by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

What a difference a year can make!

At this time last summer, few had a clue that newly-hired coach Jim Harbaugh would have such an impact on the San Francisco 49ers. Sure, the hire looked promising, as Harbaugh had already established himself as a miracle-worker of sorts in a brilliant four-season run as the coach at Stanford, down the Peninsula. All Harbaugh did in Palo Alto is inherit a woeful program that had posted a 1-11 record in the season before his arrival and turned it into a BCS qualifier within four seasons. Harbaugh’s last Stanford team finished ranked fourth in the country after walloping Virginia Tech, 40-12, in the Orange Bowl.

But, most seemed to be saying to Harbaugh, let’s see you do that in the NFL, especially with what appeared to be a dysfunctional 49ers team that had finished a subpar 6-10 in 2010 and hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2002.

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A year later, Harbaugh has answered any doubters after leading San Francisco to one of the more stunning turnarounds in recent NFL annals, as the 49ers had the NFC West clinched by the starter of December en route to a 13-3 mark and home-field edge in the NFC playoffs. All of the way, in fact, to the NFC title game, where the 49ers took the Giants into overtime before bowing in a bitter 20-17 decision. A couple of late fumbles by returner Kyle Williams set up the last two G-Men scores, including the game-winning field goal in overtime (though in Williams’ defense we mention his long kickoff return that set up the 49ers for the tying field goal deep in the 4th quarter).

No matter those specifics, it looks as if Harbaugh has answered what few critics he might have had before last season. Harbaugh, apparently, knows what he’s doing.

Las Vegas oddsmakers are convinced, rating San Francisco a prohibitive favorite to win the NFC West at 4/11. Harbaugh’s team is also among the top choices to win the NFC (13/2) and the Super Bowl (12/1). Most Nevada wagering outlets have the season-win number for the 49ers at 10.

Not so sound too snarky, however, but let’s see Harbaugh do it again this fall. Although the 49ers are the clear favorite in the NFC West, history tells us that replicating the perfect storm of 2011 and the corresponding 13-3 regular-season mark could be difficult.

In truth, Harbaugh probably didn’t inherit as desperate a situation at Candlestick Park as many seemed to believe. The 49ers had a pre-cooked, playoff-ready defense by the time Harbaugh arrived. San Francisco’s problem in the previous few seasons was that defense-minded HC Mike Singletary (no surprise in his emphasis on the stop until after a Hall-of-Fame career as a linebacker for the Bears) had absolutely no understanding or feel for the offense, putting his various coordinators under needless strain as they tried to replicate a Woody Hayes-style offense that was the fantasy of Singletary. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Harbaugh, however, had an offensive background, and his former life as a QB allowed him to relate to holdover QB Alex Smith (right), who had been victimized by a string of different coaches and coordinators and different offensive philosophies. Harbaugh’s offense would also focus on developing a physical infantry diversion, but Smith also had a bit more direction in the passing and simply leading the team, which was never easy in the previous years.

For year two of his regime, Harbaugh has added some more weapons to the offensive mix that he hopes might push his side over the proverbial hump and into the franchise’s first Super Bowl since the days of Steve Young in 1994. Harbaugh, however, took a while in the offseason before re-committing to QB Smith, even toying with the idea of making a run at Peyton Manning before the ex-Colt signed with Denver.

Harbaugh went offense-offense in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, adding Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins and Oregon RB LaMichael James. The key free-agent additions were also offensive skill weapons, as wideouts Mario Manningham (ex-Giants) and Randy Moss (ex-everywhere), plus beastly ex-Giants RB Brandon Jacobs, have been added to the attack end mix. Re-signing big-play Ted Ginn, Jr. should be a plus for the kick return teams, although Ginn's status .

James and Jacobs, in particular, should reduce the wear and tear on physical RB Frank Gore (right, vs. the Rams last December), who has been prone to injury throughout his career, and in whose limited absences the 49er infantry bogged down a year ago. The rugged, veteran offensive line has a few holes (and pass protection for Smith wasn’t great a year ago, when SF ranked 26th in sacks allowed), but by and large is able to help execute the power-ground element of Harbaugh and o.c. Greg Roman’s version of the West Coast offense. Although James (ankle) and Jacobs (knee0 suffered minor injuries in the second preseason game at Houston, both should be ready to go for the regular-season opener at Green Bay (Jacobs' status a bit more in question).

The “O” could certainly have a more-menacing look this fall, especially with holdover TE Vernon Davis having elevated to All-Pro status. Moss, if nothing else, still has secondary-distorting speed and most sources believe remains a viable deep threat. Third-year WR Michael Crabtree might also be ready for a breakthrough.

The hard-hitting stop unit, which ranked tops in the NFC when allowing barely 300 ypg in 2011, should continue to be robust in d.c. Vic Fangio’s version of the 3-4. And a classic 3-4 it is, with linemen adept at tying up oppositing blockers so a heat-seeking group of active linebackers can fly around the field and make all assortment of plays.

All starters return on the platoon (a rarity in the days of free agency), so we don’t expect much dropoff. It’s worth noting, however, that Fangio’s stop unit was blessed with good health last year, as a only a handful of games were missed due to injury; LB Patrick Willis missed four games, FS Dashon Goldson two, and DE Ray McDonald just one. That’s it.

The stop unit also forced a whopping 38 turnovers last fall that were converted into 108 points. The platoon was not only dominating, but opportunistic with its big-play bent.

Concerns for this fall? Not many, save keeping the lineup healthy and in action as it was for almost the entirety of 2011. It was a bad offseason, however, for OLB Aldon Smith, charged with a DUI in late January and then a stabbing victim in June, so keep an eye on that situation. Goldson, protesting the franchise tag, avoiding offseason workouts and could be a training camp holdout due to contract issues.

Though Aldon Smith’s situation warrants some scrutiny, the LB corps remains dynamic. Especially since one of the more-unsung members of the quartet, LILB NaVorro Bowman (left), might have even outplayed the perennial All-Pro next to him in the alignments, Willis, a year ago. So many 49er defenders were off career years, and seemingly in their primes, that we hardly foresee a dropoff for this platoon unless the injury plague rears its head.

Preseason action has seen a continuation of one of last year’s themes when the 49ers avoided key injuries throughout the 2011 campaign; note that last year’s robust defense saw only seven total starts missed by its first-stringers last fall. Although there have been numerous minor injuries through training camp and the exhibition slate, San Francisco’s charmed life regarding injuries has thus far (knock on wood) carried into 2012.

Lastly, Harbaugh has proven a handicapper’s best friend the past few years, fashioning a 12-5-1 spread mark in his 49er debut last fall. Since midway in the 2008 season at Stanford, Harbaugh’s teams are 31-15-1 vs. the line.

Summary...On paper, the 49ers look a lot better than they did a year ago, but that’s understandable because nobody (except maybe Harbaugh) foresaw last year’s breakthrough. Alex Smith’s emergence as a competent game-manager keyed a more-efficient offense, and now Smith has some real weapons at his disposal after several offseason additions. This looks like a team that shouldn’t regress, and ought to have a very good shot at reaching the Super Bowl (especially since it is hard to identify a serious challenger in the NFC West), but the 49ers are not going to sneaking up anybody this season.

Expect some heavy pointspread premiums to be placed upon the 49ers this fall, and replicating last year’s perfect storm won’t be easy. Nonetheless, expect to see Harbaugh and his scowl on the sidelines come playoff time next January.


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