Steep Learning Curve for Harbaugh, 49ers

Frank Doyle | Updated Jul 15, 2011


Frank Doyle thinks rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh will face a baptism of fire in San Francisco.

After the Mike Singletary era ended in tears for all concerned, Jim Harbaugh was named 18th head coach and given the mantle of the Next Savior of the San Francisco 49ers. It was never going to be easy trying to rebuild a franchise as formerly successful as the 49ers but Harbaugh’s task in 2011 is particularly tricky.

The first problem Harbaugh faces is the shortened training camp. It’s hard for all teams of course, but for teams with new coaches it’s extra difficult. How could it not be?

The second problem Harbaugh faces is quarterback. If you’re a Niner fan, you expect your quarterback to be blue chip stock. San Francisco is the only team in the history of the league that replaced one Hall of Fame quarterback with another when Steve Young took over from Joe Montana.

As such, the Candlestick Park faithful who bet on NFL football look at the likes of Shaun Hill and JT O’Sullivan and think: what in the hell is this? They didn’t even like Jeff Garcia, although they started to get fonder of him after he left and he didn’t seem so bad in the light of who came after him.

Alex Smith is the man under center now. He was a No 1 draft pick from Utah before Urban Myer went to Florida but he’s been desperately unlucky with coaches and offensive co-ordinators. He’s never really had a chance to bed himself in before the co-ordinator or the head coach got canned, and now he has another new system to learn in time for Game 1.

In Smith’s favor, he has a deep threat in Michael Crabtree, a Pro Bowl tight end in Vernon Davis and a back who can run for 4.7 yards a carry in Frank Gore. Also in Smith’s favor, it’s not like there’s anyone breathing down his neck for the job. Well; not so far, anyway.

On the other side of the ball, the Niners have a standout linebacker in Patrick Willis and were solid against the run last year but my goodness, they were badly victimised on passing plays. Shoring up that defense is a priority, as evidenced by San Francisco’s selection of Aldon Smith in the first round of the draft. Smith is there to rush the passer and protect his secondary the old fashioned way.

Of further concern to Harbaugh is the rise of the Rams, who only just fell short of the playoffs last year. Sam Bradford and Matt Hasselbeck are the quality quarterbacks of the division but Bradford has youth on his side while Hasselbeck’s been on borrowed time for years.

It’s possible for things to go well for the Niners. Maybe they can ride Frank Gore until Smith gets comfortable in another new offense and good things can happen. The Niners’ final game of the season is on New Year’s Day at St Louis. If San Francisco is going there for anything other than a Rams coronation the 49ers can consider the season a success.