SANTA CLARA (AP) — Jim Harbaugh won NFL Coach of the Year honors as a rookie coach with no offseason to prepare his team for his thick playbook and unique, rah-rah style.
Now, the San Francisco 49ers’ schedule is far more daunting and the pressure is on to repeat as NFC West champions and make another run at a Super Bowl that was right within reach last January.
San Francisco lost 20-17 in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and that defeat still stings for this bunch. Last season’s special run came after the Niners ended a franchise-worst stretch of eight years without a playoff berth or winning record — so, the expectations are to keep a good thing going for the long haul.
“You want to be where you left off,” tight end Delanie Walker said.
And Harbaugh is expecting another focused, physical training camp as players at several key positions fight to earn spots. All 11 defensive starters return from one of the NFL’s top units of 2011, while Frank Gore has a cast of backups hoping to get a share of the carries behind the three-time Pro Bowl running back — Brandon Jacobs, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon.
“I like our offense. We’re universal,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “That’s the unique thing about it.”
Wideout Randy Moss and cornerback Perish Cox each will look to show he still has it after a year away from the NFL.
Just how Harbaugh likes it.
“Well, I look forward to seeing them all,” Harbaugh said during last month’s mandatory minicamp. “That’s the great part about coming out here. You get to watch it all unfold. And we’ve been watching that over the last nine weeks. But, that’s our team. It’s intense and very competitive across the board at every position in some form or fashion.”
The 49ers know — despite the high expectations in Harbaugh’s second season — it will be tough to top last season’s record considering the schedule: at Green Bay for the season opener Sept. 9, then home against Detroit, at the Jets in Week 4 and a home rematch of the NFC title game two weeks later against the reigning champion Giants.
The 49ers realize to reach the Super Bowl they will probably have to go through that same New York team again or perhaps the Packers, determined to bounce back from last year’s stunning early playoff exit.
The Niners also will travel to New Orleans in Week 12 and to New England in Week 15.
Harbaugh will try to limit any potential distractions from his focused group featuring a combination of veterans and talented, athletic youngsters.
Everybody is eager to see how much more the offense can accomplish with a full offseason and training camp to discover what best works with the personnel — and whether Moss can return to the game-breaking guy of his prime.
San Francisco needs more from its receiving corps to complement Davis and Walker. The receivers managed one catch for 3 yards in that playoff loss to the Giants.
Still, the 49ers were known for taking advantage of opportunities and taking care of the ball — something they hope to duplicate in 2012.
San Francisco’s defense ranked No. 1 against the run and allowed only three touchdowns rushing, and all in the final two games — and the Niners had 38 takeaways to only 10 turnovers for a plus-28 turnover differential. That matched the second-best mark in NFL history since 1941.
Smith’s resurgence was a big reason for that after an up-and-down seven-year NFL career since his selection No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft out of Utah. And he seems unfazed by the team’s brief pursuit of Peyton Manning.
Moss is committed to making a splash alongside Smith in his comeback campaign, making one pretty 55-yard catch from Smith in an offseason workout. This summer, the 35-year-old Moss — a low-risk, high-reward signing by general manager Trent Baalke — spent many mornings working out with fellow receiver Michael Crabtree, safety Donte Whitner and even running back Frank Gore, who spent a good chunk of time in the Bay Area instead of his regular Miami locale.
“I think we evolved a lot as the season went on,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “It’s an opportunity this time of year for all the position coaches to really spend a lot of time with our guys and mold them. So, we’re going through that process. ‘What is this player going to bring? How’s that going to affect things in the big picture?’ So, that’s a constant. That’s going to be from now until the end of the season. And it’s so exciting because you lay in bed at night have a hard time sleeping because you just keep thinking of all the different possibilities that could happen.”
Cox adds depth to a ball-hawking secondary. Like Moss, he is eager to prove himself after signing a two-year contract in March following his acquittal on sexual assault charges in Colorado.
Davis, for one, is eager to see how everything comes together on both sides of the ball and special teams now that Harbaugh has had a full offseason to implement his system and further guide his deep and loaded roster.
“It’s cool,” Davis said. “Coach Harbaugh is one of the most energetic coaches I’ve seen in my life.”