Harbaugh has 49ers off to best start since 1998 | NevadaAppeal.com

Harbaugh has 49ers off to best start since 1998

JANIE McCAULEY
AP Sports Writer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – Jim Harbaugh parted the heavy red 49ers curtains separating the locker room from meeting and training areas and peeked out, on patrol for any stragglers.

“One minute!” San Francisco’s coach announced. Time to work.

It was late morning Monday, after a long flight home from yet a third come-from-behind road win – this time a 25-19 thriller against the previously unbeaten Detroit Lions. Harbaugh, dressed in his standard uniform of khaki slacks and a black 49ers sweatshirt, encountered Ray McDonald and asked how the defensive end was doing. Then, a quick check of the bathroom to see if anybody else was left.

It’s not bye week around here. It’s “improvement week,” as Harbaugh prefers to put it. In a short time running this once-proud franchise, Harbaugh has shown improvement, all right. He has shown he can flat out coach. And motivate and inspire. While nobody questions who’s in charge, Harbaugh likes to be just one of the guys. He sits back with his players on the plane rather than in first class where he always has a seat.

It’s all working wonderfully so far. San Francisco has a new team to cheer after the Giants captured the city’s hearts with an improbable run to the World Series title last October.

The Niners are 5-1 and leading the NFC West, quite a change from their 0-5 start only a year ago under then-coach Mike Singletary.

Harbaugh has this bunch believing and buying into his system, his approach, his enthusiastic nature in every aspect of the job – including walking right into the locker room himself to round up his men.

“Who’s got it better than us? Nobody!” he hollers along with the players.

The 49ers get a kick out of his high-energy antics. Like the now infamous handshake controversy after last Sunday’s win in the Motor City. Harbaugh grabbed the hand of Lions coach Jim Schwartz too hard and then gave him a firm slap on the back, and a furious Schwartz chased him down before the two were separated.

“When there’s somebody who brings something like that to the table, it gives you, I don’t know if it’s confidence or if it just gives that joy in going out and playing that hard,” punter Andy Lee said. “You want to go out and play for this guy.”

That seems to be the sentiment throughout San Francisco’s upbeat, winning locker room.

The fracas at Ford Field happened moments after Harbaugh emphatically untucked his shirt and jumped for joy. He has all kinds of quirks – and, so far, they are working to a tee.

He pulls out his shirt after games as a tribute of sorts to some hardworking uncles in Ohio he used to watch go about their daily lives.

“It’s a mentality that when we work we tuck our shirts in. When work is over we untuck them,” Harbaugh said. “And when we win, we celebrate. That’s the theme and message behind that. It goes back a ways. I had some uncles that lived in Ohio that worked a blue-collar job. And when they came home from their work, untucked their shirts, sit on the couch, put the feet up on the coffee table, and eat some pizza and drink a beer. Those were good times. Those were good times to be a little kid and just watch them do that. So, we’ve kind of taken that approach, that theme here.”

A former NFL quarterback himself, Harbaugh is getting the most from Alex Smith. The 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick out of Utah has finally exhibited the kind of steady, smart play Harbaugh believed he still had in him. Smith insists he is simply being himself and not trying to do too much, and Harbaugh’s guidance has helped a great deal in that process.

Team president Jed York is coming off looking like a genius, and same goes for general manager Trent Baalke. They wooed Harbaugh away from nearby Stanford on a $25 million, five-year deal. Nobody can argue he’s earning his hefty paycheck each Sunday and every day in between.

Money aside, Harbaugh is a proven winner who has taken his success turning around Stanford and brought that swagger to the next level – along with several familiar faces from the former Cardinal coaching staff, such as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. So much for the 49ers needing some time to adjust to a new man in charge after a lockout.

This team has a legitimate shot to end that eight-year streak without a winning record or playoff berth. Not that Harbaugh will touch that topic just yet.

“He’s got his heart set,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “At first I knew a lot of people were talking about: ‘He’s a new head coach. He has a new staff. How quick is the offense going to learn his offensive terminology? How quick will the defense learn Vic’s defense?’ And the biggest thing I was always telling people on the team was, ‘Don’t use that for an excuse,’ because I know that’s going to be the first thing everybody’s going to be bent on: ‘Well, it’s a new coach. He’s kind of struggling. First year.’ Nah, we couldn’t do that. If coach is willing to put his heart into it, you’ve got to be willing, too. We’re doing it, and we’re just driving with it.”

And Smith is driving an offense that has struggled to take advantage of its opportunities in recent years.

He is in his second-chance season with the Niners after everybody – even the QB himself – figured he would likely be headed elsewhere for 2011 as a free agent. The lockout, and Harbaugh’s hiring, changed all that for the 27-year-old Smith in his seventh NFL season.

49ers fans are cheering him now instead of peppering him with boos at every chance.

Smith has completed 100 of 158 passes for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions while getting sacked 16 times.

He is playing for something at last.

“They all continue to get bigger and bigger as the weeks go on,” Smith said. “I really felt like it was a challenge for us to go there and take that next step.”

While Harbaugh didn’t promise an immediate transformation, he is getting it through his preparation and his people skills. He is committed to his players and doesn’t care what anybody outside the 49ers building thinks about him.

No friends, no matter.

“One thing I saw in him that’s very rare – and even David (Akers) and some of the other guys who have been around a lot of other head coaches know – we’ll be eating lunch and he’ll come sit down and eat lunch with us,” Lee said. “Not saying anything bad, but kicker, punter, long-snapper sitting there eating lunch, you normally don’t get (much company), you’re kind of by yourself sometimes. But he’ll come and sit down and talk with you, talk about your family, things other than football. He’s just really involved in our lives and it’s a cool thing to have in a head coach.”

Back in January, left tackle Joe Staley turned up for Harbaugh’s over-the-top introductory news conference at a swanky downtown San Francisco hotel. Staley was thrilled with the hire then, and even more so now.

“I didn’t know him as a coach. I’d just seen him as an outsider, what he was able to do with Stanford and San Diego,” Staley said. “He’s been everything as advertised. He’s been a great head coach for us and we have to continue with this momentum and keep playing good football.”