49ers show plenty of growth over past 5 months

  • San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh gestures during a news conference at 49ers NFL football headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

SANTA CLARA — The offense was stagnant, Alex Smith was ineffective and the offensive line was completely overmatched.

Few would have thought that the San Francisco 49ers team that opened the Jim Harbaugh era with an exhibition dud at New Orleans would be playing the Saints five months later with a spot in the NFC championship on the line.

"It's not even the same team," left tackle Joe Staley said. "There's so much more confidence. We're so much more sure of ourselves and the schemes and what we're doing."

There were few signs of the remarkable turnaround Harbaugh has engineered in San Francisco in that 24-3 loss at the Superdome as the 49ers were completely overwhelmed by New Orleans' heavy blitz package.

With no offseason because of the lockout and just two weeks of practice to implement a new system, San Francisco failed to get a first down on its first four drives as the first-team offense never got started. In the first half, the Niners allowed six sacks and completed four passes while collecting as many penalties (five) as first downs. Smith went 2-for-7 for 10 yards and Harbaugh even said after the game that rookie Colin Kaepernick would get a shot to compete for a starting job.

That seems a lot longer than five months ago now.

Smith had by far his best season as a professional. He set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), yards passing (3,199) and passer rating (90.7) while playing mostly mistake-free ball to help the 49ers go 13-3 and win the NFC West.

The offensive line gelled to spark a strong running game by Frank Gore as the offense did just enough to support one of the league's top defenses and special teams units.

"We're really improved," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "At that point we had maybe two weeks of practice. It was tough. We didn't want to make any excuses. It's tough as a line to not play together. Experience playing together is valuable."

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