Can new GM Trent Baalke manage what's coming?Baalke has done well in identifying talent and a fine job holding things together as operational chief since the 49ers cut ties with former general manager Scot McCloughan last year, but now comes the real test. Beginning today, when waivers begin for the 2011 league year at 4:01 p.m. New York time, the NFL will face weeks of frenzy regarding personnel and roster change like it never has experienced before. Baalke hasn't had to preside over something like that, and there are a lot of veteran GMs out there who know the tricks of the trade and are eager to pounce on the inexperience of others to get the players they want and need in the free-for-all to acquire talent. At the very least, Baalke must make sure he and the team are not taken advantage of in the upcoming transactions involving the 49ers.
Can Jim Harbaugh coach?To be sure, the performance of Baalke and Harbaugh will be as consequential to the 49ers in 2011 as anything done by any player they put on the field. Harbaugh has been an unmitigated success as a head coach so far, building championship college programs from the bottom up at the University of San Diego and Stanford while developing a reputation for molding quality quarterbacks along the way. Gee, anybody think the 49ers could use a guy like that? That's why hiring Harbaugh was considered such a coup for the Niners when it happened, but now the harsh reality of trying to change the culture of a losing franchise begins. As everybody knows (see: Dennis Erickson, for your latest 49ers example), success as a college head coach doesn't always translate into success at the NFL level. What Harbaugh really has going for him – in addition to the coaching promise and prowess he's displayed so far– is that he knows what's he's getting into after 15 years in the league as a gritty, successful quarterback. Harbaugh has seen and done it all in the NFL, but now it will be coming at him from a different perspective.
Does Alex Smith stand a chance?Before the unique circumstances of recent months that have kept him with the franchise, it was reasonable to believe that Smith already has had his last chance with the 49ers. But here he is again, six years after the Niners made him the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 draft, getting yet another chance to establish himself as the team's starting quarterback. But how long will the leash be this time? Despite what he has working for him, Smith in reality has more working against him, and he'll be looking over his shoulder at howling fans, discerning coaches and possible successors every time he flubs up. And with Smith, who never has been a strong training camp performer, you can be sure some of those susceptible moments are coming.
Can Vic Fangio make the 3-4 work in San Francisco?The 49ers have been trying to make that happen since they made Mike Nolan their head coach in 2005. Three head coaches later, San Francisco still has yet to field a winning defense. Nolan had the right idea but not the right personnel when he got started. Mike Singletary's mishandling of his offense in particular and his team in general doomed the defense last year, when that unit was set up for its best chance at success with returning starters at every position. Now it's a new start under Fangio, who will run the same 3-4 scheme but a different version that will put more emphasis on constantly harassing quarterbacks. Fangio's system requires legitimate pass rushers from the edge and a secondary that can cover long enough for them to get there, and those were the two specific weaknesses last year of a San Francisco defense that was strong in almost every other area.
Can the 49ers finally make the playoffs?Sure they can. Any team that plays in the NFC West can, simply by winning the NFL's weakest division. That has become a joke around the league the past two years, but it's a true and accurate statement. The 49ers are as good as any NFC West team, if not better, on paper. Now that the slate has been wiped clean with a new GM, new coach, new coaching staff, new outlook, and several new personnel changes still to come in the next few weeks, the 49ers have a prime opportunity to win now even as they build for the future.
But they have several consequential questions to answer first. And the answers start coming today.