SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh had an ease of sorts about him again, perhaps from a potentially season-saving overtime win on the road at New Orleans, or the fact that defensive lineman Ray McDonald's domestic violence case has been resolved without charges being filed, allowing everyone to move forward at last.
It might have been a combination of both.
Then, there's star linebacker Aldon Smith, who has served his nine-game suspension for violations of the NFL's substance-abuse and personal-conduct policies and will begin practicing again this week. The star pass rusher is likely to play in some capacity Sunday at the New York Giants.
Harbaugh, who had yet to speak with McDonald early Monday afternoon, said everyone can learn from the situations surrounding McDonald and Smith â€” and that he can have a role in player conduct.
“As an organization and as a coach I think it is proper to advise, to educate. I think we do that as a team,” Harbaugh said. “We continue to look for ways to send the message of good conduct and strive for 100 percent good conduct. We want to have that. We haven't had that, we want to get there.”
Also improving Harbaugh's mood, 2013 All-Pro NaVorro Bowman could begin practicing for the first time in the coming days. Harbaugh said the 49ers (5-4) could determine as soon as Tuesday to begin the 21-day window in which he returns to practice and gives the team that span to activate him or place in him on season-ending injured reserve. Bowman is returning from a devastating left knee injury from the NFC championship game at Seattle.
“Tomorrow we'll see if that window gets opened to start practicing,” Harbaugh said.
San Francisco held on for a 27-24 victory against the Saints on Sunday, and the alternative would have left the Niners on a three-game losing streak and in dire position considering they're already sitting third in the talented NFC West. They still have two games with the Seahawks remaining and first-place Arizona at home in the regular-season finale.
“As Anquan Boldin said, 'These now are one-game seasons for us,' and that's the way we'll approach them,” Harbaugh said. “They played with as much heart, as much hustle, as much fight as I've ever seen our teams play since we've been here.”
Now, he hopes the Niners can build on that as they take on the Giants (3-6), who lost 38-17 on the road to defending Super Bowl champion Seattle.
Harbaugh isn't ready to say what kind of role Smith will have right away, though defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has certainly expected to have one of his star defenders back in the mix as soon as possible.
They can use his menacing presence.
“We can't afford to lose any games if we want to accomplish our goals that we set at the beginning of the year,” linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “It's imperative for us to win.”
The 25-year-old Smith, one of the NFL's top pass rushers, missed five games last season to undergo treatment at an inpatient facility following his DUI arrest on Sept. 20, 2013.
Last spring, the 49ers picked up his 2015 contract option despite his legal troubles.
Smith was arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police said Smith was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became uncooperative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. No charges were filed.
In November, he pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, stemming from a June 2012 party at his home.
Smith's new start begins with practice this week.
“Very much look forward to that,” Harbaugh said. “There's consequences for our actions, good and bad. Good consequences for good actions. There's accountability. He has served that. He has done that and look forward to moving forward in a fresh, clean slate. That's what I anticipate and look forward to.â€