Harbaugh's influence on 49ers pays off
When Aldon Smith, San Francisco’s rookie linebacker, roared off the edge and brought down Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman, he jumped up, ran to a vacant plot of turf and ... just sort of stood there.
As Smith began to realize that the 69,732 fans at Candlestick Park were showering him with adulation, he realized he had better do something — anything. C’mon, man, think of something! So he half-heartedly crossed his arms — sort of.
“I was trying to look cool,” Smith said with a smile. “I’ve got to work on that.”
As for other matters that need improvement, it was hard to find many on Sunday when the 49ers romped past the Buccaneers, 48-3, looking like something more formidable than the class of the NFC’s Mild, Mild West.
After following up last week’s stirring comeback in Philadelphia with their most one-sided victory since routing Denver in Super Bowl XXIV, San Francisco heads next week to another upstart, unbeaten Detroit.
Raise your hand if you expected the 49ers, under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, with no mini-camps and essentially the same cast that won six games last year and hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, to be sitting here with a 4-1 record.
“I don’t think it’s surprising,” said tackle Joe Staley. “We have confidence in this locker room. It might be surprising to the outside, but part of the culture that Harbaugh is instilling, we don’t care what anybody says on the outside if they respect us [or not], if they like the way we play, if they don’t like the way we play. It’s all about the guys in this locker room.”
Harbaugh, as he did at Stanford, has preached toughness and precision, in turn simplifying what he asks of his players. There are gimmicks, like wearing blue-collared shirts to work. But not lost on the players is the attention paid to small details, ones that add up over the course of 60 minutes and 16 games.
“He tried to make us a civilized team,” said tight end Delanie Walker. “Tuck in your shirts, being on time, never late to a meeting, coming out early, getting proper stretch in and watching film on your own time. He pushed us to be that type of player and I think that’s what you see now.”
The 49ers run a similar version of the West Coast offense that Bill Walsh popularized. They don’t run a wide variety of plays, but run them out of multiple formations and packages. This gives them a better handle on their responsibilities, which leads to more confidence.
Nobody seems to be benefiting more from Harbaugh’s presence than Alex Smith, the quarterback taken first overall by San Francisco in 2004. The 49ers may never outlive the regret of passing on Aaron Rodgers, who starred in their backyard at Cal, but Smith — who is on his seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons — is showing signs that he may yet provide them with a smart, steady decision-maker.
He entered Sunday as the third-best quarterback in the league against the blitz, he’s thrown one interception in 122 passes this season and has even run the option and been the lead blocker on a toss sweep. On Sunday, he threw three touchdown passes.
“We were always changing the offense, so he didn’t have time to grasp anything,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. “Harbaugh came in and they were able to teach Alex in a way he could grow.”
That Smith is even with the 49ers is something of an upset. While Mike Nolan questioned his toughness and Mike Singletary raged at him on the sideline, Smith lost his job to the likes of J.T. O’Sullivan, Shawn Hill and Troy Smith.
But when Harbaugh arrived in January, he saw enough in Smith, an impending free agent, to ask him to stay. That faith was shared last April with a handshake during the 48-hour lockout break that Smith would re-sign. Though Smith was not under contract, Harbaugh gave him a playbook.
“Alex was really on point today,” Harbaugh said. “Just made really cool-headed decisions all day long. That was big. His accuracy, I thought, was the best of the season.”
On Sunday, Smith was just another 49er doing his job. Just like cornerback Carlos Rogers, their one marquee free-agent acquisition, who returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown. Just like nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who more than ably filled in for injured Isaac Sopoaga. Just like Ted Ginn Jr., who was a terror returning punts or running on a reverse. Just like receiver Michael Crabtree, who took out two Bucs with one block.
Naturally, the 49ers were doing their best not to get carried away. Harbaugh provided perfunctory answers, noting that the 49ers would simply try to get better next week, and the week after that.
If that’s the case, then the rookie linebacker Smith may not be the only 49er who will need to work on his celebration.