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?