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Harbaugh taking Niners on long, hard road to respectability

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On the other end of the phone was a man who wanted nothing more than to hang up, and get on with the business of preparing for the Philadelphia Eagles and continuing to build his program.

Jim Harbaugh is one of five first-year coaches off to a 2-1 start, operating in an environment that most folks -- this one included -- thought would be backbreaking for the new guys. Without an offseason program or minicamps or OTAs, Harbaugh, Hue Jackson, Pat Shurmur, Jason Garrett and Mike Munchak have found a way to scratch out wins.

And the fact that Harbaugh has little interest in doing a post-mortem on the process might just tell you a little bit about how his 49ers have gotten there.

"I'm not satisfied with where we're at," the coach said, walking to practice with the team sequestered in Youngstown, Ohio, the hometown of owner Jed York, this week to manage the circumstance of having back-to-back East Coast games.

"It sounds like you're writing a story about what we did in the offseason, and having us pat ourselves on the back for the job we did," Harbaugh continued. "And I'm not interested in doing that."

Here's the truth: The highest NFL coaching post that Harbaugh had previously held was as a quality-control assistant in Oakland, and he imported many of his Stanford assistants to populate his staff in San Francisco. Both his 49ers coordinators were down the road in Palo Alto with him in 2010, and they inherited a group of players who'd been through plenty of turnover in the past five years.

To put it simply, a lot of change was converging in one place. That made Harbaugh's challenges exponentially different than those of Garrett or Leslie Frazier, who served as interim coaches in their current spots last year, or even someone like Pat Shurmur, who was walking into a new situation but had a lot of like-minded people already running the show before his arrival.

Now, go back and read again what Harbaugh said. And hear him continue: "We're not where we want to be. We're not 3-0. That's where we'd like to be. Where we're at, we're trying to take the approach that we want today to be better than yesterday, and tomorrow be better than today. That's the mantra. That's how we're judging success."

Coach speak? Sure it is. But in this case, the way it's been carried out, it seems to be working for Harbaugh. His players can tell you why -- every day has been hard and, as a result, keeping the focus on getting through each of those has accelerated progress. Boil it down, and it's a message of efficiency.

"Ask anyone about our camp," said new 49ers safety Donte Whitner. "We had long, hard, tough three-hour practices every day, in full pads as much as we could be. But that's how you get better. You work. You grind. We can't take it easy with all this new stuff to learn, the system, the coaches. He wasn't gonna let up.

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"A big saying around here is that 'The only way you build toughness in football is through hard work every day.' He said that every day. And we worked, and got the job done, and built on that."

Getting a rollicking win on opening day against Seattle and grinding out a tough one in Cincinnati last week isn't exactly enough to stamp the Niners as a contender. But it does show the toughness is growing and that the players are buying what Harbaugh and his staff are selling.

There are some advantages that staff had in coming from college. There, of course, Harbaugh and Co. had to work under the NCAA's 20-Hour Rule, which requires coaches to be effective under time restraints. And at the level, the coaches had to be teachers, too, something that Whitner says has served the team well.

"The coaches have done a great job of teaching," Whitner continued. "Sometimes, at this level, you have coaches that aren't great teachers. The guys here can show you why the things we're doing are the way they are, so we get a full understanding of it. ... Having a staff full of teachers, and a team full of players that understand what we're doing, the sky's the limit. It's been teaching, teaching, teaching here."

As for making the most out of his time, Harbaugh spent much of camp splitting his 90-man roster in two during team periods, and running that work on two different fields as, in effect, separate practices, to double the amount of reps players would get. And the resourcefulness isn't limited to the field.

Whitner says Harbaugh often uses lunch to sit with players and learn more about them. Center Jonathan Goodwin explains that the intensity carries over to the meeting room, where a few weeks back the coach demonstrated a hook slide, going to the floor to the amazement of his team.

"He's very energetic," Goodwin continued. "That one got a big laugh, but he was dead serious. I just hope Alex (Smith) has the technique down."

