Are the 49ers back? They’ll find out

The franchise was named after ambitious pioneers who partook in the California gold rush of 1849.

That’s also how long it feels since the San Francisco 49ers have enjoyed NFL relevancy.

For the past eight seasons, the team that was considered the league’s gold standard during much of the 1980s and 1990s failed to reach the playoffs or post a winning record. The tarnish was so severe that some players wondered if the club would ever regain its luster during their playing careers.

But finally, the 49ers have hit pay dirt once again.

San Francisco bores into Sunday’s home game against the New York Giants (4:15 p.m. ET on FOX) with the NFL’s second-best record at 7-1. The 49ers field the league’s top run defense, its hottest rusher in Frank Gore (five straight 100-yard games) and standout special teams led by speedy returner Ted Ginn Jr.

San Francisco has proven so much better than its lowly NFC West counterparts that the 49ers may be able to clinch the division title by month’s end.

The 49ers, though, haven’t already drafted plans to fit a sixth sterling silver Lombardi Trophy next to the others on display in the lobby of team headquarters. Facing a team like the Giants (6-2) will help prove whether San Francisco — which has faced only two teams that currently have winning records — is for real or more like fool’s gold.

First-year head coach Jim Harbaugh is anxious to find out himself.

“We have more questions than answers,” Harbaugh told FOXSports.com before Thursday’s practice. “Are we tough enough and good enough to keep this going? Are we competitive enough? Are we going to be disciplined enough to keep learning? And are we smart enough? We don’t really have any answers for you or anybody else.”

At least so far, Harbaugh has found answers for what had ailed the 49ers. Counting the interim appointment of Jim Tomsula last season, Harbaugh is the fifth head coach since Steve Maruicci was fired following San Francisco’s last postseason appearance during the 2002 campaign.

The overmatched collection of Tomsula, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary posted a combined record of 46-82. Maybe it rains so much in the Bay Area because the late Bill Walsh is weeping from heaven at what had become of his former team.

Gore, who was drafted by the 49ers in 2005, said the low point for him came last season when offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was fired after a 31-10 loss to Kansas City in Week 3.

“We couldn’t move the ball and they’re running all over us,” Gore said. “They’re calling our plays out. The next day, another coordinator gets fired and we’re bringing somebody else down.

“You want to play ball because it’s what you love to do. But when you keep seeing (bad) things happen over and over, it’s tough.”

The Chiefs debacle was a harbinger for things to come. Singletary didn’t last the year before being ousted.

49ers president and CEO Jed York knew he had to stop the bleeding. The 30-year-old nephew of esteemed former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, York faced his toughest decision since assuming the office three years earlier.

York and general manager Trent Baalke quickly targeted Harbaugh, a long-time NFL quarterback who was in the process of leading nearby Stanford University to its best season in school history. After an in-person interview in early January, York said he was so confident the deal was done that he and Baalke talked about scheduling a news conference for the next day to announce Harbaugh’s hiring.

But while hitching a ride home with Baalke, the pair heard on the radio that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was flying to San Francisco for a meeting with Harbaugh, a fellow University of Michigan alumnus and potential replacement for the embattled Tony Sparano.

“You feel like you just got kicked in the stomach,” York recalled. “We took a stab at saying, ‘What can we do to get this done tonight?’ His agent said, ‘Mr. Ross is a friend. They’ve known each other from Michigan. This isn’t an interview, but he just wants to talk to Jim.’

“The whole time we told Jim, ‘I don’t want you to take this job and be at the 49ers if this isn’t 100 percent where you want to be.’ We stepped back and said, ‘Look at all of your options. Understand what’s out there. If you don’t choose the 49ers, that’s OK because I’d rather you do that than choose the 49ers and have regret over something else.’”

The soft-sell approach worked. Harbaugh signed a reported five-year, $25-million deal and Ross stuck with Sparano, whose firing seems inevitable with Miami off to a 1-7 start.

Harbaugh needed little time to make the same kind of impact that his older brother John did when becoming Baltimore’s head coach in 2008. Harbaugh wisely took advantage of free time created by the NFL player lockout that was supposed to hinder first-year head coaches. He worked closely on schematics with his assistants and was able to take a longer pre-draft look at the college prospects the 49ers selected. One of them — outside linebacker Aldon Smith — is an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate. He is tied with Denver’s Von Miller for the rookie sack lead with 6.5.

