It is hard to imagine a team that has been more affected by the NFL lockout than our very own San Francisco 49ers. Immediately following the hype of Jim Harbaugh moving a few miles and taking the head coaching position with San Francisco, the players were locked out.
There were no organized team activities, no mini-camps, and no chance to get acquainted with the new coaching staff. The excitement that Harbaugh's hiring and the filling of the coaching staff with top level talent was replaced with anger, grief, and questions.
Now that we are on the verge of getting back to business, there are a lot of questions that remain for our San Francisco 49ers. This morning I am going to address them.
Issue 1: Alex Smith
First off, the lockout may have forced San Francisco's hand to retain Alex Smith as their starting quarterback. All things equal I am sure that the front office would have taken a long look at the possibility of bringing in Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer, Matt Hasselbeck or Kyle Orton. Instead, they handed the playbook off to the enigma that is Alex Smith.
Now, I understand that Harbaugh has confidence in Alex Smith. But, is that confidence overstated? Or, does Harbaugh really think he can develop Smith into a legitimate playoff quarterback? One thing is for sure; if Alex Smith doesn't perform he will be on a short leash because of the selection of Colin Kaepernick in the 2nd round of April's draft. Harbaugh's confidence in Smith could be nothing more than a smokescreen to show the veteran signal caller that San Francisco welcomes him back with open arms.
I like Alex Smith as an individual and believe that he has some of the skills necessary to be a solid NFL quarterback, but he hasn't live up to that #1 pick billing and it is hard to believe that he ever will.
Issue 2: Off-Season Preparation
It could be said that all teams are on a level playing field when it comes to this, but that couldn't be further from the truth. While the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts, among others, have been working out of a playbook that has existed for the better part of the last five years there are other teams who had to learn an entirely new scheme.
During the brief break in the lockout in April several 49er players were able to obtain Jim Harbaugh's playbook. Additionally, it has been reported that "Camp Alex" had a number for former Stanford players on hand. But, that doesn't make up for the lack of preparation and contact with the coaching staff.
With an exception of a couple individuals the entire San Francisco 49er coaching staff was overhauled and they have not had contact with any of the players. This means that you are going to have less than or about two weeks between their initial contact and the first pre-season game; this cannot be good.
The only other team in the NFC West that compares to San Francisco in terms of coaching turnover would be the St. Louis Rams and that is the addition of Josh McDaniels as Offensive Coordinator. While it is going to be difficult for them, especially with a young quarterback; I don't expect those transitional issues we are going to see with San Francisco.
Issue 3: Limited Padded Practices
There isn't a lot of information about how Harbaugh conducted his practices at Stanford. But, sources tell me he was pretty hard ball about it. 14 padded practices in an entire 17 week season is pretty stupid if you ask me.
As Bill Walsh proved the lack of a "padded practice" really isn't a major obstacle for the west coast offense, however, this might mean that Harbaugh needs to change his approach when it comes to conditioning. Now, he is known as a strong willed individual, which we all have to love, but sometimes it makes more sense to just go with the flow.
Issue 4: Transition From College To The Pros
The fact that college coaches going pro don't have a lot of success is by now well documented. You don't have to look much further than Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino and Nick Saben to understand this. You can't argue that it isn't a difficult transition because it is. However, you do have the success that was evidenced by Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and our very own Bill Walsh (RIP). There is no telling whether or not Harbaughs style and mentality will transfer well to the NFL, but you normally don't see half the league jumping at a college coach, so that has to bode well.
He isn't adapting a new scheme, he is bringing this new scheme with him. Stanford ran a pro-style offense, so that transition isn't too great. This has to be considered an issue, but I think we will all be okay with it.
There hasn't been much transition in regards to coaching in the NFC West. The one major transition besides San Francisco is McDaniels taking over as offensive coordinator for St. Louis; an obvious upgrade. However, the 49ers do have over a month to get ready for the regular season if the CBA is settled early next weed, as expected.
Additionally, Harbaugh is utilizing the same type of playbook that he did in Stanford, his coordinators from Palo Alto are joining him as well. This isn't the steep transition that normally takes place from college to the pro's.
However, Harbaugh didn't have the real off-season that most new coaches have, he is bringing in a new scheme for the 49er players and hasn't really conversed with players. Those are three major issues that could affect San Francisco moving forward. The good news is that San Francisco has the most talent in the weakest division in football. They also have the best coaching staff, in terms of experience, in the entire conference.
I don't think it is a lost season for San Francisco, but I do understand why some might think it is. If you are of that group please look further into the details that I mentioned above before coming to that conclusion.