After years of losing, the new regime finally has the 49ers looking smart. With an "S."
So far, Harbaalke definitely has a better ring to it than McNolan. After a flurry of moves over the past week, 49ers fans are finding themselves buoyed by the kind of optimism that bordered on completely irrational during the reigns of Terry Donahue, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Scot McCloughan and Mike (Fizzical with an "F") Singletary. Here's a list of key players the 49ers have lost and added since the lockout ended (and by "key" I mean guys who were/are at least second on the depth chart at their position):
Free Agents Lost:
Lists! Lists! What do they mean? We won't be able to really judge for a couple months or so, but Harbaugh and Baalke look like they were ready -- check that -- happy to shed a lot of the big names whose production led to woefully few victories in San Francisco. Of course, one could lay the same label on Alex. But I'm not going to, even though the guy's had six years to figure things out and you can count the amount of great drives he's led on two hands. And it's all because of Harbaugh.
After covering a few Stanford home games last season (including once when I stood 10 feet away from Harbaugh as he gave a pregame speech outside the tunnel on a rainy afternoon, and Harbaugh got so fired up he slipped and fell face-first into the mud, bounced back up in about 0.02 seconds and continued to get in the faces of his players, many of whom were trying to suppress smiles and/or laughter), watching his family's story on Real Sports (try to watch it if you haven't already -- it's one of the better segments the show's had all year), and seeing how utterly horrendous the previous coaching staff turned out to be, giving Smith another year somehow doesn't sound as insane as it probably should. To me, anyway.
Big Names, Big Salaries ... Big Deal
A lot of name value went out the door over the past couple weeks, but besides Aubrayo Franklin, who among the ship-jumpers are the 49ers really going to miss? Nate Clements? A safety who was making an elite cornerback's salary who could barely cover everyone besides -- strangely -- Larry Fitzgerald. Takeo Spikes? He sure loves hearing his own voice (and his comments about player organized workouts like "Camp Alex" didn't make him seem like he'd be a 49er for long), and he has a huge neck and can rack up some tackle numbers, but he's also a 34-year-old who's never played on the winning team. Manny Lawson? Another ex-49er gunning for a broadcasting spot after his playing career, Lawson was a great special-teamer but his performance on defense never matched his draft position. David Baas? He was only considered a target because after Singletary effectively ended Eric Heitmann's career with his ridiculous nutcracker drill, meaning the Niners needed a center.
After giving several of their fans minor coronary episodes due to their lack of free agent activity, the 49ers spent the last week stealthily attacking free agency with the opposite tact their NFC West opponents chose. Instead of eye-catching trades and passing out long-term deals to more famous free agents, the 49ers went for depth and bargains, like the famous (mostly for the wrong reasons as of late) Braylon Edwards, who needs to effectively become a top-10 wide receiver to make the maximum possible in his deal -- and that's only $3.5 million for one season if he catches 90 balls and makes the Pro Bowl. And the Niners still have their biggest name and best player, Patrick Willis.
Another interesting thing this off-season has been how the 49ers have targeted certain Pac-10 players. They brought in five undrafted free agents from the Pac-10, including two Standford offensive lineman (Chase Beeler and Derek Hall) and one of Stanford's 117 tight ends (Konrad Reuland). Jeremiah Masoli stole a laptop at Oregon before fleeing for Ole Miss, but Harbaugh's actually giving him a shot to be this year's Nate Davis. Ronald Johnson was a great 6th round selection out of USC, a WR who already runs routes with precision. The one Pac-10 guy Harbaugh doesn't seem impressed with is former Trojan Taylor Mays, an impulse selection by Singletary in last year's second round who's heavy on muscle mass and light on coverage skills. You have guys who are on the trading block, and you have guys you make available by emailing every other team in the league with a subject line that says, "Barely used safety, asking for middle-round draft choice OBO."
And then there's Aldon Smith, who didn't play in the Pac-10 but looks so explosive early on that Jevon Kearse is in danger of losing his nickname. He's a little raw, but with his wingspan and athleticism he's a guy who could have been drafted in the top 10 in the NBA Draft.
With nothing more than an abbreviated training camp and some preseason games to implement new, modern, far more complicated systems than were run by the team last year, the chances of Harbaugh immediately breaking completely away from the 49ers' culture of losing that's been cultivated over the past decade or so are slim. But for the first time in the York era, there at least seems like a plan besides "draft some guys, talk up how talented they are and hope they'll magically come together one year and surprise everyone."
Someone take this Harbaalke Kool-Aid away from me, I have to drive later.