BOARDMAN, Ohio — On this year’s San Francisco 49ers business trip to Northeast Ohio, much is different from last year’s maiden voyage.
Starting with attitudes and expectations.
For the second straight year, the 49ers are spending a week near the roots of the DeBartolo family, the team’s founders, in Youngstown, Ohio, and practicing at Youngstown State University. It’s a stop head coach Jim Harbaugh and team management dreamed up last year to save energy and trips across time zones.
This year, the energy is not positive. The 49ers are coming off an upset loss at Minnesota, their first of the season after impressive wins in Green Bay and over Detroit. The trip here might become an annual rite, but this week the focus is on Sunday’s game at the Jets and correcting what kept the 49ers from remaining unbeaten last week.
Looking back from a year ago to now, the suburban hotel that’s home for five days this week is the same. Many of the players are the same. The standards are not.
“I don’t know the percentage of it,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’re farther along than we were last year.”
Harbaugh wasn’t much in the talking mood Wednesday.
At this time last year, Harbaugh was still the new coach. The roster had lots of relatively new faces as the lockout canceled all off-season activities, and just how good 49ers would be was pretty much a secret — maybe even to themselves.
“We certainly feel like we’re a lot further ahead now,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “With that, nothing’s guaranteed. This is the NFL. But for sure I think we would all say we feel a lot more confident about where we’re at right now than a year ago.”
Last year, the 49ers came to Ohio at 1-1 and off a close home loss to the Dallas Cowboys. They won in Cincinnati on Sept. 25 despite not crossing the 50-yard line until almost the midpoint of the third quarter, then spent the next week in Youngstown before playing in Philadelphia, where they rallied to beat the Eagles, 24-23.
They won eight straight and didn’t lose until Thanksgiving in Baltimore.
Eventually, they looked at last year’s Youngstown trip as a bonding experience, one that helped them on the way to the NFC Championship Game.
“Staying in a hotel like this, it’s close quarters,” offensive lineman Alex Boone said. “You’re cramped. You just want to fight everybody because everybody’s on top of you. You have to really just focus in and fight through all that. You really have to think about what you have to do.
“I think it’s a little easier this time because we did it last year. We understand it. Last year, we won (the week before) we came here, so this year it’s tougher than expected. This year, we’re off a loss, and we’re just focusing on ourselves and what we need to do to get back to winning.”
Every 49ers player is just a few hundred feet from business headquarters this week. Smith said that can be a positive, especially coming off what would now be considered a rare loss. Besides the short bus trips for practice, it’s all in at all hours this week.
There just aren’t a lot of smiles in the hotel.
“I think when you come off a loss, you want to get back to work and make darn sure it doesn’t happen again,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the mindset we have every day, including today, to work on that in preparation for the game on Sunday.”