During the NFL lockout new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh did what many fans have no doubt done during the team's mostly dreary last decade. He queued up tapes of happier times, when the late Bill Walsh was coaching the San Francisco dynasty of the 1980s and early '90s. But unlike the 49ers' faithful, Harbaugh wasn't in it for the nostalgia: He was studying footage of Walsh and his assistants conducting practices and team meetings. He saw Walsh delivering motivational talks to the players, diagramming and breaking down plays, and doing on-field teaching during workouts. "It was valuable stuff," Harbaugh says. "It's like a connection to history."
The Niners are all in favor of connecting to history, as long as it's that golden era, in which San Francisco won five Super Bowls—four under Walsh and one under his former assistant George Seifert—and not the more recent one, in which they have missed the playoffs for eight straight years. Though they might not have realized it, the Niners have essentially been searching for a Walsh-like presence at head coach since their last postseason appearance in 2002. No one has come closer to fitting the profile than Harbaugh, who, like Walsh, came to San Francisco after a successful stretch at Stanford that was marked by creative offenses.
It's that reputation for cerebral football that has Niners Nation thinking—or desperately hoping?—that it has finally found its man, even though the early returns haven't been entirely positive. Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke surprisingly decided to re-sign quarterback Alex Smith, who has been a bust ever since San Francisco drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005, rather than pursue another QB, such as Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb. Smith hasn't exactly made them look like visionaries so far, with a weak showing in the preseason opener against New Orleans (in which, to be fair, he was hampered by woeful pass protection), followed by a decent performance (two scoring drives offset by an interception in one half) against the Raiders.
San Francisco seems to have made only modest improvements through free agency as well. The splashiest signing was receiver Braylon Edwards, whose off-field reputation clearly hurt his market value. The Niners signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million contract. "He's hit some potholes," says Harbaugh. "You don't want that to spiral any further down. It's time to start doing all the little things right."
The Niners seem confident that Harbaugh can transform Smith into at least a competent quarterback, turn Edwards into a homebody, conjure up a way to make underachieving, injury-prone wideout Michael Crabtree into a big-play receiver—and maybe guess what card you just pulled from the deck while he's at it. "He's just the type of guy who makes you believe," says cornerback Shawntae Spencer. "He's sure of himself and his plan, and that makes other people confident in him."
Of course, similar things were said about every new 49ers coach since Steve Mariucci led them to their last winning season nine years ago—and was then dumped. Since then, each fresh start has turned into a false start. Dennis Erickson replaced Mariucci, and the hope was that an established coach with NFL experience could continue the franchise's success. Erickson went 9--23 and was fired after two seasons. Then the Niners went the hot-assistant route with Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who built a reasonably stout D, led by linebacker Patrick Willis. But the 49ers were offensively inept during his tenure, changing coordinators four times. They went 18--37 before Nolan was fired and replaced by Mike Singletary, their linebackers coach, whose fire-and-brimstone style flamed out after 40 games. He was dismissed before the final game of last season.
At this early juncture the Niners' hope that things are finally improving (or "arrow up," as Harbaugh likes to put it) is based more on faith in the new brain trust—Harbaugh brought offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio with him from last year's 11--1 Stanford team—than on anything tangible. The roster looks only marginally better than it did a year ago. Linebacker Aldon Smith, the first-round draft pick out of Missouri, has shown impressive pass-rushing ability in camp, but at 21 he's probably too raw to make an immediate impact. Strong-armed rookie Colin Kaepernick, a fourth-round pick from Nevada, may be San Francisco's quarterback of the future, but for now the job still belongs to Smith.
How long the goodwill toward Harbaugh lasts will depend largely on the result of his decision to stick with Smith. It appeared that he was rethinking that choice after the quarterback's shaky play against New Orleans, after which the Niners went QB shopping, bringing in Daunte Culpepper for a workout (they didn't sign him) and then adding Josh McCown to serve as a mentor.
Perhaps even more surprising than the 49ers' decision to re-sign Smith, an unrestricted free agent, to a one-year, $5 million deal was his agreeing to return after years of being booed. But he was intrigued by Harbaugh's reputation as a quarterback guru. In 2002, during Harbaugh's first season as the Raiders' QB coach, Rich Gannon threw for a team-record 4,689 yards; last year Harbaugh's signal-caller, Andrew Luck, was the Heisman runner-up. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about going somewhere for a fresh start," Smith says, "but in a lot of ways this is a fresh start. The chance to learn under him was a big part of it."
If everyone in Niners-land seems a tad overeager to believe that Harbaugh will provide some long-awaited stability and success, perhaps it's because the memory of Walsh is still part of the 49ers' DNA. Even more than most teams, the Niners love the idea of the genius coach. It's why they chased Harbaugh so doggedly during the off-season even though his track record—he turned around programs at I-AA San Diego and Stanford—hardly stamps him as a surefire miracle worker at the pro level. The sophisticated offense that he and Roman ran with the Cardinal, with its multiple formations and constant shifting, had more complicated choreography than a Broadway musical, and the prospect of a San Francisco attack that out-thinks opposing defenses brings back memories of the Joe Montana--Jerry Rice--Steve Young days of dominance.