Niners not fooling around

Posted Jan. 10, 2011 @ 1:47 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

That was fast! And, the way we hear it, that's a good thing.

Sources on the streets of San Francisco and around the league are telling PFW that the speed and urgency that Niners president/CEO Jed York and new GM Trent Baalke displayed in pursuit of fan favorite Jim Harbaugh to become the team's 18th head coach couldn't have been received any better.

Numerous onlookers tabbed Harbaugh, a local product who drew well-deserved praise for turning Stanford into a collegiate powerhouse, as a "no-brainer" as the Niners' best choice to replace Mike Singletary, whose embarrassing meltdown cried out for a major move that would quickly appease a very frustrated fan base.

"It was the best situation for him," a pro scout said of Harbaugh, who we hear was never crazy about the idea of leaving the Bay Area, where he has established the firmest of roots. "It (the NFC West) is a weak division, and he has a good talent base and a good team, except for the quarterback."

It didn't take long for critics to question whether Harbaugh's collegiate success would transfer smoothly into the NFL scheme of things. But the sudden, jaw-dropping success of fellow NFC West coach Pete Carroll — who also left a successful collegiate operation (at USC) and now has the Seahawks making an unlikely move in the playoffs after having stunned the Saints on Saturday — has the locals even more excited about Harbaugh's hiring.

The moment the Niners' miserable season ended, York and Baalke, who had yet to be officially promoted, knew they had to hit a home run in the court of public opinion. Getting Harbaugh signed, sealed and delivered in a week's time was their goal from the get-go, and they doggedly went to work to achieve that goal, by all accounts winning Harbaugh over with a very genuine connection over the course of a six- to eight-hour meeting last Wednesday.

"There was no hesitation in their approach," said one well-connected team source. "They wanted an offensive mind, identified a target (Harbaugh) and wasted no time getting a deal done. Harbaugh owned Pete Carroll in college. Harbaugh's brother (John) worked with Steve Spagnuolo in Philadelphia. There is a strong knowledge base of the division in place.

"What you will see is a Pittsburgh Steelers-type 'jumbo' offense that relies on the strength of its run game. I don't think the defense was broken, and I don't see a lot changing on that side of the ball. They run a base 3-4 front — whether it is Greg Manusky or (Stanford defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio running it, it's fundamentally the same system.

"Being able to keep continuity on that side of the ball will serve the organization well. It's the offense that needed the most attention, and that is Harbaugh's specialty."

Our Niners sources tell us Fangio, who spent 24 years as an NFL assistant before joining Harbaugh this past season, is a strong favorite to join Harbaugh as his defensive coordinator. But we also hear Harbaugh will seriously consider more than a few holdovers from Singletary's staff, with D-line coach and interim head coach Jim Tomsula, who is considered a Niners lifer by York, and RB coach Tom Rathman at the top of the list.

"There were some good coaches on that (49ers) staff," said one longtime NFL talent evaluator. "I don't know that they need to break up the whole band. A lot of times what you see in the NFL: Teams have a great drummer and guitarist and they can make great music; they just don't have the lead singer."

But the consensus among the people we talked to is that Harbaugh has what it takes to lead the Niners back to respectability.

"Pete Carroll came in from college and won the division," said one league exec. "Now, he was not even .500, but they got hot here at the end and pulled it off.

"The Niners have the talent to win that division easy. The one problem they have, that they have not been able to fix since Steve Mariucci left, is the quarterback. It's a QB-driven league, and they need to solve that problem.

"I'm not saying they have to run out and draft one with their top pick. There are a lot of different avenues to draw from. Hell, the last one they had (Jeff Garcia) that won for them was not even drafted."

Another league observer likes Harbaugh's chances for quick success, although he did acknowledge obstacles at the pro level that could prove to be more than a little challenging.

"The NFL is about matchups, and Harbaugh clearly understands that," the observer said. "He played and coached in the NFL, and he comes from a strong coaching family.

"That said, there is a big learning curve to overcome to be successful. He has been out of the league the last seven years. He may have been following it closely, watching his brother, but he has not been studying the players and scheming against the league.

"The reason NFL coordinators tend to be more successful than college coaches is because they have a better familiarity with the league and its personnel and they know what matchups to exploit. They have a better base to work from and countless game plans they have drawn up."

Nonetheless, the former first-round pick, who joins his brother John as the first pair of brothers to serve as head coaches in the NFL, was commended for preparation that allowed him to stick in the league for 15 years as a quarterback and a coaching career that he began pursuing part time under his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky, after having been released by the Chicago Bears midway through his professional career.

"He's a grinder," said an executive who knows the family well. "He works at it. He's been around the game all his life. ... He'll win big, I think. If they can't find a quarterback, he might even be able to still play!"