At 5-1 the San Francisco 49ers sit atop the NFC West and currently hold the conferences number two-seed behind the undefeated Green Bay Packers. Needless to say the words which preceded the ones that will follow have brought a long missing sense of pride throughout the Bay Area. The team is once again relevant on the NFL landscape, something that even with new head coach Jim Harbaugh taking the over at the end of last season was not expected to transpire for at least a few years. With an abbreviated off season, in which a 136-day lockout hamstrung all 32-teams yet impacted those bringing in new coaching staffs with entirely new schemes and systems a great deal more, the team’s record has been vastly unexpected to say the least.
The NFL has become a league of parity, where any team in any given year can make an impact and turn their franchises fortunes around in what seems like the blink of an eye. Teams such as the 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, and most notably the Detroit Lions, winners of nine-games in a row dating back to last season until San Francisco took them down in their own house last Sunday, have all appeared to have righted their aimless ships. At least through the first third of this season anyway.
Again, parity runs rampant in the NFL and it’s only continuing to increase with each passing season, but I digress. There appears to be something special transpiring in the city by the bay through these first six-weeks and it’s not just the complete makeover of perennial whipping boy Alex Smith.
When owner and team President Jed York made the decision to fire former head-coach Mike Singletary with one game left in the 2010 season he did so with a plan and a vision. The team had toiled away to almost nothing since 2005 when another former front man, Mike Nolan was brought in to restore a once proud franchise its rightful place among the league’s hierarchy. Both of these men failed to do so and quite frankly York, to his credit had seen enough. He was going to go after the man who he wanted to coach his team, a man who as a 15-year quarterback in this league knew a little something about perseverance.
His coaching resume in the college ranks notwithstanding, Harbaugh was not only the team’s upper management, retained coaches and player’s choice, but the cities choice as well. He had already established himself as somewhat of an icon in Palo Alto with his ability to take once lowly Stanford Cardinal program and make them a National Title contender. Coupled with his shown ability to work with quarterbacks in taking Andrew Luck and turning him into a perpetual Heisman trophy candidate, his hire to the 49ers was almost a foregone conclusion.
In returning virtually the same team as last year, one which Singletary led to a 6-10 record, Harbaugh has done the unthinkable. He has his team believing in themselves for the first time in years. The players attest to this and leave nothing open to interpretation as they laud the man seemingly every chance the opportunity presents itself. Most are quick to point out that he is a player’s coach, very much the anti-Singletary and as middle linebacker Navarro Bowman stated this week, “it’s almost like he’s still playing the game and is out there on the field with us each week.”
If you haven’t guessed by now Harbaugh is the difference. There truly is no other explanation as a team who severely underperformed last year is playing completely out of their minds this season. He has taken a former number one overall draft pick in Alex Smith and given him the tools he needs to succeed all while running a game plan which utilizes the quarterback’s strengths. If you want proof all you have to do is look at the numbers. Smith currently has completed 67% of his passes this season, thrown 8 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions, and boasts a passer rating of 95.2%, making him the eighth highest rated signal caller in the league. These stats should not be taken lightly, considering Smith, who has never come close to living up to his billing as a number one pick, is on track to be named the league’s comeback player of the year.
It’s not just the fact that his team has a 5-1 record; it’s the manner in which they are winning these games. A 33-17 win in week one over the Seattle Seahawks only came once the opposing team had cut the game to 19-17 and return man Ted Ginn brought a kickoff and a punt return back for scores. A 13-8 win against the Bengals came on a last minute touchdown run by rookie running back Kendall Hunter. They had a win against the Dallas Cowboys in the bag only to allow it to slip away in 27-24 overtime defeat. They came back from a 23-3 deficit in Philadelphia to pull out a 24-23 victory and then throttled the then 3-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-3 the following week. Last week’s win was the best and most fulfilling the team has had in at least eight-years as Smith, facing a fourth and goal from the Detroit 6-yard line fired a bullet to tight-end Delanie Walker on a quick slant to seal a 25-19 win.
The team is now undefeated on the road, all East Coast games. Winning one game in that time-zone is something the franchise has struggled with mightily in years past. Make no mistake the 49ers are back and with a minimum three-game lead over their rivals in the NFC West are trending to have a first-round bye in the playoffs this January. The very thought of the team accomplishing that feat and hosting a Divisional Playoff game would have seem preposterous at the start of this season, but Harbaugh has a team and an entire city believing again.