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August 29, 2011
New Niners coach Jim Harbaugh is gearing up for the future by looking to the past and embracing the teachings of another offensive whiz who made the jump from Palo Alto to the pros: Bill Walsh
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August 29, 2011

Student Of History

New Niners coach Jim Harbaugh is gearing up for the future by looking to the past and embracing the teachings of another offensive whiz who made the jump from Palo Alto to the pros: Bill Walsh

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But anyone smart enough to be considered at all reminiscent of Walsh is also bright enough to know it's a losing battle to compete with the memory of the legendary coach. "I've got a long way to go before any comparisons can even begin to be made," Harbaugh says. He has, however, hit enough right notes to endear himself to those who long for the return of the Walshian culture. Those old tapes he and his staff studied weren't easy to find; many of them had disappeared from team headquarters over the years, and one of Harbaugh's first orders of business was to initiate an all-points bulletin when he heard they existed. Eventually the team received a shipment of old tapes and DVDs from the office of NFL Films. "Anybody who loves the old Niners has to think, Well, if he's that interested in studying Walsh, that's got to be a good sign," says tight end Vernon Davis, a sixth-year veteran.

Singletary, whose offensive philosophy centered around a pounding ground game, famously declared that quarterback was not necessarily the most important offensive position. Harbaugh quickly declared that he was returning to the West Coast offense popularized by Walsh. It's not hard to guess which message played better with the Niners' fan base.

Though there are obvious similarities in their résumés and offensive approaches, Harbaugh is clearly no Walsh clone. Walsh was the distinguished professor; Harbaugh is the energetic teacher who dashes around the classroom as he lectures. Walsh was the polished sophisticate; Harbaugh is more the blunt firebrand, who has wasted no time instilling his high energy. On one play during the first week of practice, the offense went to the line of scrimmage without anyone lining up at tight end, so Harbaugh quickly jumped into the position and gave the defensive end a forearm shiver on the snap. When the Niners work out in pads, they wear full game uniforms instead of practice jerseys because Harbaugh wants gamelike intensity at all times. Coaches and players can be heard shouting "Tempo, tempo, tempo!" as the players move between drills, reinforcing Harbaugh's emphasis on crisp, efficient practices. "It feels like things are changing for the better," says Davis.

San Francisco's new beginnings have always seemed to lead to the same old ending, and that has extended to off-the-field issues as well. The franchise has been attempting for the better part of a decade to have a new stadium built to replace Candlestick Park, and last week it unveiled yet another model for a proposed facility, a 68,500-seat venue in Santa Clara, though it still isn't clear where all of the funding would come from. The city of Santa Clara passed a $114 million bond measure in 2010, which is just a fraction of the estimated $987 million cost of the project.

Yet the Niners keep pushing the rock up the hill, declaring a target date of 2015 even though the facility is far from a certainty. The possibility of sharing the stadium with their Bay Area neighbors, the Raiders, has been floated, though owner and noted contrarian Al Davis would seem more likely to move his team to North Dakota than enter a partnership with his rivals.

By the time the new stadium is built or the plan fizzles once again, the Niners will have a clearer idea of what they have in Harbaugh. His biggest advantage may be the unwavering support he and his staff seem to already have from the players, who have been hard at work trying to make up for lost time in learning yet another new system. Roman, whose offense is known for making tight ends prominent in the passing game, developed a quick fondness for Vernon Davis, a 2009 Pro Bowl selection, early in camp, when he saw that the pages of Davis's playbook were crammed with notes that the tight end had taken during team meetings. "It looked like War and Peace, he had so much written down," Roman says.

War and Peace might be the perfect symbol for the new, thinking man's Niners. It's deep, complex, requires a certain intellect—and, most of all, brings to life an era gone by.

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