The point is that there is always something getting done. Goodwin, a 10-year vet, said this camp "was one of my toughest ones. A lot of hitting. And at the time, as players, we were like, 'Whoa...' Hopefully, it pays off in the long run."

See? One step, then the next, then the next. When I was asking about summer, I might as well have been trying to lure Harbaugh into a discussion on the 1995 AFC title game.

For Garrett in Dallas, flipping the apple cart has worked, cutting into the team's talent base and changing its character. Munchak has emphasized fundamentals and toughness on both lines in Tennessee. Jackson has instilled swagger in Oakland, and Shurmur's steady approach has worked for the Browns.

Harbaugh's way is easier to explain. At one point, he allows that the time without the players gave the coaches time to work on "scheme and troubleshooting and watching and evaluating everything we had to do." But in the next breath, he has no interest in expounding on that work. Seems that he thinks that practice wouldn't be so productive.

"I have no profound statement here," he explained. "How much did the lost time hurt? It hurts the players and the coaches not to have an offseason. How much? I don't concern myself with that or try to gauge that. I'm only interested in how to make the future the best I can."

Finishing another brief thought, he quickly transitioned and said, "OK, gotta go to practice." As you might expect, he didn't have another minute to waste.

The Falcons didn't plan to start the 2011 season at 1-2, after winning 13 games last year. But they did plan for it.

How does that even make sense? Start with the first draft class assembled and developed by GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. Those guys -- Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Thomas DeCoud, Harry Douglas and Kroy Biermann among them - won 11 and 13 games in 2008 and 2010, and in between, in 2009, they grinded out a 9-7 mark by winning three straight at season's end when the playoffs were out of the question.

"Dealing with challenges, ostensible adversity, our players pull together. This is a very confident team," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said on Wednesday night in the midst of a scouting trip out West. "It doesn't matter what happens to them, they believe good things are gonna happen, and that's a testament to the men in that locker room. No one's moaning. They understand their jobs, and know their roles."

The Falcons are 0-2 on the road, with losses in Chicago and Tampa, and even their one win came after the Eagles lost Mike Vick. But even as Dimitroff and Smith have stabilized the franchise, there's also reason to believe the team is going to make leaps in the coming weeks.

First, there's the centerpiece offseason acquisition, Julio Jones. And make no mistake about this one, the Falcons couldn't be happier with the young receiver, who's been a sparkplug for the infusion of explosiveness Dimitroff sought in the offseason.

The trouble to this point has been different. There have been some breakdowns in the fundamentals that are the foundation of that program, something that's important, and fixable. It means running the ball better (Atlanta ranks 19th in the league), doing a better job protecting Ryan, curbing the missed tackles, and, above all else, getting back to what was responsible for the remarkable turnaround back in 2008.

"We have one hell of a staff, one hell of a head coach, and guys are gonna figure out where the challenges are and keep cleaning things up," said Dimitroff. "We have a very smart, experienced staff, and I'm very encouraged by the talent here. There's always going to be frustration when you lose games. But I have the utmost faith in the men we have to accomplish what we need to game-to-game."

The GM also thinks, being in a tough spot, Ryan's the right quarterback to dig the guys out. "I think Matt is one of the most physically and mentally tough guys in this league," he said, and pointed to the constant pressure Ryan has endured since being anointed Mike Vick's successor as Atlanta's franchise.

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Ryan, like everyone else in the building, faces the fact that getting out of this 1-2 hole won't be enough. Not anymore. From the outside, the Falcons will be judged on how they play in January, after one-and-dones in 2009 and '11. But Dimitroff promises, while the goals are high, the steady perspective of those on the inside is actually pretty different.

"The Green Bay game was a bad ending to what we thought was a very good season," said Dimitroff. "There's no question that, in the offseason, we contemplated what went wrong. But I say this with honesty -- it's not like we dwelled on it. Sometimes, you think about something like that, but it's not the end-all, be-all driving force in the development of this team. What we did realize is to be a significant player in this league you have to be able to go tit-for-tat with the offensive powerhouses.

