The year was 1979 when Eddie DeBartolo Jr., after two disastrous years as owner of the San Francisco 49ers, hired an innovative offensive coach from just down the road at Stanford in hopes of reviving his franchise. Bill Walsh installed what came to be known as the “West Coast Offense,” and in 1981 he led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl victory, a win that marked the start of an NFL dynasty in San Francisco. Fast-forward to 2011, and the 49ers are hoping that history will repeat.
Team president and CEO Jed York, Eddie’s nephew, followed a familiar front office game plan. He hired Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, a strong-willed, imaginative offensive coach who turned the Cardinal into a national powerhouse. Harbaugh brings his version of the West Coast Offense to the 49ers, who will return to their Walshian roots after veering off course under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, a pair of defensive-minded coaches.
Walsh took over a team in disarray, coming off a 2–14 season. He won a combined eight games in his first two years before stunning the NFL by winning the Super Bowl in Year 3. Harbaugh takes over a 49ers team from the fired Singletary that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002 and went 6–10 last year. Even so, Harbaugh has more talent than Walsh had in 1979, and his team plays in an NFC West that is widely considered to be the NFL’s weakest division. So unlike Walsh, Harbaugh will face pressure to win immediately.
At the end of the 2010 season, the odds of quarterback Alex Smith returning for his seventh year with the 49ers were longer than Singletary’s odds of being named Coach of the Year. Then Harbaugh was hired, the lockout began, and Smith now looks like the team’s best option to lead the offense until rookie Colin Kaepernick is ready to take over.
If Harbaugh’s offense looks anything like the attack he ran at Stanford, Smith won’t have to carry the entire load. Harbaugh’s offense revolved around a physical offensive line and a power running game that sets up play-action passes. He often used multiple tight ends. Harbaugh takes over an offense that has plenty of the ingredients to do much of what he did at Stanford.
Last year the 49ers drafted a pair of 6'5", 320-plus pound offensive linemen — left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis — and put them in the starting lineup. They’re part of a young, up-and-coming offensive line that includes skilled left tackle Joe Staley.
In Frank Gore, Harbaugh has a quick, powerful running back who has rushed for over 1,000 yards four times. Gore missed the final five games last season after fracturing a hip, but he avoided surgery and expects to be ready for the start of the season.
Harbaugh should know what to do with tight end Vernon Davis, one of the most impressive physical specimens in the NFL. During his 2009 Pro Bowl season, Davis caught 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, tying the NFL single-season record for most scoring catches by a tight end. Last season, Davis had 56 catches for 914 yards and seven scores.
Some of the 49ers’ biggest question marks, though, are at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree, a first-round pick in 2009, caught 48 passes for 625 yards in only 11 games as a rookie but regressed last year with only 55 grabs for 741 yards in 16 games. Still, Crabtree had more catches and receiving yards than any other 49ers wide receiver. Braylon Edwards, signed in August after being let go by the Jets, is an effective red zone target. He caught 16 touchdowns during his breakout season in Cleveland in 2007.
New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio followed Harbaugh to the 49ers after one year at Stanford and replaces Greg Manusky, now running San Diego’s defense. Like Manusky, Fangio runs a base 3-4 defense, so the transition should be relatively smooth. Fangio coordinated defenses for three NFL teams, including Houston and Carolina, where he worked a combined eight years under Dom Capers, a 3-4 and zone blitz guru who has directed the reigning Super Bowl champion Packers’ defense the past two seasons.
Fangio’s defense at Stanford ranked 11th in the nation in sacks with 36, and one of his biggest jobs will be to find a way to generate more juice from a 49ers pass rush that ranked 26th in sacks per pass play. First-round pick Aldon Smith, making the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker, should help generate more heat on opposing quarterbacks, but at only 21 years old, he’s still raw.
The lack of pass-rush pressure is one reason why the 49ers ranked just 24th against the pass last year. But there were problems on the back end of that defense, too, where cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements struggled at times. Clements was released in the offseason after the two sides could not work out a restructured contract. The 49ers dipped into free agency at safety, signing Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams.
The 49ers had little trouble stopping the run. They allowed just 96.7 yards per game, ranking sixth in the NFL. Much of the credit goes to inside linebacker Patrick Willis, a tackling machine who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons. Willis already has 595 career tackles. Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith gives the 49ers another relentless run-stuffer on the right side, and Smith used his non-stop motor to generate a team-leading 8.5 sacks.
