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SANTA CLARA

Two things will happen in the 49ers' season opener against Seattle. The first is the result — the 49ers will win or lose. That's obvious, and that's the most important issue.

But there is something else. During the exhibition season, Jim Harbaugh revealed almost nothing. He revealed little in his spoken words and he revealed little about his team — especially his offense — in the four exhibition games. People say he kept things "vanilla," or "he didn't show his cards."

Let's stick with the cards metaphor. Against the Seahawks, Harbaugh finally will show his cards — he must. So the question is: What exactly are his cards?

Against Seattle we will find out if he's sitting on a full house or if he's got a pair of deuces, at best. Be clear about this. You don't know what cards Harbaugh is holding and Seattle coach Pete Carroll doesn't know, either.

Here are some of the cards he must show, finally.

Quarterback: Is Alex Smith quarterback as leader or quarterback as game manager? No one knows, but we'll find out real fast.

The most controversial thing Harbaugh did was to retain Smith as starting quarterback. Just mentioning Smith polarizes 49ers fans. Some defend him — he had bad coaches and all those offensive coordinators. Some revile him — he's had too many chances and he never will win.

Harbaugh could have sidestepped this controversy by looking elsewhere for a quarterback. He did nothing of the kind. He is a stubborn man who believes in his version of reality and he did not care what anyone else thought. This is either a heroic position or a foolish position.

Just how will Harbaugh use Smith? Perhaps he will ask Smith to throw a series of short passes and hand off the ball a lot — "Just be a game manager, Alex, and please don't screw things up." That would be a version of the West Coast Offense, short passes used like runs. Is that what Harbaugh intends?

Or he could use Smith like a standard quarterback and ask him also to throw medium and long. This is where Smith gets into trouble. Has Smith improved enough to run a complete offense?

By dusk today we will learn what kind of card Harbaugh thinks Smith is, and whether Smith has the ability to be that card, whatever it is.

Running back: There was a time Harbaugh focused his Stanford offense around running back Toby Gerhart. Will the 49ers offense be a Frank Gore offense? Will we see Gore up the middle, Gore around the edge, Gore catching short passes and sprinting toward the end zone?

Emphasizing Gore would take the pressure off Smith. But we don't know if Harbaugh has this card up his sleeve. And we sure don't know if Gore, who has mileage on him and maybe a leaky cylinder or two, can stand up to an entire game of running and getting pounded. We sure don't know how he'll stand up for 16 games.

Offensive line: This could be the most important card of all. Does the offensive line protect Smith? Does it frustrate the blitz or is it a sieve? And if it's a sieve, does Smith take hits and how does he respond?

Backup quarterback: This is the wild card on the 49ers. If Smith takes a shot and must leave the game — a possibility for any starting quarterback — can Colin Kaepernick take over? Kaepernick is visibly confused on the field. No one is blaming him for that. He is a rookie. But he seems unable to take over and run the offense. Which leads to the second point — it is bewildering that Harbaugh did not sign a veteran quarterback just in case. The backup QB card is a puzzler. Call it the joker of the deck.

Defense: Can the 49ers defense finally put pressure on the quarterback, in this case Tarvaris Jackson? In the past, the opposing quarterback existed in a no-pressure, no-stress zone. He looked like someone frolicking in a golden meadow on a golden sunny day, taking his time — enjoying himself — while he selected from one, two, three, four receivers. Will Harbaugh have a card up his sleeve to make Jackson's life miserable? The Aldon Smith card?

Can the secondary, starting four guys who did not start the opener last season, defend the pass? Can they stop the passing game at all? We don't know but we'll find out.

And, finally, does Harbaugh have brilliant cards buried in the deck — the four aces — amazing plays that expose Seattle's weaknesses and humiliate Carroll at the same time in this grudge match that is being called the "what is your deal" game for good reason?

He may. He should. We just don't know.

So it's time to shuffle the deck, shut up and deal.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.