Smith, Gore hope to fly high in Harbaugh's offense
Ready for some football? You can be pretty sure that Jim Harbaugh is. The new 49ers coach on Friday put his team through its final practice session before Sunday’s season opener against defending NFC West champion Seattle, then declared his Niners fit for action after six summer weeks crammed with introduction, lessons learned and growth as a comprehensive unit.
“I feel like we’re prepared and we’re ready to play,” Harbaugh said. “The biological clock clicked and ticked and now it’s time to play.”
There is a lot of anticipation surrounding the 49ers regarding how well the team will click from the start in the new offensive and defensive systems brought in by Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Harbaugh and his staff didn’t show much during an exhibition season when the 49ers ranked 31st in the NFL in total offense and a distant last in passing offense. Harbaugh insisted this week that his offense wasn’t “vanilla” during the preseason, but San Francisco opponents are certainly in for more than the 49ers showed them on film this summer, with the Seahawks up first.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were known for their creative use of shifting formations, players in motion and different personnel groups last year at Stanford, when the Cardinal scored a school-record 524 points.
The 49ers have shown glimpses of that this summer, but their offense has been mostly veiled in secrecy since training camp finished in August, at which point Harbaugh immediately shut down media access to his practices for all but the first 30 minutes of each session, the minimum mandated by NFL rules.
Harbaugh may not be paranoid, but he is making sure that the offense he has been concocting the past month won’t have any advance trailers before it hits the big screen Sunday at Candlestick Park.
But both Harbaugh and Roman downplayed the suggestion this week that the 49ers have been holding back for the regular season.
“We’re a new group,” Roman said. “I met most of these guys a month ago. We’ve had a shorter time frame to work with, and therefore we’re probably not going to have the volume that you would normally have. I’m not sure we’ve been able to get anything together that is really going to surprise anybody. But you are what you are. We’re going to do everything we can to win the game.”
You can believe that last part. This is a huge opener for the 49ers, who not only have a great opportunity to start off the Harbaugh era right, but also to deal an early blow to a very vulnerable defending NFC West champion.
While Roman will call the plays, Harbaugh said Friday that he will be the one delivering them into the headset of quarterback Alex Smith, who probably won’t mind having an offensive mind/former NFL quarterback like Harbaugh talking in his ear all season during the heat of battle.
“That’s the way we are going to do it,” said Harbaugh, which is about as revealing as he gets when it comes to giving out tactical information about his team.
Expect Harbaugh and the 49ers to become much revealing starting Sunday.
Gore: Opposing defenses “better be ready”
Running back Frank Gore, who will continue to be San Francisco’s offensive catalyst in Harbaugh’s system, told NinersDigest this week that this is the best he has felt about San Francisco’s offense since Norv Turner was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2006.
That was the season Gore rushed for a franchise-record 1,695 yards and Smith became the first – and only – QB in 49ers history to take every offensive snap in a season.
Gore and Smith have remained mainstays in the offense since then – with Smith taking a few tumultuous turns due to injuries and personnel changes – but they have never had as many offensive weapons around them as they do this year to share attention from opposing defenses.
“(Other) teams better be ready,” Gore said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons, and they’re going to see some real good stuff. We’ve always had talent on the offensive side of the ball, but not like we have it now. And now we really have somebody to show us how it’s done. It should be real good for us all.”
And when Gore says all, he’s talking about three Pro Bowl talents and several other young performers who would like to get to that level someday.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Gore is surrounded by more Pro Bowl talent at the skill positions in tight end Vernon Davis and newcomer receiver Braylon Edwards. The 49ers also welcomed the return this week of receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed the preseason but says he’s ready to play against the Seahawks.
The 49ers can complement those front-liners with other dynamic offensive components such as wide receivers Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr., tight end Delanie Walker and young running backs Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter.
“They’re going to have a hard time stopping us all,” Gore said.
Crabtree could get chance to contribute
Based on what he saw from Crabtree this week, when the third-year veteran practiced every day without limitations and had no setbacks, Harbaugh said Friday that he believes the team’s leading wideout from 2010 is ready to contribute in the season opener.
Crabtree already was singing the same tune a day earlier.
“I’m full speed,” Crabtree said on Thursday during his first interview with the media since injuring his left foot in June. “I’m all good. I’ve been here before. This is nothing new to me. I’m ready and focused. It feels like a game today.”
Crabtree missed training camp and all four exhibition games for the third consecutive year with a broken bone in his foot that required surgery at the end of July. Crabtree suffered the injury June 8, the first day of informal lockout workouts organized by Smith. When pain persisted, Crabtree went for an X-ray, which revealed the break.