Kicker Joe Nedney made at least 81 percent of his field goals in all six of his seasons with the 49ers, but he missed the final nine games last year with an injury to his right knee — on his plant leg — and has been replaced by David Akers, the Eagles’ all-time leading scorer. Punter Andy Lee’s numbers dipped a bit last year after his second Pro Bowl season in 2009, but he still averaged 46.2 yards per punt, fourth-best in the NFL.
Ted Ginn Jr. established himself as the team’s top punt and kickoff return man. He averaged 13.4 yards per punt return, third-best in the NFL, and returned one 78 yards for a touchdown. His kickoff return numbers weren’t so great — 17th in the NFC at 21.1 yards per return — but he returned two kickoffs for scores with Miami in 2009 and has game-breaking potential.
If not for the lockout, which kept Harbaugh from getting off to a running start during the offseason, the 49ers would be in much better position to make a run at the NFC West title. As it is, anything’s still possible in the West, which Seattle won last year with a 7–9 record, getting the nod over 7–9 St. Louis via the tiebreaker. The 49ers finished just a game back of Seattle and St. Louis and one game ahead of Arizona.
If Harbaugh can work his magic on Alex Smith and give the team’s offense a boost, then the 49ers could finish with a .500 record, which could be good enough to win the West.
Outside the Huddle
Davis’ good deeds
Tight end Vernon Davis spent about 10 days in March in Uganda and Rwanda as part of a Pros for Africa charity mission. Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis (Vernon’s younger brother), Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald were among a group of NFL players on the trip. They helped dig wells, build homes and fit children for hearing aids.
Over the past two seasons, Davis has 20 touchdown catches, more than any other NFL tight end during that span. The Chargers’ Antonio Gates ranks second with 18 touchdown catches. Davis had a combined 134 catches for 1,879 yards during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Harbaugh family affair
San Francisco will play a prime time game at Baltimore on Thanksgiving, and NFL history will be made when 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh faces Ravens coach John Harbaugh. This will be the first time ever that brothers will face each other as NFL head coaches. “We’re going to try to get Jim over to the house, get some turkey, get that tryptophan working so he’ll get tired later in the day,” old brother John told the NFL Network.
Former 49ers running back Joe “The Jet” Perry and fullback John Henry Johnson, a pair of Hall of Famers, died during the offseason, and the team plans to honor them this season. The 49ers will wear a helmet decal with Perry’s jersey No. 34 and another with Johnson’s No. 35. Perry rushed for 8,689 yards and 68 TDs for the 49ers, playing from 1948-60 and in 1963. Johnson, who played for the 49ers from 1954-56, and Perry were part of what was known as the “Million Dollar Backfield,” along with two other Hall of Famers, running back Hugh McElhenny and quarterback Y.A. Tittle.
Running back Frank Gore has 6,414 career rushing yards and needs just 650 to pass Roger Craig (7,064) and move into second on the 49ers’ all-time rushing list behind Perry. Gore already owns eight team rushing records and shares another. He owns career rushing marks for 100-yard games (24), 150-yard games (five), 1,000-yard seasons (four) and consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (four). He owns single-season rushing marks for yards (1,695), carries (312) and 100-yard games (nine) and shares the single-season record for TDs (10). He also set the single-game rushing record of 212 yards against Seattle in November 2006.
It should be no surprise that outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks wound up in the NFL. Football is in his genes. His late father, Perry, played 92 games as a defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins from 1978-84. After a slow start to his NFL career, Brooks has come on strong. He had two sacks in his first 13 NFL games with the Cincinnati Bengals. He has 11 sacks in 29 games with the 49ers, six in 2009 and five in 2010.
Message in ink
Linebacker Patrick Willis has a Superman shield tattooed on his chest, but it’s not because of the way he plays against opposing running backs. The tattoo is in honor of his late brother, Detris, who drowned at age 17 just before Patrick’s senior season at Ole Miss. Growing up, the brothers loved Superman. Detris died before his senior year at Central High School in Bruceton, Tenn., where he was a Division I-A football prospect as a fullback and linebacker.