Niners loving that winning feeling

BY foxsports • November 11, 2011

Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” played on huge loud speakers, which most NFL teams use for mimicking crowd noise during practice. I heard one player say, “Aw, yeah, Bruce Springsteen!” This came before some begging for an unseen DJ to start the song over on his way out to the field to stretch. Don’t know whose playlist it was, but, man, it was all over the place. The Stones followed Springsteen, then Pitbull filled the air. The guy up on the scissor lift filmed practice.

It’s fun again in San Francisco 49ers camp.

A 7-1 record contributes to all the smiling faces and a giddy San Francisco public-relations staff, which hasn’t had many positive story angles to sell in years. Jim Harbaugh was a no-go, though, for our purpose. The 49ers’ new coach wants the focus to be on his players, so a sit-down interview with him was out of the question.

The Niners' PR gods, led by director Bob Lange, the guy you saw breaking up the infamous Harbaugh-Jim Schwartz skirmish after the “back slap,” felt bad about not delivering the big fish to us for FOX NFL Sunday’s first feature on the team this season. But you’ve got to figure at this rate, Harbaugh eventually will be on the hot seat for an interview — say, playoff time.

I know Lange from his days in Philadelphia, during the Donovan McNabb era, mostly. During that time, the Eagles never had to drum up interest. I can’t blame Lange for constantly espousing the positives of this guy and that guy. At one point, I even heard a 49ers PR intern say, “We’ve never had this many people here.” I looked around and it was only the FOX crew of seven.

Meantime, former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith led off the group of players lined up for the story. Now in his seventh season (he missed 2008 because of injury), Smith was candid about the rough years of getting kicked in the teeth and getting called all sorts of names for his lack of achievements, despite an endless revolving door of offensive coordinators, which means rough sledding for any signal caller, period.

He doesn’t blame any of the previous regimes (at least not on camera), but he does wonder aloud what it would have been like had he packed his bags and put the Bay in his rearview mirror.

“The credit deserves (to go) to some of my family and friends. When things go bad and things get ugly, they’re the ones that keep things in perspective and help me out,’’ Smith said. “It’s just such a great thing that’s going on here right now. I love what I’m doing. I love the guys that I work with.”

Smith showed some real “not-here-to-totally-please-you-FOX” moxie, too. One of our cameramen asked if he’d take his hat off or shove it so far back on his head that I’m sure he’d look like a complete goober. Smith politely declined that request, as well as a second attempt to get him to discuss the rolodex-sized wristband he wore to the interview having come straight from practice.

The same cameraman wanted to get a tight shot of it. Hello, the plays are on there, Smith reminded him. That was that for any special requests. The old Alex Smith, the one desperate to please, is dead, from what I hear. He doesn’t go above and beyond. He’ll give you what you need — but not necessarily everything you think you need.

Patrick Willis, by comparison, has led a charmed 49ers life. Another first-rounder, he’s won nothing but has accolades aplenty. His talent is so abundant, it’s a shame it hasn't been a weekly national audience staple. But Willis doesn’t want to stand out in our pregame feature. He wants to blend in with the rest.

That’s keeping with the atmosphere that Harbaugh looks to have successfully built in record time during his first season as coach. The T-E-A-M concept is exploding all over the 49ers' Santa Clara facility, and ultimately, the results are showing on Sundays.

“For the first time , I’m getting a chance to experience this," Willis said. "It’s a good feeling but also a humble feeling.”

Why humbling?

“Because I’ve endured those times where you have given them everything you’ve got and things are just not going your way. And you just go home and (are) just like, `Why me?’ . . . `Why us?’ "

It’s worth noting the fifth-year player is the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker ever, having signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension last May that will keep him in a 49ers uniform through 2016. That’s plenty of time to ask and answer whatever questions that might arise about the latest regime, which Willis, like his teammates, seems to adore.

Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, I was warned, was soft-spoken, and it’s true. I had to lean in with constant fear of toppling over in my chair to hear him clearly. And he, too, would not utter any grand statements that separated him from the T-E-A-M thing.

I tried to lure him into making a crack about the upcoming opponent, the New York Giants, and their schizophrenic run defense, which is ranked 25th in the league, giving up an average of 127 yards a game. But a plane flew overhead just as I made the lame attempt and the aforementioned cameraman ordered us to stop talking. Subject dropped.

But at least the 49ers remain a team worth talking about this season. Gore can deny all he wants, as he did to me, that he’s not entirely the focus of the offense. Nobody believes that, even though his intentions of not putting the spotlight squarely on himself are noble. He’s even cool with rookie running back Kendall Hunter getting playing time to save Gore wear and tear and keep him fresh for December duties, when his skill set is most critical.

“Everybody comes in the Bay area and they say, `OK, we’re going to stop 21,’ " Gore said. “You look at the offense. We’ve got a lot of playmakers. And, now, it’s just not about me.”

Sure it is, Frank. But at least now you’ve got a coach and a coaching staff that knows that the other guys, especially the quarterback, need love, too. That even a good defense can be prodded and positioned toward fierceness, and special teams is not a unit whose only job is just not to screw it up. Same for rejuvenated kicker David Akers.

That’s where Jim Harbaugh comes in and the San Francisco 49ers are starting to glow with enthusiasm, confidence and a fear-us attitude. All of this as Sinatra and Jay-Z warm up the team during the work week, which seven times already this season has ended victoriously for the San Francisco 49ers.

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