However, unlike Crabtree’s previous broken foot, which occurred in his last year at Texas Tech, Crabtree did not require a pin to set the bone. He said the recovery time from the latest break was relatively short and he will be outfitted with an orthopedic insert in his new Nike cleats, which Crabtree called "pretty sweet."
Crabtree led all San Francisco wide receivers last year with 55 receptions for 741 yards, one catch fewer than Davis, who led the team with 914 yards and seven touchdowns receiving.
Crabtree returned from the physically unable to perform list last week to find himself in the middle of a heated competition at wide receiver that includes Edwards, Ginn and Morgan, who had 44 receptions for 698 yards last season. Crabtree already has made an impression, which could earn him a role in Sunday’s game plan.
"He's a very gifted individual, so we hope he can be out there," Roman said.
Smith ready to roll
San Francisco added Edwards to its offensive arsenal in August, and like many players this summer he has been feeling his way around in Harbaugh’s new offense while attempting to develop a rapport with Smith.
The 49ers were far from impressive with Smith at the controls during a 2-2 preseason. But other players have shared Gore’s excitement this week that the offense is ready for a breakout once the real games begin.
A feeling around the team prevails that – despite the late start installing their system due to the NFL lockout and the slow start during the preseason – San Francisco’s offense could be better than many envision.
That offense showed positive signs the last time it was in action. The first unit was crisp moving down the field on touchdown drives during San Francisco’s first two offensive possessions in last week’s exhibition finale at San Diego, and the 49ers are looking to carry that momentum into the season.
Nobody is more eager to see that happen than Smith, whose latest career turn finds him getting yet another chance to establish himself as the team’s starter and revive his career this year in Harbaugh’s offense.
“This starts it off,” Smith said. “Hopefully we’ve got them on their heels and guessing what we are going to be doing, what we might have for them. Now it’s the regular season and it’s time to roll, and we’re going to be rolling.”
49ers quick hits
--- Last year, running back Michael Robinson – San Francisco’s fourth-round draft pick in 2006 and a special teams standout – latched on with the Seahawks after getting released by the 49ers during the final roster cutdown in a move that shocked several 49ers players. Robinson knew the entire 49ers game plan against Seattle and used his knowledge to the utmost. Robinson also knew all the 49ers special teams calls, and what he relayed to his new teammates certainly had an impact in Seattle’s shocking 31-6 victory that set the tone for San Francisco’s disappointing 2010 season.
--- Harbaugh this week complimented Seattle coach Pete Carroll's ability to get his players to digest a large volume of information. "The thing that's always impressed me about Pete Carroll teams is the amount of scheme that they get coached and understood by their players and an answer for just about anything you do both offensively and defensively."
--- Harbaugh was asked if he liked Carroll. "Somewhat," he said. "I wouldn't say that I'm friends with any other head coaches in the National Football League, other than my brother (John in Baltimore). We're trying to beat them. So no, we don't socialize nor are we trying to be friends with them because we're trying to beat them. But I respect him and I like him."
--- The last quarterback to start for the Indianapolis Colts other than Peyton Manning? Jim Harbaugh. “That was a long time ago,” the 49ers coach said. “What 1997? That is amazing. That's just a testament to the greatness of Peyton Manning. My goodness.”
--- The 49ers’ final roster move this week came Tuesday when the team released outside linebacker Antwan Applewhite and then picked up inside linebacker Tavares Gooden to replace him. It leaves San Francisco with only three outside linebackers – Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks and rookie Aldon Smith – heading into Sunday’s game. Fangio said he would not be using any inside linebackers on the outside. "(I'm) not comfortable with three outside linebackers, but we felt it was worth the gamble to upgrade our special teams over the insurance of having a fourth outside linebacker," Fangio said.
--- The 49ers attempted to pick up two other young veterans this week. San Francisco put in a waiver claim on Patriots cornerback Darius Butler, but he went to Carolina. The Niners also tried to claim Patriots tight end Lee Smith, but he went to Buffalo.
--- The 49ers showed no interest this week in former Jaguars quarterback David Garrard, despite the high grade Harbaugh assigned to the former sixth-round pick coming out of the draft when Harbaugh was an assistant with the Raiders. Harbaugh continues to assert that he’s OK with two rookies in Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien backing up Smith.
--- San Francisco’s depth chart entering Sunday’s game lists two starters at split end, Ted Ginn Jr., "or" Braylon Edwards. "We feel that Ted Ginn and Braylon Edwards are both starter caliber and we list them that way," Harbaugh said. Edwards could take over the job by himself once he knows the offense better, and don’t be surprised if he gets the starting nod over Ginn on Sunday.
--- By the way, for those who haven’t noticed yet, Edwards switched his uniform number this week from 81 back to his traditional 17. The last few owners of 81 for the 49ers included troubled wide receivers Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant, not to mention first-round bust Rashaun Woods.