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Old 12-18-2011, 11:01 AM   #1
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Default San Francisco carries a blueprint for success

San Francisco carries a blueprint for success

By Ralph N. Paulk
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, December 18, 2011

The San Francisco 49ers had been a model of excellence for nearly two decades, so it was difficult to ignore the five-time Super Bowl champions' downward spiral toward mediocrity.

The 49ers were an organization that did most everything right in stringing together 16 consecutive seasons with a least 10 wins from 1983 to 1998. They outwitted most everyone on draft day and manipulated trades to strengthen obvious weaknesses.

The late Bill Walsh was the architect for a franchise that later thrived amid changes from coaches George Seifert and Steve Mariucci to quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young.

The 49ers surrendered their place among the NFL elite after losing 31-6 to eventual Super Bowl champion, Tampa Bay, in their last playoff appearance in 2002. They simply couldn't recapture the magic or the swagger that made them perennial title contenders.

But the 49ers are back this season, having clinched a playoff berth by winning the NFC West. Upset last week by Arizona, they are looking to regain their focus when they face the Steelers (10-3) on Monday at Candlestick Park.

"Our team's won the division. You're the hunted now," said coach Jim Harbaugh. "You're not the hunter as much. You've got a target on your back. People want to beat you.

"Not saying it wasn't like that before, but that expectation that bar has risen. We're in a position where we control our destiny in terms of making the playoffs."

Rising up

It's difficult to fathom that the 49ers endured a stretch of eight consecutive non-winning seasons. Mike Singletary teased the Bay Area faithful two years ago in leading the 49ers to an 8-8 campaign, but he was fired before the 2010 regular-season finale after he delivered only five wins.

"We need to figure out how we can get into the playoffs and how we can start competing for Super Bowls," San Francisco president Jed York said shortly after firing Singletary last December.

The 49ers didn't look far or hard to find Singletary's successor in Harbaugh, the former Stanford coach.

In Harbaugh, San Francisco found a coach with Singletary's fiery passion. Just asks Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, who chased down Harbaugh earlier this season after the obligatory post-game handshake went awry.

If nothing else, Harbaugh epitomizes the 49ers renewed toughness. They rely heavily on a punishing ground game and the league's No.1-rank rush defense prerequisites of their glory days.

"This is the ultimate team game, so a coach gets too much credit," said former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach Jon Gruden, an analyst for "Monday Night Football." "The 49ers are better on defense and Harbaugh has done an excellent job of managing all of his personnel.

"I inherited a pretty good team (at Tampa Bay). We were blessed with some veteran players, and that's the situation in San Francisco, too."

Harbaugh had a sprinkling of talent including running back Frank Gore and linebacker Patrick Willis. Singletary couldn't get over the hump, in part, because there were far too many holes to fill.

Also, the 49ers were lacking leadership. Quarterback Alex Smith was slow to progress, mostly because of an injury-riddled offensive line and a combative relationship with an unforgiving Singletary.

But Harbaugh's patience, particularly with his quarterback, has helped invigorate a franchise that has 10 wins for the first time in nine seasons.

"Jim has given Alex Smith the opportunity to go out there and play with confidence," Gruden said. "Quietly, some of the 49ers young players like (linebacker NaVorro) Bowman (Penn State) and wide receiver Michael Crabtree have arrived."

High expectations

The Steelers and 49ers last met on "Monday Night Football" in 2003. San Francisco won, 30-14, but stumbled to a 7-9 finish, which was the first of six straight losing seasons.

Harbaugh, a coach of the year candidate, has retooled the 49ers. Yet, Gore remains the workhorse on offense and Willis is the anchor of a stingy defense that has allowed the fewest points and fewest rushing yards in the NFL.

"It says a lot about a team that can have success with a new coach," Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said. "It points out the humility of the players and their willingness to accept and believe in what the coach is doing."

No one, of course, believes in the system more than Harbaugh. While most everyone wanted to chase Smith out of town, Harbaugh never wavered in his support for a quarterback whose confidence was seemingly shattered.

"I think (Smith) can make every throw," said "Monday Night Football" analyst Ron Jaworski. "He knows the scheme, and he knows what to expect. He's not making the risky throws."

So far, Smith has completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,565 yards and 15 touchdowns. While his 91.5 percent passer rating isn't off the chart, his five interceptions reflect his growth and potential.

Like Harbaugh, Smith has higher expectations.

"We've left a lot of points on the field in the red zone, especially these last few weeks," Smith said. "No question we need to improve, and we will."

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and safety Ryan Clark said the 49ers' abrupt reversal of fortune can be contributed mostly to Harbaugh.

"I think (Harbaugh) brought a clear personality and culture, a winning one -- that is fundamental at its base," Tomlin said. "They don't beat themselves. They take care of the football."

"What the coach has done is given them a blueprint for success," Clark said.

The 49ers are a more disciplined team with Harbaugh. The proof is the numbers, particularly a league-best giveaway/takeaway differential of plus-21.

"They are just building a good, solid, fundamental outfit over there, and you have to tip your hat, not only to Coach Harbaugh but to everyone involved for what they have done," Tomlin said.

The 49ers are mired in their worse stretch of the season. They've lost two of three including a 16-6 defeat to John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens. But the most troubling loss was to underdog Arizona, a loss Harbaugh didn't take in stride.

"We've got to man up," he said. "With broad shoulders, you take accountability ... find each and every way to improve. Not just coming in and saying, 'Hey, we're going to try to do better.' "

Ralph N. Paulk can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923 .

Read more: San Francisco carries a blueprint for success - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbur...#ixzz1guGiMXR7
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Old 12-18-2011, 11:37 AM   #2
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Default Re: San Francisco carries a blueprint for success

Harbaugh is doing a great job there. They make few mistakes and stick to a game plan. The key like all others is turnovers. 49er's don't turn the ball over and amazingly they lost to the Cards winning that battle.
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Old 12-18-2011, 11:41 AM   #3
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Default Re: San Francisco carries a blueprint for success

Quote:
Originally Posted by Whodis View Post
Harbaugh is doing a great job there. They make few mistakes and stick to a game plan. The key like all others is turnovers. 49er's don't turn the ball over and amazingly they lost to the Cards winning that battle.
Good job thus far. But his 9'ers will lose Monday Night, and i'd be surprised if they make it past round one of the playoffs. Their division isn't the greatest, and the challenge we give them will really be a testimony to their strength.
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