When the lockout ended, Harbaugh inherited a roster that he says had a better attitude and was more competitive than what he had anticipated. Harbaugh further set the tempo with hard-nosed training camp practices.

As a former player, Harbaugh can effectively communicate on the same level. For example, Gore said no predecessor had specifically outlined how the offense could benefit him the way Harbaugh did when presenting the playbook during a one-on-one meeting. Defensive end Justin Smith said Harbaugh doesn’t worry about the outside issues that helped derail other 49ers head coaches.

“He doesn’t give you the shotgun approach all over the place,” Smith said. “We’re here to win games. That’s it.”

Besides partaking in some physical parts of practice like throwing passes and holding for field-goal attempts, Harbaugh has deployed some creative motivational tactics to inspire players and foster team bonding. The practice squad travels to every road game, which most teams don’t do because of cost. The 49ers spent a week practicing together in Youngstown, Ohio between East Coast games in Week 3 and 4 rather than returning home in between. They won both contests against Cincinnati and Philadelphia, an especially impressive feat for a west coast team having to deal with an earlier-than-usual kickoff time.

Outside pep talks have come from diverse figures. U.S. Army sergeant Dontae Skywalker gave the team a tour of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before last Sunday’s 19-11 win at Washington. Harbaugh was so impressed that he named a 49ers play after Skywalker and invited him to attend the Thanksgiving night game against the host Ravens.

“The No. 1 thing is how authentic he is,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said of Harbaugh. “He’s not putting on a show or a front for anybody. He’s kept it about football as much as he can and I think guys really appreciate that.”

No player should appreciate Harbaugh more than Smith. The first overall pick in a 2005 draft class that also included Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Smith has become the main scapegoat for San Francisco’s failings since entering the league. Smith himself thought he was a goner late season when his contract was expiring and the 49ers were set to bring in a new head coach.

Harbaugh, though, quickly warmed to the possibility of re-signing Smith after scrutinizing game film. While the move was publicly criticized at the time, Smith was inked to a one-year contract that has proven tops among a series of other shrewd 49ers offseason personnel decisions that included the free-agent additions of cornerback Carlos Rogers, strong safety Donte Whitner and kicker David Akers.

With unspectacular passing statistics and San Francisco fielding a run-first offense, Smith is more of a game-manager like ex-49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer than difference-maker a la Hall of Famers Steve Young or Joe Montana. But those three quarterbacks all share the same thread of having won Super Bowl titles as starters. The 49ers believe the same could ultimately happen with Smith now that there is coaching stability — Greg Roman is his seventh offensive coordinator in as many NFL seasons — and a solid supporting cast surrounding him.

York equates Smith’s rise to stories he has heard from his wife, a teacher who has worked in inner-city schools.

“That’s always a demographic where you hear, ‘Well, their parents don’t care about kids. It’s not like my rich suburb where all the parents are involved,’” York said. “That’s something so far from the truth. When you actually put time and effort into those kids, they perform as well or better than anybody else.

“That’s the same thing with Alex. When you have a coach who cares about him and understands, ‘This is what you can do. We’re going to work with you to get it done,’ you can see Alex have success because you have a coach who believes in him.”

The 49ers now face another problem: The number of new believers jumping on the bandwagon. How a roster where only 10 of 53 members have postseason experience handles an unprecedented amount of media attention and back-slapping from outsiders is something Harbaugh is already trying to prepare for. Besides bringing in M.C. Hammer to talk about dealing with the trappings of newfound success, Harbaugh has introduced an imaginary figure named Frederick P. Soft to remind players of the danger of complacency.

“Now that you realize the games are more important and you’re playing on a bigger stage, if you feel you’ve arrived and say, ‘This is where we always wanted to be,’ you’re probably destined to always stay at that stage or regress back to a smaller stage,” Harbaugh said. “Why not a bigger stage? Why not us on that stage? Let’s see if we can just keep doing what we’re doing.”

Walker proclaimed the 49ers will handle any future obstacles by delivering a line that is truly golden.

“We’re going to Jim Harbaugh them,” he said with a smile and laugh.