Harbaugh, Smith have 49ers making waves around NFL
Jim Harbaugh would prefer people paid as little attention as possible to his improving 49ers. He's an under-the-radar kind of coach – or so he pretends when it comes to all the hype. Thing is, the 3-1 Niners are alone in first place atop the NFC West with a two-game lead over their divisional rivals as they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a key intra-conference game Sunday at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco is unbeaten on the road after a thrilling 24-23 comeback win last weekend at Philadelphia. And now – with a talented, first-place Tampa Bay team coming to town – the Niners have another chance to make a statement about how much this franchise has changed for the better in a matter of months with Harbaugh in charge.
He’s beginning to reveal some personality during this transformation process, too, though Harbaugh strikes everybody as a hard-nosed, football-obsessed coach.
"We just feel a more certain assurance of success when all that's written is written against us. It's when honey words of praise are flowered upon us that we begin to feel exposed before our enemies," said Harbaugh, whose team is a 3-point favorite this week.
"I'm starting to get the feeling like there's too many nice things coming our way here,” Harbaugh continued. “My coach in college said, 'Whenever people start talking nice about you, kick 'em in the shins.' Let's stop. We've got to get back to work here and start concentrating on this football game. Go back to yourselves. Go back to the list of everything that's negative. Play the negative quiz show.”
Basically, Harbaugh doesn't want his players digging themselves. He planned to make that a talking point this week in preparations for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay, also 3-1 and tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South, had a quick turnaround and a cross-country trek after beating Indianapolis 24-17 on Monday night.
The Bucs are riding a three-game winning streak since a 27-20 loss to the unbeaten Lions in their opener. This will be their longest trip yet and first trip to the West Coast since a 21-0 shutout of the Niners last November at Candlestick Park.
As is his custom, Bucs coach Raheem Morris planned to bring his team to the Bay Area on Friday, a day earlier than usual so the players could get acclimated to the time change and recover from a long flight.
Tampa Bay is taking a similar approach to Harbaugh's even after a key win over the Colts.
"In the grand scheme of things, at the time it was the most important game on our schedule," quarterback Josh Freeman said. "Moving on, it's just a 'W' on our standings. It's just another win. I can't really value some wins more than others because that will set you up for a letdown. Success breeds complacency. A lot of teams fall into that trap. They go out and play well one week and then they get too high on themselves and they go out and lay an egg the next week, so we're trying to stay as even-keel as possible."
Quarterback Alex Smith rallied San Francisco from a 17-point halftime deficit and 20 points down in the third quarter to stun Michael Vick and the Eagles in Week 4, going 13 for 17 for 201 yards and touchdown passes to Joshua Morgan and Vernon Davis after hallftime. Smith's 154.3 quarterback rating over the final two quarters was the highest in a second half by any QB this season and the highest by any San Francisco quarterback in a second half since 1993.
game since 1996.
Now, the Niners will try to make sure they don't have another late-game meltdown at home. They blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in their last home game on Sept. 18.
There's also the embarrassment of last year's loss to the Bucs: A 21-0 blanking that came after San Francisco’s only back-to-back victories in 2010. Troy Smith started that one at quarterback over Alex Smith.
It marked Tampa Bay's first win in San Francisco since 1980 and only its second ever in 13 tries, ending an eight-game losing streak in the series.
That's why Harbaugh would rather be cautious.
While his players certainly have adopted that same mindset, they also are enjoying being an upset team.
"Coming into that game, people never gave us a shot," cornerback Carlos Rogers said of facing the "Dream Team" Eagles. "And I told guys the pressure wasn't on us to come out and win, it was all on the Eagles. Looking at the 49ers coming in the preseason, all the talk throughout the lockout, we were supposed to be sorry. There wasn't pressure on us. We were supposed to come in and lose so many games – coach Harbaugh's first year, Alex as the quarterback, all the negative talk."
Even from afar, Morris can sense a change with the 49ers. He isn't expecting a repeat result of 2010's rout, either.
"You can just tell the attitude difference. Everybody has a plan, a direction of what they want to do," Morris said. "Those guys played hard for (Mike) Singletary, but they certainly play hard for Harbaugh. They certainly show a sense of urgency to go out and win this year. And it's no different from what you would get anytime you get a new coach. Harbaugh has done a wonderful job with these guys, and we look forward to going out there and having a good game."
Smith was part of a 3-1 start in 2009, when the Niners wound up dropping their next four games and five of six on the way to an 8-8 finish.
"It feels very different for me, just from the team perspective," Smith said of 2011. "But you're absolutely right, it's the first quarter of the season, if you look at it that way. The first quarter's done, and there are still three quarters left. If you start feeling really good about yourself, it would be crazy.
“It's still very early. We have to get better, absolutely. It's a great start. To get to 3-1 is a great feeling, but we got to get looking forward to Tampa Bay."