"It's something you see that you need to be successful, and that was a reminder. But we have not talked about it for a while. I've seen it written as a start of something, and I don't see it that way."

But he can expect to hear about it plenty. The Falcons get the Packers a week from Sunday.

In Lovie Smith's early years, I remember how obvious it was that the Bears defense seemed to be a different one when the oft-nicked-up Mike Brown was healthy. A half-decade later, a protégé of his -- Chris Harris -- appears to be part of a similar trend in Chicago.

In Week 1, the Bears held the Falcons offense to two field goals and created three turnovers. Since, with Harris down with a hamstring injury, the Saints and Packers have scored a total of 57 points on Chicago and the Bears have created just three turnovers in eight quarters.

Similarly, the Bears were 28th, 21st and 17th in the three years Harris spent away in Carolina, after being traded to the Panthers and before being traded back. Chicago finished fifth in 2006, the final year of Harris' first stint there, and ninth in 2010, as he returned. You always have to be careful not to read too much into things like this, but it certainly recalls what the numbers were like around Brown.

And I wanted to see what Harris thought when I raised the comparison. "Maybe a little bit," he responded. "We've had different combinations of safeties in there, but everybody has their faults in those losses. There may be a little reason to that."

For obvious reasons, Harris was a little skittish about citing his absence in any kind of cause-and-effect examination of the Bears' uneven play. But he was flattered by the idea that, maybe, he's become what Brown once was for Smith and Co.

"When Mike was in there, he was the leader, the voice, the captain, that emotional leader a good defense needs," Harris said. "He was very smart, a guy I looked up to. Whatever Mike did, I mimicked. He did it right, and I said back then, 'I'm gonna try to be like that guy.'"

And that's just what he's become. "When I got here as a rookie, Mike was in his sixth year, he was the older guy in the room. Now, I'm the oldest guy in the room, going into my seventh year. That's the nature of it, when guys have questions, I'm that guy."

He wants to stay in that role, in Chicago, and that much is certain. After he was jettisoned in 2007, Harris never could sell his house, and moved right back in when he came back to the Bears, just as he was getting an offer on it. He hardly needed a playbook when he came back, and constantly makes it clear, "I don't want to go anywhere."

That said, his contract is up after this year and he'll be 30 next summer.

Those are reasons why, given the option, he'd have liked to re-upped after the lockout ended to ensure his future would be with the Bears. Another obvious one is that he wanted to capitalize on an All-Pro 2010. And it's not like it didn't irk him a little bit that it didn't happen.

"It did earlier in the year, I'd be lying if I said it didn't," Harris said. "In camp, when (agent Albert Elias) told me he hadn't heard anything, it bothered me. But I go to a place where I said, 'OK, there's no sense in worrying or getting angry. That's stupid.' For me, that was a week-long thing, then I kinda said, 'Whatever. If they want to make it happen, they will.' ... You can't take that stuff to heart."

Harris practiced Wednesday and, though hamstrings can be tricky, he fully expects to go on Sunday as the Bears try to get back on track. One thing's for sure: They'll have a better shot of doing that with No. 46 patrolling the secondary.

I've searched for a while now. And if there's a dissenting voice in the football scouting community on Stanford junior Andrew Luck, I have yet to find it.

"He's really, really good," one NFC personnel executive, a veteran of a couple decades in the league, told me the other night. "He's the best quarterback I've ever done (a report on). The best I've ever seen coming out of college. He's the whole package -- born for the position with size, athleticism and arm strength. He's humble, a leader, respected. The whole package."

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When I pressed for a comparison, he said the best one is probably another Stanford quarterback, John Elway. And these feelings are pretty much universal. On the conservative end, Luck can be called the safest prospect at the position since Peyton Manning. "Unbelievable," one GM said.

But here's the really interesting thing -- the strength of the current crop of college quarterbacks doesn't end there.

