Published July 29, 2011
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Jim Harbaugh bounced from drill to drill, observing the offensive line, quarterbacks and special teams units in a 25-minute span as his first practice in charge of the San Francisco 49ers began at last.
Harbaugh's staff set up hurdles on the field for Day 1 of his first training camp as an NFL coach. The weight room is now outside and right at the ready. Motivational banners hang from different areas around 49ers team headquarters, some featuring the very words Harbaugh used during a successful stint at nearby Stanford.
A new era began Friday for a franchise that is counting on the former star quarterback to change the culture and turn San Francisco back into a winner. And fast. The Niners are paying him $5 million a year to make that happen, and Harbaugh faces the daunting task of not only meeting many of his players for the first time but also preparing them in a matter of weeks for their preseason opener Aug. 12 at New Orleans.
The 49ers have their share of holes to fill first after losing a handful of familiar faces in recent days: center Eric Heitmann, kicker Joe Nedney, cornerback Nate Clements and backup quarterback David Carr all were released. Linebacker Takeo Spikes and offensive lineman David Baas have departed, too.
Running back Frank Gore was a no-show for the first workout as expected, apparently fulfilling his plan to hold out for a new contract. The two-time Pro Bowler, in the final year of his current deal, is healthy again after going down with a season-ending fractured hip in a Monday night game at Arizona last Nov. 29. Gore, who avoided surgery, ran for 853 yards and three touchdowns in his sixth NFL season and caught 46 passes for 452 yards and two TDs. Gore's 24 100-yard rushing games are the most in 49ers franchise history.
Two other key offensive contributors are on the sidelines for now: quarterback Alex Smith and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Smith signed a new one-year contract Friday but is unable to practice until Aug. 4 under the new labor deal, while Crabtree is on the physically unable to perform list nursing a foot injury.
Getting the roster sorted out soon will be paramount. San Francisco has failed to post a winning record or make the playoffs since 2002.
Harbaugh understands the urgency. He welcomes fans with a video clip on the team Web site, with the words "Game On" in the background.
"It's exciting to get going and just feed off his energy. He has a lot of energy," wide receiver Josh Morgan said.
Cornerback Shawntae Spencer is busy cramming to pick up the nuances of San Francisco's defensive playbook, happy not to be pulling the pads on just yet. He knows there will be high expectations for a team that planned to be a contender a year ago.
The 49ers went unbeaten last preseason and had hopes of winning the NFC West, but instead began 0-5 and finished a disappointing 6-10. They endured their worst start since losing seven straight to begin a 2-14 season in 1979, in the late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh's first year.
Now, even more change under Harbaugh, who was lured away from the Orange Bowl-winning Stanford program to replace the fired Mike Singletary in a high-profile recruiting process by team President Jed York and new general manager Trent Baalke.
"It's English and Spanish. Everything is different as far as the terminology, so we have to completely put aside everything we had for the last six years here," Spencer said. "It's like learning a new language. First you have to learn the terminology."
Gore's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, didn't respond to phone messages or email inquiries Friday.