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Make way for the Harbaugh Express

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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Posted May 23, 2011 @ 2:18 p.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

With a lot more time on my hands than usual lately, I've somehow managed to convince myself that my initial 2011 NFC West forecast might have been a bit off the mark.

Appearing to have the most stable situation under center by far in the division thanks to Sam Bradford, who I believe has proved more than worthy of being selected with the first pick in the 2010 draft, I considered the Rams the clear-cut favorite entering the offseason.

It was a prediction that certainly seemed to make sense, with the Cardinals' 2011 starting QB far from being determined, and the Seahawks and 49ers far from being committed to re-signing free-agent QBs Matt Hasselbeck and Alex Smith, respectively.

But the more the NFL clock quietly ticks away the hours, the more likely it has become that both Hasselbeck and Smith will stay put. And the more I think about both of them being back, especially Smith in San Francisco, the less comfortable I have become with my placement of the Rams in the NFC West driver's seat.

Move over, Rams. Make way for the fast-track Niners.

It doesn't matter that the lockout might have put San Francisco behind the eight-ball perhaps more than any other team in the league, considering that it has a new head coach ruling the roost in Jim Harbaugh and new systems on both sides of the ball that figure to take more than a little time to incorporate.

Harbaugh, it would appear, has everything under control, starting with his dogged insistence from the get-go that Smith had a great shot at retaining the starting QB job, despite a disappointing 2010 campaign that didn't sit well at all with Niners Nation.

When the season mercifully ended, sources close to Smith were telling PFW that he couldn't have been more ready for a change of scenery.

But Harbaugh continued to sing Smith's praises. When the league opened for business for what seemed like a few minutes at the end of April, Harbaugh made a point of giving Smith a copy of the new Niners playbook. When Smith's first child, a bouncing baby boy, was delivered on May 11, Harbaugh made a point of sending Smith flowers — after first making a point of checking to see whether the league would be cool with such interaction.

In short, Harbaugh has methodically kept on going the extra yard, crossing every "I" and dotting every "T," grinding away in perfect lockstep with new GM Trent Baalke, taking care of as much business as possible at a time when no business is technically supposed to be going on, continuing to push the envelope.

Six days after the birth of his son, Smith emerged from a long hiatus with the local media at an informal team workout, all but admitting outright that he will be back for a seventh season in the Bay Area.

It would appear Harbaugh has made a believer out of him, too, convincing him to commit to a marriage of convenience that really does seem best equipped to handle the unchartered waters every NFL team has been forced to navigate during the lockout.

Same goes for second-round QB Colin Kaepernick, who has spent some time recently picking the brain of Stanford QB Andrew Luck in an effort to learn more about his new head coach.

"He's very demanding with what he expects," Kaepernick said of Harbaugh in a recent appearance on ESPN's "NFL Live." "At the same time, he's a very laid-back, fun-to-play-for coach.

"That combination has me really excited."

It certainly doesn't hurt that, despite last year's ugly meltdown under Mike Singletary, the Niners have a 9-3 record within the NFC West the past two seasons.

The 2011 NFL schedule, which hopefully won't be altered, also provides extra reason for optimism. Eight of the Niners' first 12 games are against teams that finished below .500, then the team has rematches within the division against three of those teams in the last four games of the regular season.

The Rams, meanwhile, have a killer schedule in comparison, with games against Super Bowl participants Green Bay and Pittsburgh on the road, as well as four other playoff teams (Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Seattle).

Before signing off, though, it behooves me to mention two factors that easily could kill off any chances the Niners might have of staging a successful rebound under Harbaugh: (1) continued mediocrity from supposed No. 1 WR Michael Crabtree; and (2) a vulnerable pass defense that's prone to giving up big plays.

Crabtree remains an enigma with great potential, and while plans call for the team's run game to be the featured attraction on offense, he must provide a much more consistent impact than he has up to now. It wouldn't hurt, either, if it looked like he gave a damn, which hasn't appeared to be the case much of the past two seasons.

As for the NIners' defensive backfield, new secondary coach Ed Donatell figures to really have his work cut out for him with a unit that allowed 11 catches of 40-plus yards last season and appears to have a crying need for a shutdown cornerback.

Of course, that could change in a heartbeat if the Niners decided to really push the envelope and make a serious pitch for free-agent CB Nnamdi Asomugha.

Don't put it past them.

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