Who's No. 2? Well, one scout texted me last night that Oklahoma's "Landry Jones is the real deal. ... Even with the two picks against Florida State. Only one was his fault. Big pocket passer with a good arm, super accuracy, poise and instincts. Luck is still the guy. But this kid is as a good as (fellow Sooner Sam) Bradford was coming out, for sure."

The NFC personnel executive was more harsh on Jones, while allowing that he will be a first-rounder, saying he personally doesn't see the OU QB as one. His feeling is that USC junior Matt Barkley, who started as a true freshman, is next in line. "He's special," the exec said.

All three of those quarterbacks, with strong years, could land in the Top 10, and our exec said that there's a possibility, depending on how the season shakes out, that seven signal-callers could go in Round 1. Before it's over, Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weedon, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, Baylor's Robert Griffin and Arizona's Nick Foles have a chance to get there.

A lot can happen between now and April, of course, but it looks like teams that waited and resisted reaching in 2011 -- a class of quarterbacks some NFL folks considered the most "overdrafted" group ever -- could be rewarded in 2012.

There's already concern out there that Luck and his dad, ex-NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, could try and steer the kid to a good situation. That could lead to trade demands, similar to what happened in 2004 with Archie and Eli Manning, because, as our exec put it, "I guarantee you, if he stays healthy, 100 percent he'll be No. 1." And that means, if you can take Luck, you trade his rights.

But even if a circumstance like that arises for the team drafting first, or a team coveting Luck misses out on having the first pick, it looks like quarterback-needy clubs will have plenty more to choose from.

1) How the Jets deal with Ravens tailback Ray Rice. Speaking with personnel folks this week, one thing was clear about New York's loss to the Raiders -- Oakland had copied a blueprint drawn up by the Cowboys. Felix Jones didn't go crazy against the Jets or anything (17 carries, 44 yards), but he showed enough on speed plays to the outside, forcing the New York linebackers to chase to the sideline, to prompt Hue Jackson to try to turn the running game for his offense into a track meet. Advantage: Oakland. Darren McFadden went for 171 yards on just 19 carries. It may not be a fatal flaw for an otherwise stout Jets defense, but it's certainly worth watching, with Rice, Danny Woodhead, and Reggie Bush coming in the next three weeks, and an effort sure to be made to get those players in space.

2) How the Dallas offensive line holds up against the starry Detroit defensive front. With Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo jettisoned, and Phil Costa, Bill Nagy and Tyron Smith replacing them, the Cowboys' group is still a work in progress. And despite the team's 2-1 start, it's hardly like Tony Romo's gone untouched, or the 27th-ranked running game is plowing folks over. But they've made it work to a reasonable degree, which really is a theme for the whole team -- making the whole better than sum of the parts. If it sounds like the opposite of what Dallas has been, well, then you might be on to something. As one Cowboy told me, "It just an unselfish group, everyone has a role to play and has accepted it." We'll see how that holds up when Ndamukong Suh and company get to Jerry's Big House.

3) The Bills defense with a chance to face a rookie quarterback. As fun as the dramatics of the past two weeks must have been, my guess is Chan Gailey would be more than happy to get a more comfortable win this week, with a trip to Cincinnati on tap. That'll mean getting more consistent work from the defense, which showed good signs last week. "I wouldn't call them elite yet," said one scouting director, "but not a lot of teams force (Tom Brady) into four interceptions. They looked a lot more sound than when I saw them in the preseason." And that's with Kirk Morrison on the shelf and second-round pick Aaron Williams out for most of the game. Of course, Brady also did get his -- 387 yards and four touchdowns worth -- but this unit produced when Buffalo needed it. And facing Andy Dalton and the Bengals could provide the Bills defense, bolstered in the offseason with guys like Nick Barnett and Marcel Dareus, with the chance to take another step forward.

