What a difference…

…a coach makes.

The team is largely the same. The players are largely the same. The division is largely the same. And yet everything is different.

From the moment of kickoff, you can tell how much of an effect a Harbaugh has over a Singletary. The Niners have won every opening coin toss so far (by my informal count), and have elected to defer every single time. That’s a gesture of bravado that Singletary likely would have made once, just to show he could. With Harbaugh? They do it, and then they back it up. For all of Singletary’s motivational intensity, I never saw his defense attack the backfield like this front seven does now. The team is just better prepared. More confident. More disciplined (the offensive line aside). Patrick Willis and Justin Smith are still monsters, but now they have Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, and Ahmed Brooks playing like monsters alongside them. Every week, the defense comes out and asserts itself, usually at the end of the first drive by the opponent. The team is ranked 16th in the league in total yards allowed per game, but 2nd in the league in points allowed, at just 15.6 per game. Considering the state of our secondary, that’s astonishing, and a testament to how well-coached and prepared the defense is. When the field shortens, they get better.

And the offense! Alex Smith looks like a reasonably competent NFL quarterback. I know. I know. I’m as stunned as anyone else. The running game has finally gotten back on track, the offensive line is playing better, and the passing game can actually be called a passing game. Smith had a QB rating of 127.2 today, bringing his season average up to 104. ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR! He hasn’t yet thrown for 300 yards in a game, but his TD-INT ratio is 7-1. He’s spreading the field, thrown several TD passes of more than 20 yards, and is actually managing the game. Who knew?

Across the board, the team just feels different. Not all of the wins have been pretty (some of them have been downright hideous), but they’ve been wins, and they’ve been getting more impressive as the season wears on. We make halftime adjustments now. The Eagles win came when Harbaugh clearly realized that the passing game needed to open up. Once that happened, the run game became much easier. In this game, the team came out throwing, and really shocked Tampa Bay out of their defensive focus on the run. No more of Singletary’s simplistic schemes and refusal to adapt.

It’s still very early to tell whether or not this is sustainable, and for long-term success I stand by my desire for a better QB. But Harbaugh has thus far been worth every penny and more. Delanie Walker might say it better than I: “You act like your coaches. We are going to keep our heads, keep our cool and make smart decisions. When other teams make bad decisions, we capitalize on that.”

Thank god we have a real coach.

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