ers being erased after a decade of decline with the largest margin of victory against Buccaneers since Super Bowl XXIV (1990) and one of the biggest regular season wins in recent memory against the Lions. We have one man to thank for that, Jim Harbaugh.
Back when Jim Harbaugh was hired I knew he would be the head coach to turn the 49ers back into contenders, succeeding where Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary had failed. If you had asked me when that turn around would start I would not have said this season. I have written numerous times about how the lockout affected the 49ers this season and my expectations were not high. My doubtful thinking for this season was more cemented after Harbaugh announced Alex Smith would return and be the starter. New head coaches in the NFL like to make a splash in some form to show why they were a hot commodity and how they think differently than other head coaches. Harbaugh announcing he was sticking with Smith at quarterback, who had not worked out as a QB under Nolan and Singletary, looked like his splash moment. At the time I thought Smith under center again was not going to work. Sure Harbaugh is an offense minded coach, a former NFL QB who has a history of developing quarterbacks but Alex Smith is Alex Smith. There is only so much you can do for a mediocre quarterback that everyone thought was a franchise QB in 2005. Throwing salt on the wound was seeing Packers QB Aaron Rodgers winning the Super Bowl while Smith finished his sixth season in the NFL as an on-again, off-again starter.
Fast forward to week seven of this season and we see Smith not necessarily looking Rodgers like but he is playing his best football in his career engineering comeback wins with poise and confidence of a franchise QB. Smith enters the 49ers bye week with 1,090 passing yards, completing 63.3% of his passes with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. I knew Harbaugh had the skills as a coach and history grooming QB’s but who knew he would make Smith look like a franchise QB. I guess that’s why Harbaugh is the head coach and why I am a blogger for a 49ers fan web site.
Seeing San Francisco and 5-1 at the top of the NFC West gives me a big smile every time I see it. Yes, there are still ten games to go with four of those games coming against teams who currently have a winning record. However I don’t see the 49ers losing steam and regressing from how they have played during their four-game winning streak. The comeback win against the Eagles, the blowout of the Buccaneers, and the huge win in Detroit against the undefeated Lions show the 49ers are progressing and getting better each week. There is no way Harbaugh will let his players play any less consistent or with less intensity from here until the end of the season. Especially not after the emotional, come from behind win against the Lions. The 49ers Faithful will look back on the win in week six as the turning point for the franchise back into a respectable, playoff caliber team in the NFL.
The man tasked with turning the 49ers around and erasing the culture of losing in the 49ers’ locker room is succeeding for multiple reasons. Number one is Harbaugh was able to bring in his own coaching staff while Singletary inherited his staff, and when he did hire someone it was Jimmy Raye as offensive coordinator passing up Raiders head coach Hue Jackson and being rejected by Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Harbaugh came to the 49ers with his offensive and defensive coordinators from Stanford, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, and hired one of the best special team’s coordinator in the NFL Brad Seeley. It is much easier to install your vision of how the team should be run and the offensive and defensive philosophies when the coaches have worked with you before and believe in your vision. Singletary had a vision for the team but not the coaching skills or right the coaches to intact it. We drooled over Singletary because he was a master motivator who spoke with passion but we and the players would later find out that you need to also know how to coach for the motivation to work. Enter Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh and Singletary are alike with being motivators but the similarities end there. Harbaugh has been able to not only motivate Niner players but instill confidence in them and have the confidence show up on the field. You need to look no further than the winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter against the Lions. The old Alex Smith would have crumbled in that situation. Under Harbaugh, who has fixed most of Smith’s deficiencies, Smith is proving to be a reliable quarterback who can consistently play well during all four quarters. While teams are starting new quarterbacks this week, most of them rookies, and other teams trading for QB’s, the 49ers are showing staying put with Smith was the right move and is paying off. Harbaugh has not only given confidence to Smith but to everyone on the team. On defense the 49ers for a long time have lacked a shutdown corner. To fill this hole the 49ers signed CB Carlos Rogers who has three INTs this season. Before this season Rogers had only eight INTs and was known for having stone hands. That is no longer the case and the 49ers now have a shutdown corner.
Helping Rogers intercept passes is the 49ers strong defensive front-seven. In recent seasons the 49ers have had a good defense with great players but now they have an even better D-line led by Justin Smith and his 4.5 sacks this season. The 49ers are starting to become linebackers central in the NFL two great linebackers in middle with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis and rookie Aldon Smith rushing on the outside. Bowman is a mirror image of Willis and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the two during games. Bowman ranks fifth in the NFL in tackles with 56 and Willis ranks 13th with 47 tackles. Aldon Smith leads all rookies with 5.5 sacks, Defensive Rookie of the Year anyone? Fangio brilliantly mixes in his all-out blitzing with no blitzing at all like against the Lions causing confusion for opponents. This strategy has worked out well for the defense and shows Fangio’s knows how to run a successful defense.
I got a big kick out of “Handshake Gate”. It made me love Harbaugh even more. He has a swagger about him that is contagious and the players have caught it. Harbuagh, Roman, Fangio and Seeley are getting the 49ers to play with confidence and swagger transforming them into respected players in the NFL. Harbaugh and Roman have made Alex Smith look like a franchise QB. Fangio has transformed Carlos Rogers into a shutdown corner that can intercept rather than just deflect passes. Seeley has made former ninth overall draft pick Ted Ginn Jr. into the speedy return specialist the Dophlins thought he was when they drafted him. These are only a few of the players that have been transformed under Harbaugh and his coaching staff. For a team that has had three head coaches and seven offensive coordinators since 2005 and only one non-losing season since 2002, things are looking up in Niner Land.
With Jim Harbaugh at head coach you can expect the 49ers to continue playing well for the rest of the season and with the weak NFC West, a division title and playoff appearance is not out of reach this season. Our San Francisco 49ers are for once being talked about in a positive way and you should not expect anything less than what you have seen the last two weeks for the rest of the season. The 49ers were 1-5 at this point last season. What a difference a new head coach and a year makes.