4) Where Curtis Painter stands. Sound like a funny one? Sure it does. But I remember the summer of 2008, when Matt Cassel looked terrible in the preseason and speculation ran rampant he would be cut. And then, he went 10-5 as Patriots' starter when Brady went down. Yes, I know that bringing in Kerry Collins was hardly a vote of confidence for Painter. But the Colts have spent three years developing him, Reggie Wayne went to bat for him, and he didn't look completely lost stepping under the Sunday Night Football spotlight. Some players look different when they're thrust into a full-time role. Cassel certainly did. It's worth taking a look to see if 6-foot-4, 230-pound Painter does too.

Three conclusions

1) The Texans are not going anywhere, and will make the playoffs for the first time in their 10-year history. And I'm saying that after a loss, the same way I said I was impressed with the Raiders in Buffalo last weekend. For the same reason, too -- their fight in a hostile environment. Like Oakland the week before, the Texans built a first-half lead and blew it, but kept battling until a backbreaking final series finished them off. Houston's revamped, Wade Phillips-led defense was hardly the juggernaut it looked like in Weeks 1 and 2, but few units will when faced with Drew Brees. You still get the idea that it's good to support an offense that has the ability to be otherworldly.

2) The NFC West will, again, have a champion with single-digit wins. That's not to say, mind you, that teams in that division aren't headed in the right direction. The Seahawks' deliberate approach to building is the right one, Jim Harbaugh's already got his team playing tough as a burnt steak, the Rams have a solid foundation, and there's still talent in Arizona. But last weekend revealed just how deep the injuries have cut in St. Louis, and how vulnerable the Cardinals are, and those were the two clubs most equipped to carry the flag for the division. If you listen intently enough, you can hear the grousing starting now.

3) Darren McFadden is legitimately a top-of-the-NFL talent, and I feel pretty good about having picked him as preseason offensive player of the year. Check this out -- since the start of 2010, McFadden has amassed 2,141 yards and 14 touchdowns from scrimmage, averaging 5.46 yards per rush and 10.19 yards per catch. All four of those figures are, of course, pretty impressive for a tailback, particularly one that looked like an overdrafted specialist after his first two seasons. His aggressive, slashing style is a perfect fit for the way Hue Jackson wants his offense to look, and he'll be an expensive guy to lock up in the offseason as well.

Two pieces of business

1) The NFL's plan to expand its International Series to add a second European game grabbed headlines this week, but what I'm really interested in is when the league will decide to go into European markets outside London, and where the game will go next. The best bet would likely be somewhere in Germany, either Dusseldorf or Frankfurt or Berlin. When NFL Europe folded, five of its six teams were in Germany, and the country's youth development programs have been lauded, with Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer providing proof positive that progress has been made. The trouble in Germany, as I understand it, is that it's difficult to get the game broadcast over the air, giving the NFL the mass audience it desires.

2) The non-sellout/blackout problems in San Diego may be flying under the radar now. But with progress this week on the environmental overrides that AEG needs to get the Farmers Field project in downtown L.A. on a fast track, Los Angeles' neighbor to the south is making a less compelling case for being protected in the high-stakes game of who will inhabit the nation's second largest television market. There's been a feeling for some time that California government might be less cooperative if the project meant moving an in-state business -- in essence, stealing from Peter to give to Paul -- rather than adding a business to the state. But with governor Jerry Brown on board in getting Farmers Field rolling, time may be running short for San Diego to prove it deserves to be shielded from the poaching.

One prediction

Take all the early NFL Cinderella stories this season, and give me the Lions as the one that's more non-fiction than fairy tale.

It's been said, but it's worth repeating -- the difference in the Lions now is that they've finally started hitting on those Top 10 picks. Detroit took five players in that area from 2002-06: Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Mike Williams and Ernie Sims. They've had three more since: Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh.

Remarkably, all five from the first group are gone. The latter group is at the center of what is a pretty sturdy young foundation.

Add others like Brandon Pettigrew, Nick Fairley, and Louis Delmas to the mix, and you can see why this long star-crossed franchise has reason to be pretty optimistic not just about the rest of this year, but also what's beyond that.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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