49ers' latest win should bring national respect
Jim Harbaugh, the man of no comparisons, is suddenly generating buzz that his spot-on, creative coaching resembles that of the late Hall of Famer, Bill Walsh - and that his 49ers are performing much like those great San Francisco teams of old.
Alex Smith, the oft-maligned former first-round pick, is now the Bay Area's quarterback of the hour - after another Harbaugh-groomed QB, Stanford's Andrew Luck, faltered on The Farm against Oregon and might have hurt his Heisman Trophy chances in the process.
Ricky Jean Francois, the outspoken defensive tackle, has no qualms acknowledging the 49ers finally silenced any remaining doubters after Sunday's thrilling 27-20 victory against the New York Giants and fellow NFC division leader.
''It might change the perspective of everybody now, that we're not just a team that's a joke,'' Francois said Monday. ''We're a team to actually take serious. Last night I was watching NFL Network and I heard Deion Sanders say he wasn't giving us our props and we weren't a team to take serious. But now that we won the game, everybody's taking us serious. Everybody was probably looking at us like, `They're not that good, they have certain things they need still to work on.' Don't get me wrong, we're not perfect. We're still working on a lot of things - offense, defense special teams - because we've got to make sure every game we win with all three phases. To us, it doesn't matter if the league takes us serious.''
Six straight wins and the second-best record in the NFL hadn't quite done the trick for some skeptics, who still questioned whether the Niners truly were among the league's top teams.
Harbaugh's resurgent group is 8-1 for the franchise's best start in 14 years and needs only one more victory - NFC West rival Arizona comes to town Sunday - for its first winning record since 2002. Clinching the first playoff berth since `02 also could happen soon if San Francisco keeps winning.
Harbaugh made his message clear a month ago after a win at previously unbeaten Detroit: ''If the 49ers' success offends you, so be it.''
The men he works with every day have taken on that mentality from Day 1 under their new coach, some even sounding an awful lot like Harbaugh when they speak.
Justin Smith made the play of the game Sunday when he batted down Eli Manning's final pass attempt on fourth down from the 10 to seal it in the waning minutes.
Whether the win over the Giants will change the outside world's perception of the 49ers, they don't really care.
''It depends on who you ask. Do I think we made a statement?'' linebacker Parys Haralson said. ''I think we went out and we won a game that shows we're a football team to be reckoned with.''
A football team that began the week tied with the reigning Super Bowl champion Packers for the NFL's most wins and riding a seven-game winning streak. Green Bay was set to put its 8-0 record on the line Monday night against Minnesota at Lambeau Field.
Smith led his fourth comeback in the fourth quarter this season - and did so without relying on star running back Frank Gore, who was limited because of a right knee injury that was being evaluated Monday.
Harbaugh said Gore would undergo further tests.
The two-time Pro Bowler took part in only one play in the third quarter and was held to zero yards on six carries - his first career game without a yard when he played. That after a franchise-record five straight performances of 100 yards or more rushing.
''He'll get it checked on, yeah. Spare no expense checking on Frank,'' Harbaugh said. ''I would plan on him playing, but you just feel like right now, we've got a stable of backs. We've got Frank Gore, we've got Kendall Hunter, we've got fresh legs in Anthony Dixon. This bodes really well for our football team.''
Smith, San Francisco's No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Utah, has come into his own at last under Harbaugh. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown Sunday, throwing one interception with two sacks.
For all those years of boos from the home crowd at Candlestick Park, Smith shined in the passing game against the Giants as San Francisco worked to run a more balanced attack.
Harbaugh has believed in Smith from the day he left Stanford and took the job back in January, handing over his playbook to the QB during the lockout before eventually signing the free agent to a one-year deal.
Both men are earning their $5 million salaries for 2011.
''Alex Smith, you find a way to keep diminishing the guy,'' Harbaugh said Sunday night. ''They call him a game manager and he's a great game manager, but you read it and you hear people talk about him and they're trying to slight him when they say that. He, once again, goes out and plays great football and keeps proving it. That's what the guy's about and I have a ton of respect for him as a player. You can write whatever you want. The more against us the better.''
Yet as his team keeps winning and making a push for a first-round playoff bye, even Smith is bringing in new supporters for an organization determined to return to its regular winning ways of the 1980s and `90s. A dynasty then, San Francisco won five Super Bowls and went 16 straight seasons with 10 or more wins.
This could be the year for another deep playoff run. Beating the Giants showed that.
''I'll be forever proud of our players the way they played, the way they competed, and the effort that they gave in the game,'' Harbaugh said. ''But honest, I don't think I'd feel much different right now had we won or had we not won the game. It was just that good of a game that was very evenly matched. Just great football.''